26 Dec 2012

Written by: Jess Lee
Published: Auckland Now / Auckland City Harbour News

SHAKY GROUND: The future of the 133-year-old St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church is uncertain because of a dwindling congregation and expensive earthquake strengthening bills.

It has stood for more than 130 years, but this may have been St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church’s last Christmas.

Dwindling worshippers and expensive earthquake-strengthening costs may force the Ponsonby church to close its doors as the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa NZ makes a nationwide assessment of its earthquake-prone buildings.

Churchgoers were told at a service on December 16 they may have to leave as necessary earthquake-strengthening work would cost in excess of $500,000.

Funding such a large repair bill is not feasible for a parish with a congregation of 30 to 40 members, St Stephen’s session clerk Ross Prestidge says.

“We are a small congregation, we certainly don’t have half a million dollars,” he says.

The Presbyterian Church property trustees released a policy statement earlier this year to churches around the country highlighting earthquake risks and the need to have buildings reach a passable standard.

An initial evaluation procedure carried out by structural engineers found St Stephen’s, which opened in December 1879, had a score of less than 29 per cent of the current earthquake standard for new buildings.

The Building Act 2004 requires buildings to meet 34 per cent of the building code.

As it stands, the grade two listed historic building would be 10-25 times more at risk during an earthquake than a new building. It is considered to be legally earthquake-prone.

The church is required to consider temporarily closing, pending a decision on the building’s future.

But Mr Prestidge says they are reluctant to leave, fearing they won’t be able to return if the work is not considered viable.

“There’s a lot of anger about the situation.”

St Stephen’s former minister resigned from his post in August this year and has yet to be replaced.

“The church has been heading for the rocks for a while but it was chugging along until the potential costs forced the Church to look urgently at the situation,” Mr Prestidge says.

The congregation would have to have at least 60 members in order for it to be viable.

Selling the church is a possibility, he says.

Northern Presbytery project manager Forbes Worn says the decision is out of the hands of the Presbyterian Church.

There are up to 30 Presbyterian churches in Auckland facing similar problems.

The trustees’ will be looking at the long-term future of each parish, he says.

“The Ponsonby church seats 400 people and there are 30 to 40 members. It’s going to be a sensible, measured decision.”

Congregation member Wayne MacDonald is concerned about the building’s future.

“It was a shock to a lot of people. Some members have been coming here their whole lives – it’s a Ponsonby landmark.”

A decision on St Stephen’s future is likely to be made by February.


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