Home 9 Article 9 From Flames to Restoration: Cleanup of the Cathedral

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Emma Dodsworth

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September 4, 2023

On April 27 2023, a fire was lit in the day chapel of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Palmerston North. 

Despite being quickly extinguished, it caused significant damage to some of the furniture in the day chapel: namely the presider’s chair, the altar, a small side table, and the brass candlesticks. The curtain against the dividing wall between the day chapel and the body of the cathedral was also destroyed. 

Susan Zentveld, the Property Manager for Diocese of Palmerston North, was sitting in her office at the Diocesan Centre and heard someone say the cathedral was on fire.

“I went into the cathedral through the side door, and I could see a flickering light in the day chapel area. I went and looked into the day chapel and could see that yes, there was something on fire, so I went racing back out to find a fire extinguisher.” 

Someone rang 111, and within minutes a fire engine arrived. 

Susan went back inside once the fire service had given the all-clear, as she needed to take some photos for the insurance claim. 

“Throughout the whole church there was this smoke haze, so it was a quite hard to see.” 

Monsignor Brian Walsh, Vicar General for the Diocese, also remembers the lingering smoke. 

“I looked into the cathedral after the fire had been put out, and I couldn’t see more than two yards in front of me,” he said.  

“It was completely and densely occupied by smoke and soot. Because it was a particular type of fire with the curtain and the chair burning, it put a residue into the air, which settled on different parts of the cathedral. So it wasn’t just smoke. It was more than that.” 

Four months later, the Cathedral Parish is still dealing with the repercussions of the fire. What they initially thought would be a small clean-up job quickly became much larger than anyone could have predicted. 

“It’s been a huge piece of work,” Steph Grantham, the Manager for the Cathedral Parish, said. “We just had no idea.” 

The extent of the damage meant the entire interior of the Cathedral had to be cleaned, which Mons. Brian described as a “lengthy process”. 

First, the damage had to be assessed by the insurance assessor before any work could begin. Then there were delays while the wall that was affected by the fire was tested for asbestos, during which no other work could be done. Once the wall was declared free from asbestos, the restoration process could finally get underway.  

“The main thing has been getting the scaffolding into the cathedral, so that the cleaners can access the high parts,” Mons. Brian said. “And that’s been quite a big process. First, to get the scaffolding in and constructed, that took several weeks. Then once the highest part of the cleaning had been completed, the scaffolders came back and took out the top level so the cleaners could come down to the next level, and so on. There’s been a lot of to- and fro-ing between the scaffolding company and the cleaners over that time.” 

There has been a lot of time pressure lately because of the upcoming ordination of Bishop-elect John Adams, which had not been announced when the fire happened.  

“Hopefully when the bishop arrives we’ll be back in operation with the cathedral itself, which will mean we can finalise arrangements for the ordination,” Mons. Brian said.

Steph Grantham spoke about the impact this event has had on everyone involved and has written an impact statement for the police. 

“It’s put a lot of stress not only on the (Parish) team, but the parishioners too,” she wrote in the report. “We have lost our spiritual home … Despite (the other) parish communities welcoming the Cathedral Parish community with open arms, our people feel displaced.”    

Her report outlined how the fire has left parishioners feeling unsafe and vulnerable. 

“This was a place of safety and a sanctuary, not only for (parishioners), but for the wider community and visitors to our city. We are now having to reconsider the opening of the cathedral to the public, a loss to the city and the community.” 

Steph said she wants to help people understand that it hasn’t been a small job. 

“I took some people through the cathedral after our AGM in July. The first thing that hit them when we went through was the smell. And looking into the cathedral and seeing all the scaffolding – someone was just standing there going, ‘I can’t believe this, it’s like a film set.’

Despite the stress, the added workload and the huge financial impact the fire has had, Steph said they have been able to find positives amongst it all. 

“One is that we get the cathedral cleaned for the bishop’s installation. Another is repairs that need doing that we wouldn’t have known about, and that we would’ve had to get scaffolding in for, which has saved the parish some money!” 

When asked if there were any plans to have a ‘re-opening’ ceremony, Mons. Brian said they hope to include a blessing of rededication with the St James School’s 65th Jubilee celebration Mass on September 10.  

And as for the person responsible for the fire? 

“I hope he gets the support and help that he needs,” said Mons. Brian. “That’s my hope and prayer.” 

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