St Mary's convent


Our once fine French edifice 1

The Convent of the Immaculate Conception sat at the top of the Manuka Street hill from 1892 to 1983.  It was a large wooden building with an overall height of 87 feet (26.51 metres), a length of 105 feet (32.04 metres) and a width of 55 feet (16.76 metres).  It consisted of three main floors, each of 5,775 square feet (536.51 square metres), plus an attic of similar size.  This attic was never completed, remaining unlined on the inside walls, and was always known as 'The Granary.'  Contrary to most locally-held beliefs, this name was developed from the French word – 'grenier' or 'grain store' - but simply means attic.

St Mary's convent
St Mary's Convent Mission Sisters' Archives

In May 1982, the owners of the building, the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, announced the closure of Redwood College, formerly Sacred Heart Girls’ College, after 104 years functioning as a secondary Catholic school for girls.  This decision had to be made as the demands and requirements for integration of the school into the state system were astronomical, and the roll numbers were becoming too low.

The question for the Sisters was – 'What would happen to the grand old edifice?'  By August, there was an approach from the Nelson Founders’ Society to acquire the 90-year-old building.  In order to acquire the building and Chapel, the Society was prepared to remove it in three parts: Chapel, top storey and attic, and later the ‘Select School,’ an associated building. Their plan was to transport all of this to an acquired site in Nelson; then to demolish and dismantle the remainder of the main Convent and College, remove it, and so leave the grounds in suitable condition for future use.  By October 1982 the deal was formally struck, with Founders Heritage Park.2

Granary early days at Founders Park
Granary early days at Founders Park


At the end of December 1982, there was an historic last tour of the building.  In April 1983 there was a photo in the Nelson Evening Mail showing the top of The Granary being lifted away from the main building. However on 9 May 1983, with the two top storeys and all but the final segment of the roof transported to the Founders’ site, the remainder of the building was set alight and burnt to the ground.3

The French Connection

In 1850 Father Antoine Garin of the Society of Mary was appointed as parish priest to Nelson.  He worked to build an education system, which included schools and orphanages.  Father Garin wanted to establish a Select School for girls, so he wrote to the newly-founded Order of Our Lady of the Missions, asking that they send three English-speaking nuns.  The first four nuns arrived in Nelson on 9 February 1871 - but only one proved able to speak English: Sister Michel, a 19-year-old English girl.  Father Garin was unhappy. He had asked for three.  He complained to Sister Madeleine, another of the nuns, that he simply could not support four nuns.  She replied that they would support themselves, and they soon proved their self-sufficiency.  They set up their own bakery, which supplied the Orphanages as well.  They owned a small farm in Upper Brook Street.  This was managed for them, and supplied all their vegetables, milk, and some meat.  They earned money with embroidery and music teaching.4 

Manuka St
Catholic Church Manuka St. Father Garin in foreground. Nelson Provincial Museum Nelson Historical Society Collection 326783

The Order of Our Lady of the Missions

The Order of Our Lady of the Missions was founded in France by Adele Euphrasie Barbier.  She was the daughter of a French cobbler, whose father and grandfather had regaled her with tales of life in Guadeloupe in the West Indies, where they had both been born.  This gave her a love and attraction for distant places which, along with her strong religious faith, led her to seek the religious life, but not just any religious life. She confided to a spiritual guide: 'I want to walk behind our Missionaries, opening schools to take in little natives and extend the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.'  In 1848 she joined the newly founded congregation of the Sisters of Calvary and by 1851 had become Sister Marie de Cour de Jesus (Sister Mary of the Heart of Jesus).  Along with one other nun, she was sent to England, since the Calvary order was facing many difficulties in France.  Their aim was to learn English, prepare other members of their community, and establish a base from which to leave for the foreign missions.  For 10 years she worked to cope with the problems of establishing the Congregation in London.  Early in 1861 it was evident that the Congregation’s original missionary opportunities had lapsed, and Euphrasie heard that the Marist Fathers were seeking experienced religious women for their Missions in New Zealand. She asked to be transferred to the Marist Order and set up a new congregation in Wellington, New Zealand. 

Euphrasie and one young English novice returned to France to await departure for Wellington.  Then news came that another Order, the Sisters of Mercy, had arrived in Wellington, and that Marist Sisters for the Wellington school were no longer necessary. The Marist Superior General however saw this setback as a sign from Providence. Instead of setting out for the missions, Euphrasie would become the Foundress of a new missionary order.  Thus, on 25 December 1861, the new Order was born.  Three years later in 1864, the first four sisters of Our Lady of the Missions were professed and sent to the Congregation’s first mission in Napier, followed four years later with a mission in Christchurch.5  Thus Nelson was the third mission of these nuns in New Zealand.

Euphrasie Barbier
Euphrasie Barbier, Marie du Coeur de Jesus , Sister Norah Tobin

The need for a new convent building arose when a fire destroyed the original school rooms and dormitory of St Mary’s High School, Manuka Street on 12 March 1889.6  A St Mary’s Convent Building Fund was then set up, and various means used to raise the money for rebuilding.  During 1890 the St Mary’s Art Union7 was advertised, set up to raise funds to rebuild the Convent schools, Nelson.  It offered several prizes, 1st a pianoforte, 2nd a gold watch and 3rd a lady’s gold watch.8  It appeared to be well supported by the whole Nelson community.  By January 1892, it was noted that His Grace Archbishop Redwood, on the afternoon of Sunday 31 January, would lay the foundation stone of the new Convent, to be built at a cost of about £6,000 (modern day equivalent: $1,182,000).9

A report of this event was published in The Colonist 1 February 1892, noting that it 'will be of considerable proportions, and on the lower side of the hill will show five floors, the rooms in the basement being 11 feet in height (3.35 metres), those on the first floor 15 feet (4.57m), on the second 14 feet (4.26m), on the third 13 feet (3.96m), and those on the upper storey being of about equal height.  The building will contain some 34 apartments, including large classrooms, and will have stair cases at either end, as well as all necessary conveniences.' 

A dais was erected in front of the position for the corner stone, on which were seated dignitaries of both Church and State, including the Honorable Richard Seddon.  Bishop Redwood spoke of the advantages that would come to the district from the new building, suggested that there would be a collection, and told of the loss sustained by the Sisters in the destruction of their former building.  He told of the self-sacrifice of the Sisters and how, for some time now, they had been poorly housed.  This building would see them housed in buildings worthy of their work, and worthy of the city of Nelson.  'A considerable amount was offered on the foundation stone, and shortly after the large assemblage dispersed.'10

The fundraising continued over the following two years, one example being an Entertainment reported on October 1892.  Held in the Provincial Hall, it was attended by 350 people, with the young people offering dramatic entertainment, while around the hall were fundraising stalls, consisting of a gypsy fortune teller, fairy well, flower girls, fancy-goods stalls, all followed by dancing.11 The following year there was a Grand Tableaux Entertainment held in the Theatre Royal in July, advertised as being in aid of the St. Mary’s Convent Building Fund.12

The reality behind the newspaper articles can be seen in the Sisters’ Logbooks:

1889:  'A new calamity befell the much-tried Community in March of this year when the High School was accidently burnt.  This proved a complete loss as the insurance on the building had lapsed.'

1892-93: 'The struggle against debt and other difficulties continued, mostly for want of suitable subjects to take charge of the employments, as well as want of accommodation for the Sisters.  Over this period there were 149 children resident in the institution, orphans and boarders, besides 116 external pupils in the various schools.  To better the accommodation and provide the community with more suitable dwelling as well as classrooms and dormitory for the boarders, the new Convent building which had long been contemplated was begun.'

'There were few funds in hand at the time of the beginning of the building work. The Sisters were obliged to borrow, but even then the plans could not be completed. Only a very few rooms were finished and these were for the use of the Boarders.  Although some thousands of pounds had been spent, the Sisters’ side of the building is still unfinished with the exception of 2 or 3 rooms.  Considering the debt consequent on the large building besides the many calls on the community, it seems as if many years will elapse before it is completed.'

In fact the building was never completed, rooms on the Convent side of the main building were left unlined, and The Granary had no interior work.

1899:  It was recorded that 'the enormous debt of two and half years ago, was paid with the exception of £1,000 (modern equivalent $197,000).13

St marys convent  1895
St Mary's Convent 1895. Mission Sisters' Archive

There is no evidence in either newspaper reports or in the Sisters’ Archives of an official opening of the building, such as had occurred with the laying of the Foundation Stone. This may be because for four months in 1893 Bishop Redwood and the Parish Priest of the time, Father Mahoney, were away from New Zealand, travelling to and from Chicago to an Ecclesiastical Conference of Bishops which was held during the Grand Exhibition.14  Monday 1 February, 1892 was the 50th Jubilee of Nelson settlement. There were many events to celebrate this, with many local and national politicians and dignitaries attending these various celebrations.15 

Since the Sisters’ account of those years shows that their accommodation - or lack of it - was desperate, it seems likely that as soon as the new building was habitable, they moved in.  Sometime in 1893, the Convent of the Immaculate Conception began its function as the home and school for several generations of Sisters and girls. 

Over 90 ensuing years it established a tradition of teaching and learning and gained a place in the hearts and minds of the generations of pupils that passed through its doors. 

Since the closure of the School and the disassembly of the building, only partially rebuilt as the current community facility at Founders Park, knowledge of this ‘grand old French edifice’ has been lost.

The Granary Founders Park
The Granary Founders Park

A public event organized for Heritage Week in April 2019 had three former Head Girls of Sacred Heart College in attendance:

  • Mary Langley Gavin (1964)
  • Yolanda Persico, (1965)
  • Jacqueline Cook (1967)

The event helped research and collate information to help remember and honour the building, those who worked and studied in it, and the legacy both have left in our hearts and minds.

Many of the nuns are buried in Wakapuaka Cemetery.

2019 (updated August 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Photo caption, Mission Sisters’ Archives Photo Catalogue
  2. History of the House of the Immaculate Conception 1873-1988, Mission Sisters Archives, Wellington.
  3.  ‘Founders count fire’s cost’, Nelson Evening Mail, 9 May 1983, p.1
  4. Harris, Anthony, The Beauty of Your House, Nelson, St Mary’s Parish, 1994.
  5. Tobin, Norah, Sister, Euphrasie Barbier, Marie du Coeur de Jesus.
  6. ‘Fire at St Mary’s High School’, The Colonist, 13 March 1889, p3.
  7. ‘St Mary’s Art Union’, The Colonist, 10 June 1890, p3.
  8. ‘Untitled’ Nelson Evening Mail, 25 June 1890, p2.
  9. ‘Jubilee Celebrations’, Nelson Evening Mail, 18 January 1892, p2.
  10. ‘St Mary’s Convent’, The Colonist, 1 February 1892, p4.
  11. ‘Untitled’, Nelson Evening Mail, 20 October 1892, p2.
  12. ‘Advertisement’, Nelson Evening Mail, 3 July 1893, p3, c4.
  13. History of the House of the Immaculate Conception 1873-1988, Mission Sisters Archives, Wellington.
  14. ‘Archbishop Redwood’, The Colonist, 6 July 1893, p4.
  15. Summary Notes’, The Colonist, 25 January 1892, p3.

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Further sources - St Mary's convent


  • Harris, Anthony, The Beauty of Your House: the Nelson Catholic parish 1844-1994, Nelson, St Mary’s Parish, 1994.