BY MICHAEL OTTO
A DEVASTATING earthquake in New Zealand last week killed more than 100 people as well as seriously damaging the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
The magnitude 6.3 quake struck the city of 350,000 people at midday, sending many buildings tumbling and people rushing into the streets.
The earthquake was the second to hit Christchurch, located on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, since September 4, when it was shaken by a magnitude 7.1 quake.
Rescuers worked around the clock to dig out survivors trapped in the rubble and recover bodies of those who had died. Authorities expected the death toll to rise.
Prime Minister John Key declared a state of emergency and described the disaster that hit the country’s secondlargest city as “New Zealand's darkest day”. It is the country’s worst natural disaster for 80 years.
In addition to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament several of the city’s historic churches were damaged or destroyed. Among them was the Anglican ChristChurch Cathedral in the city centre. At least 20 people are believed to have been killed when its 200ft steeple collapsed.
Bishop Barry Jones told the Z Catholic newspaper that diocesan headquarters were “out of action” and that he was relying on a mobile phone for communications with diocesan staff.
“So I’m not in a position to get information,” he said.
In a statement to the diocese, Bishop Jones said he was “stunned and deeply saddened by the loss of so many lives, the serious injuries to so many and the destruction of property that has been visited upon us so violently and suddenly”.
“I pray for those who have been killed and injured, and also for those closest to them who never imagined when they last saw them that anything like this would happen,” he said. “There had been a sense of hope and confidence gradually growing as we came to terms with the consequences of the big earthquake last year, and this horrific disaster is a cruel blow to that hope.” Bishop Jones later celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Victories, Sockburn, for the people of the region recovering from the disaster. He prayed that they might know the love and peace of God in the midst of suffering.
In his homily Bishop Jones reflected on the nature of evil, but said that an earthquake is in no sense a consequence of, or a punishment for, human behaviour.
Meanwhile, messages of condolence and offers of help have poured into the nation over the last week.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram to Bishop Jones in which he offered prayers for the families that had lost loved ones. In the message he assured “the people of the city and the nation of his prayers for all those who are working urgently to rescue and assist the trapped and injured, as well as for those labouring to restore essential services”.
Archbishop Philip Wilson, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, extended “heartfelt thoughts” in a letter to Bishop Barry.
The archbishop said: “The proximity of our countries and the solidarity we share in times of disaster lead us to feel enormous grief for what your people are experiencing.” Meanwhile in the neighbouring Diocese of Palmerston-North Bishop-elect Charles Drennan, said engineers realised soon after the earthquake that it was unlikely that the historic church could be saved. The cathedral was undergoing repairs sustained in the September quake when the second hit last week.
Construction workers escaped, as did a custodian who was inside the cathedral.
Two bell towers at the front of the building collapsed, bringing down much of the cathedral’s front facade. Bishop Drennan said that major cracking around the cathedral’s main dome was also evident.
The cathedral’s stainedglass windows, which survived the first earthquake and some 4,000 aftershocks since, are “in ruins”, he said.
Bishop-designate Drennan said he was unaware of any casualties within the Catholic community, but that civil authorities described the situation as “extremely grave”.
Priests at the cathedral rectory took shelter under a table when the earthquake struck, but one was able to see a tower collapse through a window.
Bishop-designate Drennan praised the actions of older students at nearby Catholic Cathedral College who built temporary shelters for younger students terrified by the quake. The children, from St Paul’s School, in suburban Dallington, were forced to relocate to Catholic Cathedral College, a secondary school, after their school was destroyed in the September earthquake.
Three days after the earthquake it was anounced that no Catholic church or school would be used until engineers declared it safe.
Bishop-designate Drennan said safety was the primary concern. He and other priests were asked to leave the cathedral rectory by safety officials for security reasons as authorities cleared much of ChristChurch.
On Tuesday authorities put the death toll at 148, with many people still missing. Among them were dozens of students and staff at an international English language school, which was in one of the buildings that collapsed. Rescuers’ hopes were raised that signs of life had been detected in the destroyed Holy Cross Catholic chapel in central Christchurch, but rescuers were unable to locate anyone.
Fr Brian Cummings, provincial superior of the New Zealand province of the Society of Mary, said the presbytery of St Mary parish in the northern part of Christchurch was destroyed. No one had lived in the building since it was damaged in September’s earthquake, he said.
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand has pledged $18,800 (£11,500) toward relief and recovery. The funds will support the St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Social Services and other agencies.
Director Michael Smith said the organisation did not normally respond directly to emergencies within New Zealand, but that the scale of the disaster required a response.