She wears Doc Martens, has tattoos and piercings, is a recovered alcoholic, a mother-of-two and a practising Anglican priest.

The British-born vicar of St Peter's Anglican Church in Onehunga is not the stern, robe-wearing religious figure most envisage at the lectern.

Petra Zaleski's outgoing, open personality has seen her compared with the Vicar of Dibley - the boisterous female minister played by Dawn French in the British sitcom.

She says she draws on her life's struggles to do what she believes is God's work - working with those on the margins of society.


"For me that is the radical nature of Christianity, not condemnation and judgment based on a set of rules.

"This was my calling, that I would sit with others who believed they were unlovable and together we would be in that love."

It took getting to rock bottom and climbing back up for Zaleski to get to this point.

She has shared her story in the hope it helps others.

"Encouraging others to own and tell their story is an act of healing and empowerment."

The 43-year-old spent years battling alcohol addiction. She struggled with the feeling that her lack of perfection would see her sent to hell.

"I loved the saint stories, the stories of these people who had overcome their suffering to serve others."

But at the same time Zaleski felt unworthy.


"I always felt the presence of God was with me, but so confusing because I felt like an unworthy sinner. I was plagued with the idea of going to hell, if I was naughty then Jesus would see and very likely be crying on the cross."

Zaleski was born into a Polish-British Catholic-Church of England family - going to church and saying the rosary was a regular part of her life.

She spent her early years in England, Iran and Indonesia before being sent to a convent boarding school in England when she was 9.

It was there she got her first taste of alcohol.

Petra Zaleski at St Peter's, Onehunga. Photo / Doug Sherring
Petra Zaleski at St Peter's, Onehunga. Photo / Doug Sherring

"I got dressed up and pretended I was a lady at the races with a friend. We found martini glasses and poured everything into the glass.

"That very moment I touched the alcohol, touched the inside of me. I felt like it was a solution. I think that's the experience of the addict really, it becomes a torrid love affair."

When she moved to New Zealand she struggled to fit in, missed her grandparents and began binge-drinking every weekend.

"I felt like I had been plucked out of a life and put somewhere else. I felt very alone.

"Being a very reckless teenager and finding alcohol young, and I grew up in the sort of goth punk Wellington scene, I think I lost my way because I didn't believe I was worthy and so I rejected God."

Zaleski tried to get back on the straight and narrow, marrying a man she met in her 20s after four years together thinking it was the "right thing to do".

She built a successful career in the banking industry, had a baby girl and together with her husband moved to Australia.

Eventually she realised it was no longer working and in 2002 she separated from her husband, returned to New Zealand and in 2003 checked into rehab.

"I had reached the point of abuse, I was the kind of alcoholic for whom abstinence was really going to be the only way forward."

Going cold turkey was not easy. She's been to rehab twice, but has not touched alcohol since November 12, 2011.

Zaleski says leaving behind a successful career and being a single mum taught her first hand what it was like to be judged.

"I felt my addiction, my recovery from mental health, depression and anxiety was so relevant to many people's experience."

It's this that compels her to help those society often turns its back on, the homeless, other addicts and people struggling to make ends meet - regardless of religious beliefs.

"What we are about, particularly at St Peter's, is radical inclusion, welcome inclusion for everybody.

"I feel that is our job to be in the community, not to be cloistered away."