Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Compleat Cityscapes - The Monastery

The Monastery on the Hill

St Gerard’s Monastery surely commands the supreme site in a city whose motto translates as Supreme Situation. Having for years viewed this superb red and cream eminence from the bay 150 feet below – perched on top of that bushy outcrop like a velvet hat on a sack-clad hermit – I sought an audience that would give me an insight out.
Come in, come in now, said the genial old man in black robes swathed in rosary beads. I’m Brother Paschal.
He ushered me out of the sunny courtyard into a cold plain cream and green hall and waiting room.
McGill did you say your name was? he said in a breezy burr, his grey eyes dancing with good humour, pepper and salt tufts of eyebrows shooting up to meet his Maker. We have a Father McGill here you know. Catholic, are you? We had a Father Magill too, with an a, but he has gone back to Australia. Well, read this for a start then.
He hands me three handwritten pages on the monastery.
Not a bad effort, eh, for a 74-year-old. You know what they say, a slowly written letter is read quickly, a quickly written letter is read slowly.
He excuses himself with infinite courtesy, and discreetly promenades the twilight linoleumed hall. I read, uncertain whether it should be quickly or slowly, of how our first Prime Minister, James Edward Fitzgerald, had acquired his site and built a wooden house on it, which was derided as Fitzgerald’s Folly because of its isolation!
Much of Brother Paschal’s profile is a hymn to the Church and his Redemptorist order of priests and brothers who bought the old wooden folly for £500 in 1905, aided by the woolscouring Bourke Brothers out the Hutt. Once known for its isolation, it was a headquarters from which the monks could spread out into lonely spots with their offers of practical help and message of spiritual comfort.
Brother Paschal then proffers his poem on the monastery’s statue of Christ’s Mother, ‘Our Lady of the City’:
All can see a noble structure, on a clear and sunny day,
With a huge broad cross emblazoned over Oriental Bay.
They behold a white-clad lady, with a welcome to extend
As she looks across the waters from St Gerard’s gable end.
The poem finished we walk to the monastery windows, Below is a neat lawn, taupata hedge, flower beds, where Brother Paschal spends an hour each morning
Beyond is the cineramic view of the harbour and hills that will never be built out. Though he believes a skyscraper – is that the word for it? – is going up at the other end from his beloved Our Lady.
Yes, he was a Wellingtonian. He grew up out the Hutt there. He left here in 1921, returned 20 years later. By then the old wooden folly had been replaced by the present concrete and steel construction with its many-arched frontage in imitation of the monastic cloisters of Europe. It was built in 1930-31, and they were proud to have provided work for the Depression’s unemployed. One brother said it was 40 tons of steel box, and if ever there were an earthquake it would all fall as one piece.
We strolled down more cool cream and green corridors, past his porter’s lodge, under wooden archways inset with leadlined glasswork. Below stairs was a ship’s bell to signal devotions. On one wall a wooden box honeycombed with holes and a sequence of wooden pegs like an abacus to indicate whether the six priests and four brothers were in or out.
Priests passed us silently like black ships in the night.
We knelt in the chill chapel with the soft mauve windows and the familiar icon above the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
We entered the sacristy, where a great slab of a kauri table glowed like its polished gum.
In the church a woman waited to have her confession heard. Kauri pews two inches thick, stained glass windows made in 1908 by Hardman & Son, Birmingham, England, and judged by them the finest specimens of their kind in the Southern Hemisphere – a phrase I have heard before. The marble high altar is the work of Hickmott & Sons, and above it is the church’s crowning glory, the great painting by Gagliardi of St Gerard, exhibited at his canonisation in Rome in 1904 and given on request to this church.
The painting depicts the saint at his work among the needy, at the playing on a flute of a hymn written by the founder of the Redemptorists, the saint rising from the ground in a religious ecstasy. Brother Paschal tells me the saint was often found in this suspended condition, a sympathetic reenactment of the Lord ascending into heaven.
Well, good-oh, says Brother Paschal, bringing us back to earth. Have you got what you want? Right then, thank you, thank you for coming, goodbye now.
I step out to the sunshine. My hands begin to thaw, the clamour of the city returns.

From The Compleat Cityscapes by David McGill and Grant Tilly.

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