Ponsonby church fire being treated as suspicious by police

Police are treating a fire that severely St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Ponsonby on Saturday as a potential arson.

Police have not responded to several requests for comment by the Herald today, but have lodged a reference to the fire in their computer system as arson.

A police spokeswoman said the reference determined the type of initial inquiry being made, “not specifically that an individual incident is definitively arson/suspicious”.

The 141-year-old church on Jervois Rd billowed thick grey smoke across inner-city Auckland after it caught alight about 3pm on Saturday.

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

The Presbyterian Church said that police and Fire Safety NZ investigations were “ongoing”.

The church nave had been heavily impacted by the blaze fire and the building required extensive repair.

Church minister Reverend Grant Ridout said the priority was the safety of the St Stephen’s community and the public.

“We are working tirelessly in conjunction with engineers and safety specialists to put in the necessary precautions, as well as removing residual debris to keep everyone safe,” he said.

“We are overwhelmed by the support of the wider community. Messages and little acts of kindness have come thick and fast. Thank you so much.”

Many people were grieving the loss of the “stunning” heritage building, Ridout said.

“With the support of the wider community, we will restore it to something everyone can be proud of.

“We the church are more than our building, we continue to gather in community and to worship together on Sundays at 10am as we’ve always done. We’re also planning a gathering on Christmas Eve in our hall. The public are very welcome to all services, as always.”

A huge Fire and Emergency response was required to bring the blaze in the roof under control as 18 fire trucks rushed to the scene. The fire crew response closed Jervois Rd and the traffic quickly piled up around the busy arterial road where the church has stood since 1879.

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

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

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 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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

A Givealittle page has also been set up to raise funds to restore the church.

Tonight the fund stood at $980, including a donation of $500 from a woman called Jenny, who said it had been her family’s church since it was built.

“My great grandparents, my grandparents, parents, siblings. Family weddings and funerals held there. Truly heartbreaking,” she said.

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