Wellington Scoop

Memories of Erskine – derelict and vandalised, or redeveloped and restored


by Nicola Young
Erskine College has been a prominent feature in Island Bay for over 100 years. Now the city council has given resource consent for redevelopment – to include a $7m restoration of the chapel, and a $30million complex of 94 terraced houses and apartments – but the plan is being challenged by a group that wants the convent building to be saved as well.

Erskine College has become derelict since it was red-stickered in April 2012. Its chapel and convent are listed as Category One historic places; not that the vandals care.

The once-gleaming floors are now covered in broken glass, pigeon poo, and empty paint spray cans; the walls, doors and stonework daubed with obscene graffiti. The broken windows are boarded up in a vain attempt to repel intruders, and Reverend Mother’s Garden is a mass of tangled weeds.

It was originally ‘Sacré Coeur’, a boarding school run by the cloistered French Society of the Sacred Heart nuns – established after the French Revolution, with the belief that educated women were vital in creating a better society.

The school opened in 1905, initially in a small house. The four-storied convent was built two years later; the French Gothic chapel in 1930.

Its chapel is considered New Zealand’s finest, with its altar of ornate white Carrara marble carved in Italy, statues and stained glass windows from Munich, and exceptionally resonant acoustics for singing. The altar’s gilded tabernacle door – studded with rubies and moonstones – has gone (presumably stolen), along with the brass altar rails the nuns used to polish every day; the statues lie smashed, and remnants of fires are dotted around the floor.

I visited my old school recently. By the time I reached the chapel, I was almost in tears – a reaction to the mindless damage, and happy memories of an extraordinary primary and secondary education with its focus on knowledge, character, behaviour, and Christian values.

By the time Erskine closed in 1985, nearly 3000 girls had been educated there: the daughters of farmers, diplomats, politicians (National and Labour), local businessmen; many parents made real sacrifices to send their daughters to the school. The nuns were highly intelligent, cultured, well-travelled (they made their final vows in Rome), and worldly. Unusually, Sacred Heart nuns kept their own names, rather than taking on those of saints. They were feminist role models, with a captive audience of stroppy girls.

Reverend Mother Erica Pabst was one of New Zealand’s first women lawyers, and I’m still grateful for her inspirational history lessons. History of art and philosophy were core parts of the curriculum. Years of sewing classes haven’t left as much impression. I regret baulking at the Latin lessons, telling Mother Kathleen O’Brien I was unlikely to meet a centurion. After three days, I switched to Geography – considered a non-academic subject.

I began at Erskine as an eight-year old, along with my younger sister Annabel. We started as day girls, progressed to weekly boarding, and eventually became full boarders, despite living in Kelburn.

The convent building was cold and drafty, with inadequate heating and windows that rattled during Southerly blasts. I have vivid memories of the building swaying during the 7.1 Inangahua earthquake in May 1968. In the glacial winters we huddled around the inefficient heaters until we could smell our woollen skirts singeing. The dormitories on the top floors were divided into individual cubicles with pleated curtains for privacy, but the curtains didn’t muffle the sounds of new girls sobbing with homesickness.

Life was strict, particularly in my early years, and nothing like the romanticised books about boarding schools. School meals were sometimes eaten in silence, while the head mistress read to us from a pulpit in the dining room. Etiquette was strict; for example, girls were expected to offer butter, salt and pepper rather than ask for them. We loathed the food: afternoon tea was the only redeeming feature – raspberry buns on Thursdays, and afghans on Friday. On one occasion we were served tripe; everyone rebelled – it may have been the only time the nuns ordered fish and chips for the whole school.

We were allowed three baths a week and ‘tuck’ was forbidden, except for the country girls whose parents sent them apples and fruit cakes for birthdays (no use to me, with a birthday in early January). Italic handwriting was taught; a bit late for an eight-year-old although my handwriting still bears some traces. We did our homework communally in the library; in silence, surrounded by art books – any pages with nudes were glued together.

Erskine had three uniforms: brown 1940s costumes for winter, green for summer, white for Catholic feast days. My parents winced at the cost, especially the brown gabardine overcoats. New girls soon mastered the curtsey – quick bobs for Reverend Mother in the corridor, with deeper curtsies at ‘Weekly Notes’ when notes were handed out to each pupil stating whether their behavior had been excellent, very good, good, fair, or the dreaded unsatisfactory (three of those meant suspension). Mass movements were synchronized by the nuns’ use of wooden clickers: genuflecting in the chapel looked like one long swoop of mantillas.

Life began to change in the late 60s after the Second Vatican Council modernised the Catholic Church. The nuns became less enclosed (they even bought a car), the number of day girls increased, the stern discipline eased and the French flavour was reduced. But the staff room retained its name of ‘Virgo Fidelis’ (the faithful virgin) despite the increased number of lay teachers. Sacré Coeur was also renamed Erskine College to remove the confusion with the Lower Hutt school.

Decades on, I am enormously grateful for such a liberal education and the intelligent example set by the nuns. I just want the chapel and Reverend Mother’s Garden to be saved.

Nicola Young was head girl at Erskine in her last year at school.

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  1. TrevorH, 22. December 2016, 11:43

    Wonderful article. I hope you get your wish – this former beacon of learning deserves to be saved.

  2. Maria van der Meel, 22. December 2016, 19:45

    Thank you Nicola, surely the gilded altar door and the brass railings would have been removed by the Wellington Company?

  3. CC, 22. December 2016, 23:01

    Maria – the door and railings could be like the Futuna crucifix that was disappeared under the ‘ watch’ of a different property speculator. It took over 10 years of work by a seemingly unsuccessful private investigator and some negative publicity on a blog site and local media before it mystically re-appeared. Hopefully the altar door won’t need the extensive ministrations of a European restoration expert to bring it back to its former glory, as did the crucifix, if and/or when it re-appears.

  4. syrahnose, 23. December 2016, 7:48

    I recall attending a special event just after Ian Cassels had purchased Erskine and was in process of restoring it a decade ago. At that point the chapel had been restored and much of the building was in good shape. As I recall WCC had no interest in restoration, nor anyone else in Wellington except Cassels. I’m fuzzier on what happened after, but think there was a very reasonable plan to finish restoration and make it a viable business that would ensure it survived into the future. Didn’t someone step in then and stop that progressive plan, ensuring it would fall into its current state? The anti-development people, who frequent this page, have a lot to answer for here.

  5. Marion Leader, 23. December 2016, 10:35

    61 Molesworth Street involved the same property-owner as Futuna.

  6. CC, 23. December 2016, 11:02

    Yes Marion, along with Curtis Street, Spenmoor Street, Jarden Mile and the Napier Hospital which have also caused more than minor concerns. There are seemingly a few other projects floating around that may be problematic. It is going to be interesting to see if the more recent Tauranga insurgency will get as much Council acquiescence as the developer has experienced in Wellington.

  7. Marion Leader, 23. December 2016, 11:22

    WCC knew that the same person was involved in leasing residential space in Pringle House which is an otherwise empty commercial building and an earthquake risk.

  8. Nicola Young, 24. December 2016, 7:01

    Maria: the tabernacle door and brass railings were not removed by this owner, nor earlier ones. There’s been so much damage at the convent although the chapel has been relatively spared – until the vandalism reported today.

    Syrahnose: The Wellington Company plans to strengthen the chapel so it can be used for public events once more; aims to place it in a trust so it’s financially self-sufficient.

  9. Marion Leader, 24. December 2016, 10:20

    “The Wellington Company ….. aims to place it in a trust so it’s financially self-sufficient.” Will the Wellington Company guarantee to maintain the fabric?