In 1866, Bishop Pompallier blessed and opened the small wooden church of St Francis de Sales in what was then East Street. This church was to be used as a mortuary chapel in the Catholic cemetery, and serve as an outpost of the Cathedral, to serve the large number of Catholics living in the Newton area.
This little chapel served the people of Newton for nearly twenty years. However as the population in the area grew, the need for a larger church became more critical. In 1879, Benedictine monks from Ramsgate Abbey, in England, were given charge of the newly created parish of Newton. In 1880, the present site, just across the road from the chapel, was purchased and fund raising began.
The foundation stone for the new church, to be dedicated to St Benedict, was laid in 1881 and the church blessed and opened in 1882, quite a fast building feat. At the time of it’s construction, this was probably the largest wooden church in New Zealand, and comfortably seated 1200.
But tragedy was near at hand! On the night of December 13th 1886, a nearby house caught fire. The flames spread to St Benedicts, and the church was destroyed. Once more the parishioners of St Benedict’s parish were faced with having inadequate church facilities. Nevertheless they set to with much enthusiasm, and raised the finance for a new building. This time, the church was to be built in brick, with a slate roof,that together would hopefully stand the test of time.
The new church, the present building, was blessed and opened in 1888. Once again the parishioners of Newton had a beautiful church, even if it was not completed as planned. Lack of money meant that the tower was not built, the great rose window above the main door was replaced by three tall narrow windows with a small rose, and the sanctuary was left in a temporary state. In 1950 the front porch was added, and in 1955 the sanctuary was at last enlarged and finished.
By the early 1990s water damage to the fabric of the church meant that a full & costly restoration was needed. Following a major fund raising campaign, this work was carried out over a two year period. By the conclusion of this work in 2003, the church was looking as good as, or better than, when opened in 1888.
The monks of St Benedict’s lacked the resources to found a college along the lines of the great English Benedictine Schools, but they gave early attention to the need for sound elementary schooling in their parish. They turned to the then recently founded Australian order of Sisters of the Sacred Heart (commonly known as the “Brown Josephites”). This Order, originating in Penola, South Australia, was at first intended for teaching children in the back-block settlements, but soon extended it’s work to schools in large towns.
Abbot Alcock of St. Benedict’s had been acquainted with the Order during his time in South Australia. In 1881 he wrote to the Foundress, Mother Mary McKillop, asking for Josephite Sisters to teach in the Newton Parish. His request was supported by Bishop Luck.
In response, Sisters from Adelaide arrived in Auckland in 1884, and went into residence in a cottage in St. Benedict’s Street. They opened their first school in a converted shop in Karangahape Road, and were soon teaching 200 children. The first school adjacent to the church was opened in 1886, and in 1898 a large new school was built on the opposite corner from the church. The school flourished, and soon a secondary department was added. The school drew pupils from a wide area, and was noted for it’s scholastic achievements.
In addition, the Sisters ran a Correspondence School for Christian Doctrine, which covered the North Island, and had a roll of over 2000. In 1906, a spacious convent adjoining the school was opened. Here the sisters at last had space to gather in community, and their own chapel for communal prayer.
From the early 1970s, population drift, and the construction of the nearby motorway system, led to a dramatic fall off in pupils. The secondary department merged with the Marist Brother’s Marcellin College, and the primary department closed. After the final closure in 1982 the buildings were demolished. So after a century of Josephite endeavour in the Parish, the Sisters dispersed to other houses of the Order, but their memories will always remain as part of the St. Benedict’s story.
‘The Church of St. Benedict, Newton, Auckland-A Centennial Narrative 1988’. by Gavin Ardley.