By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck ChristChurch, New Zealand on Feb. 22 and left at least 75 dead, seriously damaged the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and put the diocese of Christchurch “out of action.”
On the day of the quake, New Zealand Catholic Mission National Director, Fr Paul Shannahan SM, told Fides News Agency that even though this quake was milder than the 7.1 quake that struck last September, this one had a much more traumatic impact on the 350,000 residents of the city.
“Many were traumatised in the 7.1 quake last September but this one is worse in that it was in the middle of a working and school day. It hit with such vigour. It shook whole buildings violently,” he reported just hours after the quake struck.
“Hundreds have sustained injuries but shock and fear is scaring them even more. Thousands are trying to get home and many more are leaving the city to stay elsewhere. A full scale emergency has been declared. Army personal and Civil defence personal have been enlisted to assist Police and Fire brigades. The latter are mainly doing rescue work but now fires have broken out but they have little water to fight them. Helicopters have begun dropping huge amounts of water on the biggest blazes.”
Two of the city’s best known Cathedrals “have seen large sections fall to the ground and they may be beyond repair,” Father said.
The iconic Anglican ChristChurch Cathedral in the middle of the city lost it’s 200 foot steeple in the quake.
The Catholic News Agency is reporting that according to Bishop-designate Charles Drennan, Blessed Sacrament Cathedral administrator and diocesan chancellor, engineers determined soon after the earthquake that it was unlikely that the historic church could be saved.
Two bell towers at the front of the building collapsed, bringing down much of the cathedral’s front facade. Major cracking around the cathedral’s main dome also was evident. In addition, the cathedral’s stained glass windows, are “in ruins,” Drennan said.
The cathedral was in the process of being repaired after the last quake but all construction workers and a custodian managed to escape the building unharmed.
Priests at the nearby cathedral rectory took shelter under a table when the quake struck.
Bishop-designate Drennan said he was unaware of any casualties within the Catholic community, but civil authorities are describing the situation as “extremely grave.”
Christchurch Bishop Barry P. Jones told the NZ Catholic newspaper that diocesan headquarters were “out of action” and that he was relying on a cell 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.”
Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram to Bishop Jones in which he expressed his condolences to the families that 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 laboring to restore essential services.”
A prayer campaign has been launched in 160 countries around the world to pray for the people of Christchurch. Prayers can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be forwarded to Fr. Shannahan who will deliver them to the people of Christchurch.
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