DUNEDIN’S GOTHIC PRIORY

One of the many grand historic buildings found in Dunedin would look great on a misty moor rather than jammed into a corner in the inner city. St. Dominic’s Priory has the traditional gothic appearance seen in horror films.

Needless to say, it presents a somewhat scary appearance as it looms over an inner-city street only a short walk from the centre of Dunedin. The style of the building is known as “stripped Gothic”, Gothic architecture without the usual ornamentation. It was praised at the time of its opening for being aesthetically striking without being gaudy so suitable for the home of a religious order.

CATHOLICS ARRIVE IN DUNEDIN

During the Otago gold rush in the 1860s, the highly controlled life of Dunedin’s Presbyterian founders was shattered by an influx of Irish Catholics who created a demand for Catholic services and education. In response, a new diocese for Otago and Southland was created in 1869. The new bishop, Patrick Moran, arranged for ten teaching sisters from the Sion Hill Dominican Convent in Dublin to travel across the world to the new British colony. This small group of intrepid nuns arrived in Dunedin in 1870.

STRAIGHT TO WORK

The nuns must have been heartened, after the gruelling voyage, to be greeted by a welcoming crowd who lined the streets of Port Chalmers before being transported to Dunedin by a cavalcade of carriages. Only four days after their arrival, the pressure to serve their new flock forced the nuns to open a primary school with twenty pupils attending, and a high school of three pupils. The nuns had been promised they would be provided with a suitable residence in Dunedin, but nothing had been prepared before their arrival. Within a few months the industrious women were running bazaars to raise money for a building, selling crafts both donated and made by their own hands. By 1876 they had enough money to start construction of their priory, using plans created by local Catholic architect Francis William Petre, who also designed many churches and cathedrals in Dunedin as well as Cargills Castle.

BUILDING THE PRIORY

The first wing of the building was completed in 1877. The original plan included a church in the centre and a second H-shaped wing on the cathedral side to create a pleasingly symmetrical building. However, this didn’t happen so the building lacks the visual balance shown in the original plans. Convents of that time usually lacked windows to lighten up the interior but Petre took great advantage of natural light, with numerus high, narrow windows creating a relatively bright and airy environment that certainly didn’t follow the tradition of the gloomy convent.

St.Dominic’s Priory (odt

Like his other Dunedin buildings, Petre used poured concrete and, at the time it was thought to be the largest building of its type in the southern hemisphere. New additions were begun in 1889, which resulted in the large building that we know today. It was thought that the austere Gothic style would clash with the cathedral next door, so the wing next to it was constructed in a slightly more elaborate style in blue stone and Oamaru stone (as you can see in the photo) The 70-plus rooms on four floors included reception rooms, dining rooms, classrooms, a student library, a large basement kitchen and dozens of nuns’ bedrooms and beneath the building, a poured concrete tunnel carried stormwater and sewage. The nuns certainly thought big and probably expected Dunedin to keep growing at the pace they experienced in the decade after the gold rush when many businesses set up shop in the city bringing money and people to the booming town.

CHANGE OF FORTUNE

In the 1960s, Dunedin’s population stagnated as a number of large companies moved their operations to Auckland and Wellington.  At that time, the school had a roll of 200 girls but it soon became obvious that there were not enough pupils to sustain two Catholic girl’s high schools in the city so St Dominic’s amalgamated with St Philomena’s College in South Dunedin. Pupils of St Dominic’s Ladies College, a separate entity, boarded and learned in the priory building along with the nuns. The college was particularly famous for producing musicians, and a custom-built double-glazed glass music suite allowed girls to practise without disturbing each other. However, this boarding school closed in 1971.

BUILDING ABANDONED

By 1981 there were only six Dominican sisters remaining in residence, but they were unable to meet the maintenance costs of this massive building and for the past 40 years, the priory has been largely unused. The building has a Heritage New Zealand category 1 listing and was part of a cluster of Catholic buildings around Rattray St dubbed Dunedin’s “Vatican”. Apart from the cathedral, most of these buildings have been converted into other uses. The Dunedin City Council once provided a $100,000 grant to keep the priory from demolition but this token payment didn’t go far on the rapidly deteriorating building. It’s estimated a full repair job will now cost between 12 and 18 million dollars so the future of this Victorian priory is still on shaky ground despite the heritage listing.

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

As a school boy, I once stepped inside the reception area of this convent to give a nun some report or other. I remember the heavy smell of wood polish that hung in the air. I also remember the quietness as I waited for a nun to appear after I rang the bell to summon her. The atmosphere was certainly in keeping with the gothic appearance of the building. Perhaps some enterprising organization could turn it into a ‘haunted convent experience’. Most people get a thrill from being frightened to bits in a controlled setting. I have always considered this grim building a rather foreboding place with its cold concrete walls rising like the side of a high dam, so it’s outward appearance already creates the right atmosphere for a spooky experience. It would be relatively easy with the technology available today to create misty ghosts floating around the place and smells wafting about. Easy to get a few actors in suitable makeup and dressed as nuns to play a part. It would be easy to rig doors banging and lights flickering on and off and sound effects to heighten the fun. It would be a unique tourist attraction in keeping with Dunedin’s fame for being home to ghosts and old buildings.

Ceidrik Heward