The Sisters of Mercy signed the purchase documentation for the property in The Drive, Epsom on the 17th of May 1921 and the first Mass was celebrated in the chapel of the new property on Sunday 29th of May with 12 parishioners attending. As the first Catholic church presence in the district, the convent chapel served as a Mass centre for the newly forming parish of Epsom with steadily increasing numbers. Many of those attending were tram workers from the large tram depot situated nearby in Manukau Road. The first parish priest was Fr John O’Byrne, and when the young John Mackey – later Bishop John Mackey, came from Ireland with his widowed mother to live with his uncle
Fr O’Byrne, he recounted that the chapel was often full to overflowing with parishioners attending Sunday Mass. From these beginnings, the Catholic Parish of Epsom took its roots.
Mrs. Jean Drumm (nee Martinovich) of Hamilton, one of the school’s first boarding pupils, wrote:
“Bishop Liston, then recently-appointed Co-Adjutor Bishop of Auckland, would come and celebrate Mass and, after breakfast in the parlour, usually invited two boarders to escort him on his walk to the tramway stop at the top of Banff Avenue.”
The records show that at least one marriage was celebrated in the chapel. Tom Murphy, electric tram motorman and his bride Mary McAndrew, newly arrived from Ireland, were married by Fr O’Byrne on the 6th of August 1921. One of the senior pupils was the bridesmaid and the sisters served the wedding breakfast in the convent dining room.
In 1928 there was a major fire in the convent and considerable damage was done.
The house was reconstructed as a one-storied building which included the chapel as we see it today.
The chapel was and remains the heart of the home and it has a special place in the life of the sisters and of all who come to the Centre now to pray, to make retreats, to meditate and to participate in spiritual programmes.
Some of the features we find there today include:
The Stained Glass Windows
The chapel has three fine stained-glass windows. It is not known when these windows were installed or where they came from. It could have been that they were gifted following the 1928 fire.
The rose window is situated above the altar. It is of simple design and draws the eyes upwards, reflecting colour and light in all its changing moods.
The windows on either side of the altar depict the shield as used by St Raymond of Penafort who, in the 13th century, along with St Peter Nolasco and King James of Aragon, established the Order of Our Lady of Mercy whose purpose was the ransom of Christians held captive. Since 1831, when the Sisters of Mercy were founded, many Mercy colleges around the world have incorporated this shield in their school logos.
The Altar and Lectern
For many years a simple table had been used in the chapel for the celebration of Mass. In 2007, Auckland wood craftsman Ross Courtenay was invited by the sisters to make a new altar and lectern. Ross reflected at length on the mission of the Mercy Spirituality Centre and on its logo. The outcome is the beautifully constructed rimu table and lectern we see in our chapel today, skillfully crafted from timber retrieved from the demolished Convent of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart in Owairaka.
The altar and lectern were blessed by Epsom parish priest Mons Patrick Ward with a Mass of Thanksgiving on the 29th April, 2009.
The Stations of the Cross
The stations of the cross were crafted from the wood of the pohutakawa tree which grew for many years in the front garden of the convent.
In 2015, after several very stormy weather events, the tree became uprooted and needed to be removed. A number of the large pink hued logs were given to master craftsman Jiries Giacaman and from these he carved the fourteen stations. The roman numerals superimposed on each were made from recycled kauri timbers which had been replaced during renovations to the roof of St Benedict’s Church in Newton, Auckland.
This special set of stations of the cross was blessed by Bishop Patrick Dunn, Bishop of Auckland, during Mass celebrated in the chapel, the 16th of December, 2015.
The Icon of Mary
This icon is copied from the 16th century Hodigitria Mother of God - “she who points the Way”. Mary carries Christ, her head is slightly inclined towards the child while at the same time her right-hand gestures towards him, honouring him. Mary is the Church on earth presenting her child - the Logos.
The enamelled icon was created by Mary Barker and was presented to Rita Vessey rsm by medical staff at Mercy Hospital in 1995. It has hung in the Cecilia Maher House chapel since 2000.
The Pompallier Madonna (passage opposite the chapel door)
This picture is a lithographed reproduction of a painting of Our Lady. The original is thought to be painted in the style of the icon of Our Lady which had been brought from Byzantium (present day Istanbul) to Rome by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in 750AD during the Iconoclast crisis when many pictures and icons were destroyed1.
When Pius IX was elected Pope in 1846, the painting was given to him as a Coronation gift by the Benedictine Sisters of the Campus Martius.
The following year - 1847, Bishop Pompallier went to Rome to make his first report on the newly establishing Church in New Zealand and the Islands of Western Oceania. On the occasion of this “ad limina” visit, Pope Pius IX presented Bishop Pompallier with the painting to bring back to New Zealand. Subsequently it became known as the Pompallier Madonna.
In the early 1900s, Bishop George Lenihan – fifth Bishop of Auckland, gave the painting to Fr Augustine Keogh sm, rector of St Patrick’s College Wellington. It seems to have disappeared in the 1930s but was rediscovered in 1942, after which it was displayed in the College and the lithographed copies were made.
Unfortunately, the original painting of the Pompallier Madonna was stolen from St Patrick’s College in 1978 and its whereabouts remain unknown.
Rita Vessey rsm
1. For full discussion on this painting refer to Tracking the Origin of the Pompallier Madonna, Fr Merv Duffy sm, Marist Messenger 30th April 2014.
Altar in Chapel
Stained glass window
Stations of the Cross
The Pompallier Madonna