Will New Zealand Rebuild The Cathedral My Forefather Erected? : Parallels NPR's Philip Reeves recently visited the earthquake-battered cathedral in New Zealand built by a 19th-century ancestor. He found his family history entwined in a fierce contemporary controversy.

Will New Zealand Rebuild The Cathedral My Forefather Erected?

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An argument has been brewing for years over a famous landmark in Christchurch, New Zealand. The forefathers of NPR correspondent Philip Reeves helped build that city. And Phil recently played a visit to explore his roots, and he found this story.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: My interest began in a bookstore. I stumbled across an obscure biography of a 19th-century Anglican bishop. There's a picture on the cover of a man with big, curly whiskers and beetling brows. His name is Henry John Chitty Harper. This book intrigued me for two reasons. One, because Harper happens to be my great-great-great grandfather; two, because of Harpers link to this.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In every direction you look, it is just absolutely catastrophic. Buildings have tumbled.

REEVES: On the 22 of February, 2011, the city of Christchurch was hit by a ferocious earthquake.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: People with blood pouring down their faces just walking in a daze down the road.

REEVES: It killed 185 people. Thousands of businesses and homes were wrecked. And the spire of Christchurch Cathedral collapsed. The cathedral's been closed ever since. The cathedral mattered a lot to Great-great-great Grandfather Harper. He was Christchurch's first bishop and a driving force behind its creation. Every year, he donated a big chunk of his income towards the cathedral's construction. In 1864, he laid the foundation stone. The church would eventually become the centerpiece of a modern city the size of Tampa.

MARK BELTON: This is the main identity building in the city. It's on the logo of the city.

REEVES: Mark Belton is from the Restore Christchurch Cathedral campaign.

BELTON: It was the most visited public building in New Zealand. And when people come to Christchurch, the first thing they do is go to the square.

REEVES: Christchurch started out roughly 160 years ago as a settlement for Anglican Christians from England. New Zealand's in the South Pacific and has Maori population who arrived long before any Europeans. Yet, the Anglican pilgrims who sailed in from the other side of the world wanted to build an elegant English city.

IAN LOCHHEAD: It would be a cross-section of English provincial life with a cathedral established in the center of the city.

REEVES: Ian Lochhead's an expert in New Zealand's architectural history. He says the Anglicans arrived with big ambitions.

LOCHHEAD: They had a sense that Christchurch was going to be a great city. There was a strong sense that Europe and indeed Britain was in decline, even though it was at the height of its imperial power.

REEVES: Those ambitions are reflected in the cathedral's architecture. Its Gothic revival design echoes England's finest medieval churches and was by one of the Victorian era's star architects, George Gilbert Scott. The Cathedral must've looked incongruously large considering the tiny population back then. Mark Belton again.

BELTON: There were only a couple thousand able-bodied adult men in the entire settlement. And here they were planning to build this cathedral in medieval style. And it was extraordinary ambition. The stone had to be carted in bullock wagons to the site.

REEVES: These days in Christchurch, construction is underway everywhere you look. There's much to do. The earthquake of February 2011 was the deadliest of some 14,000 quakes here over about 18 months. The city's brightened itself up with giant murals and pop-up stores in shipping containers. Trams carry tourists on earthquake tours. There's a quake center where visitors watch a video about the multibillion-dollar plan to transform the city.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: The performing arts precinct will sit alongside a purpose built state-of-the-art convention center.

REEVES: Yet, Christchurch Cathedral remains in limbo. Aftershocks added to the damage. The authorities say it's unsafe and have fenced it off.



REEVES: A few blocks away, Evensong is underway. This is the so-called transitional Anglican Cathedral. It was designed after the quake by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and looks like a big, brightly-lit tent. It's partly made from cardboard and yet it's supposed to last for at least 50 years. The cardboard Cathedral hasn't damped down the argument over what to do with the original. A couple of years ago, the Anglican Diocese announced that it would be demolished. Several campaign groups are fighting to save the building. They argue that most of the cathedral is intact and can be restored. They've brought lawsuits and bombarded newspapers with letters and released a song.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Restore our Cathedral, old icon of hope.

BELTON: I'm as proud of our history, of the city and we don't erase bits of history.

REEVES: Mark Belton of the Restore Christchurch Cathedral Campaign again.

BELTON: You know, you don't go erase the Roman ruins because they're Roman, in Europe. You celebrate them and maintain them, and they're part of the character and history of the place.

REEVES: Talk to people on Christchurch's streets, and you find opinion is divided. Andy Barrow is a dental technician and a practicing Christian.

ANDY BARROW: Yeah, I don't see it as a problem, knocking it down and building something new or, you know, revamping it or - I mean, as long as we can fill the building with people that love Christ, that's the main thing.

REEVES: The deadlock might be drawing to an end. A plan is under discussion to rebuild the cathedral with a modern wooden interior. Outside, though, it would still resemble the neo-Gothic original. Church leaders seem to like the idea. It's up to the people of Christchurch, of course, but it might just mean that my great-great-great granddad's efforts weren't entirely wasted. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Christchurch.

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