Ponsonby church fire: Reverend’s anguish at watching St Stephen’s burn

Reverend Grant Ridout was lost for words as he stood on the street watching his historic Ponsonby church burn yesterday.

The 141-year-old St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church on Jervois Rd billowed thick grey smoke across inner-city Auckland after it caught alight about 3pm.

Eighteen fire trucks rushed to the scene, closing the road where the church has stood since 1879.

Asked how he was coping at the height of the blaze, all Ridout could say was “I’ve been better”.

He had no clue how the blaze had started with no one in the church yesterday and no construction work going on either.

“Up there [in the roof of the church] it’s just pretty much wooden rafters. The whole building is made of wood so there’s nothing much up there, it’s just cavity space,” Ridout said eventually.

“I actually don’t know a lot and I don’t think they know a lot yet. Just trying to contain it and keep it under wraps as much as they can but there’s not much information at this stage about how it started.

“The building was empty. I’m standing out the front and there’s a lot of smoke.

“I don’t know what it looks like on the inside or where things are at. We’re just watching from a distance.”

A Fire and Emergency spokesperson said the blaze was still alight shortly before 6pm, but was now contained.

No one was injured in the fire.

“It’s a single-storey building but it has a double-skinned roof. The fire is in the roof therefore it is difficult to access,” the fire spokesperson said.

“It is a very big fire. The church was well alight when fire crews first arrived.”

A fire investigator was on the scene yesterday afternoon, but any answers on the cause of the blaze were unlikely before Monday.

The church is a Category 2 building and is made of kauri, according to the Heritage NZ website.

According to the church’s website, the original church opened in 1879 and was designed in a Gothic revival style by architect Edward Mahoney.

In 1907, a major extension was added in an Edwardian style influenced by the emerging Baroque Style and designed by architect Robert Martin Watt.

Several alterations and additions were made to the building over the past century including a second hall, veranda, cottage and manse.

Matt Mannoni from the Jervois Steak House across the road from St Stephen’s said about 4pm the Jervois Rd closure was causing a lot of disruption in the area.

“The traffic is pretty packed up. The road is completely blocked both sides,” Mannoni said.

Police were helping direct traffic at the scene yesterday.

At the height of the fire smoke could be seen from across Waitemata Harbour on Auckland’s North Shore.

Aucklanders took to social media to lament the significant damage to St Stephen’s so soon before Christmas.

“My grandparents were married in this church in the 30s. Sad,” one person commented

Another said, “I think this is the church mum and dad got married in.”

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