Nelson's Landmark Cathedral


A Royal Decree from Queen Victoria in 1858 not only established a Bishop's See, allowing the construction of Nelson's cathedral, the Church on the Hill, but also changed the small town of Nelson into a city. 

The establishment of Christianity in the region

Englishman George Augustus Selwyn was appointed the Anglican Bishop of New Zealand in 1842 and granted a vast Diocese which also included Melanesia. At first, Christians were few, but the Mäori people quickly embraced the Christian faith and numbers joining the Church grew rapidly. It was not long before Bishop Selwyn visited the fledgling town of Nelson to establish the Anglican Church. His 1842 visit was one of many. By the late 1850s, with the rapid growth in population and expansion of the young Church, there was a need to divide Selwyn’s large Diocese. He travelled to England to garner support for his proposal.

The Diocese

Bishop Selwyn’s original plan was for Nelson to be combined with Wellington as one administrative area or diocese. Nelsonians protested vehemently, wanting independence from the North Island, and were sufficiently endowed with various Church society funds to pay for their own Bishop. Selwyn petitioned Queen Victoria, well supported by local Mäori and settlers, who eventually issued a royal decree allowing the establishment of a see (or seat) for an Anglican Bishop. Church practice required bishops to have a Cathedral as the ‘mother church’ of the Diocese. This in turn allowed a town of 5000 people to become a city.

The Church on the Hill

Nelson's landmark cathedral now stands proudly on Church Hill. The first church was a tent erected when Bishop Selwyn visited in 1842. It was replaced with a simple converted wooden building bought from the New Zealand Company.1

Christ Church Cathedral 1859Christ Church Cathedral (old wooden building and steps) , The Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection,  1/2 199 
Click image to enlarge

The Anglican Church bought an acre of land at the summit of the hill in 1848, and in June 1850 the foundation stone of a purpose-built church was laid. The new Christ Church was dedicated on 14 December, 1851, and its rapidly expanding congregation saw it enlarged in 1859 and again in 1866. 2

In September 18583 Queen Victoria issued Letters Patent (see original document or transcript) establishing Nelson as a bishop's see (or diocese), thereby making Nelson a city.4 The 150th anniversary of the letters patent and of their arrival in Nelson was marked in September/October 2008 and February 2009.5

Nelson's first bishop, Edmund Hobhouse, was consecrated in England in September 1858. He was empowered to make an existing, or future church the Cathedral Church of the Nelson Diocese, and the Church on the Hill assumed the unofficial status of cathedral. In 1887 Bishop (Andrew) Suter made its status official, saying the people of Nelson had accepted it as such.6

By 1883 the old wooden church needed extending again and, while some wanted to build a new cathedral, it was decided in 1886 to start a further expansion. The "new" Christ Church Cathedral was consecrated on 16 February, 1887.7

An earthquake in 1893 damaged the wooden spire and concerns about its stability saw the demolition of the spire and tower in 1916.8 In 1920 the City Engineer condemned the building as "a menace to the public" and further major repairs were undertaken after fire struck in the same year. It was definitely time for a new cathedral and, after preliminary plans were approved, the foundation stone was laid in August 1925.9

New Cathedral under constructionNew Cathedral under construction c.1927, The Nelson Provincial Museum, FN Jones Collection, 26397
Click image to enlarge

The elaborate English Gothic design of the cathedral was to be built in Takaka marble. Work was suspended in 1932, during the Great Depression, with the partially built marble nave being closed in by a roof and a temporary ceiling. The chancel of the old cathedral was moved and joined onto the front of the new structure. This first stage of the new cathedral was dedicated by Bishop (William) Sadlier on 3 December, 1932. The plan was modified, in an attempt to save money, and work was stopped again by the outbreak of World War II.10

Christ Church Cathedral, 2008 (Karen Stade)
Click image to enlarge

It was not until February 1957 that a simplified plan to complete the cathedral, using concrete, was approved. It drew howls of protest, including criticism of how the proposed tower would look from Trafalgar Street. The Nelson Evening Mail declared: "...the changed design cannot compare with the most commanding ecclesiastical site in New Zealand...we are apparently to be satisfied with the second best."11

The controversial plan was approved in September 1957,12 however, and fundraising began. Work started in May 1964 and the new cathedral was dedicated on 28 May, 1967. The cathedral became debt free in 1971 and was consecrated by Bishop (Peter) Sutton on 14 April, 1972.13

Today, the concrete sections of the cathedral, particularly the tower, are deteriorating and the church again faces an expensive repair project.14

2008 (updated December 2020)

Read more about Nelson's Christchurch Cathedral: story by Helen Baker (2011), Nelson College for Girls [PDF]

Sources used in this story

  1. Ault, H.F. (1958). The Nelson narrative: The story of the Church of England in the Diocese of Nelson, New Zealand, 1858-1958. Nelson, New Zealand: The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Nelson, pp.8-9
  2. Young, F.L.J., Drogemuller, J.A., & Tyrell, Charles. (2000). Nelson Cathedral: The story of the Church on the hill.  Nelson, New Zealand: Dean and Vestry of Nelson Cathedral. [Christ Church Cathedral], p. 7
  3. Young, p.7
  4. Ault, p 28-29
  5. Celebrating 150 Years together, Nelson Anglican Diocese and City website. Retrieved July 2012
  6. Ault, p.28-29
  7. Young, p.8-9
  8. Young, p.9
  9. Ault, p.146-147
  10. Young, p10
  11. Nelson Evening Mail (1957, February 11)
  12. Nelson Evening Mail (1957, September 26)
  13. Young, p.10-11
  14. Nelson Mail (2004, August 16), p.3

Want to find out more about the Nelson's Landmark Cathedral ? View Further Sources here.

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Further sources - Nelson's Landmark Cathedral



(ask at your local library about full-text online access to newspaper articles, 1987-)

  • A towering problem (2002, November 29). Nelson Mail, p.15.
  • Architects asked to review cathedral exterior design (1957, February 26). Nelson Evening Mail.
  • Bland finish to original plan (1996, June 8) Nelson Mail, p.14
  • Cathedral seeks $1m for repairs (2002, November 28). Nelson Mail, p.1.
  • Cathedral to be lit up (2002, March 21). Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Cathedral to undergo major redevelopment (1998, October 31) Nelson Mail, p.3
  • Cheap option in church rebuild (1996, May 25) Nelson Mail.
  • Church's Nelson genesis (1996, May 18) Nelson Mail, p.12
  • Evensong commemorates 140 years as a city (1998, September 29). Nelson Mail
  • Heavily modified plan draws criticism (1957, February 23). Nelson Evening Mail.
  • Nave to be completed (1956, August 12). Nelson Evening Mail.
  • Nelson Cathedral once called 'public menace' (1986, September 20) Nelson Mail.
  • Nelson Cathedral that wasn't: a dream that died over costs (1996, June 1) Nelson Mail, p.14
  • Nelson stunned by modified plan to complete cathedral (1957, February 9). Nelson Evening Mail.
  • Orr, Katherine W.(2007). Hobhouse, Edmund 1817 - 1904.  Dictionary of New Zealand biography, updated 2007, June.
  • Orr, Katherine W. (2007). Suter, Andrew Burn 1830 - 1895.  Dictionary of New Zealand biography, updated 2007, June 22.
  • Our Cathedral's towering dilemma (2001, October 16). Nelson Mail, p.7.
  • Neal, Tracy (2012, June 26).  Bishop asks for help on visitors' centre plan. Nelson Mail, p.3
  • Rawlence, C. (2001, Nov). From Piki Mai to Church Hill. New Zealand Historic Places, 83, 26-28.
  • Urgent meeting to consider amendments (1956, March 27). Nelson Evening Mail.  


Unpublished material

  • Hobhouse, Edmund, Bp. (1858-1905). Papers. AG 121  [held Nelson Provincial Museum]
  • Selwyn, George Augustus, Bp. (1860, March 23). Conveyance of land to the Diocese of Nelson, Nelson Trust 2. UMS 807 [held Nelson Provincial Museum]
  • Transcript of Letters Patent [Anglican Diocese Nelson - PDF]

Web Resources