Francis Petre (1847 – 1918)

In commemoration of the architect Francis Petre, architect of our Diocesan Cathedral – whose anniversary occurs at this time, here is a brief biography.

Francis Petre [#D22]

Francis William Petre, known as Frank, was born at Petone, on 27 August 1847, to Henry William Petre and his wife, Mary Anne Ellen Walmsley.

Henry William Petre was one of the founders of Wellington and colonial treasurer of New Munster, was the second son of the 11th Baron Petre, a director of the New Zealand Company. The Petres were one of England’s oldest and most influential Catholic families, and a prominent colonial family in New Zealand.

Around 1855 Frank returned to England, with his parents, and he attended the Jesuit school of Mount St Mary College in Derbyshire until 1860. Though tradition dictated that as the second son, he should join the army or Navy, Frank was unsuited to study at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, and left to attend Monsignor Benoit Haffreingue’s college at Boulogne-sur-Mer. He then returned to England and completed his education at Ushaw College, Durham.

Petre’s signature

He apprenticed to Joseph Samuda of London, a prominent shipbuilder and engineer. He then worked for the engineer and architect Daniel Cubitt Nicholls whose contracts ranged from office design to sewerage construction. Petre’s experiences provided him with an in-depth knowledge of the latest engineering techniques and the use of concrete.

In 1872 Petre was employed by John Brogden and Sons as an engineer for railway construction having returned to New Zealand, settling in Dunedin.  He supervised the building of the Dunedin-Balclutha and Blenheim-Picton railway lines before establishing a private engineering and architectural practice in 1875. He continued to be based in Dunedin for the remainder of his career.

Francis Petre’s first important architectural commission was St Dominic’s Priory in Dunedin, begun in 1877. This concrete building, in a simplified Gothic style, was known for the innovative use of materials.

[Sacred Heart Basilica in Timaru, under construction]
Sacred Heart Basilica, Timaru [#D256]

As his practice grew with the profusion of Catholic church building in the 1880s and 1890s Petre received many commissions including the Basilica (later Cathedral) of the Sacred Heart in Wellington (1899), and subsequent churches in Timaru (1910) and Waimate (1913).

St Patrick’s Basilica Waimate [#1701]

Petre’s most notable church was the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch (1901–5). The cathedral was constructed of monolithic concrete sheathed in Oamaru stone.

Letter to Bishop Grimes, 6 February 1899

 The design of the Cathedral was suggested in correspondence to Bishop Grimes dated 6 February 1899. The basic layout of the Cathedral, sketched on the side of the page, changed little through construction.

The Cathedral was consecrated and opened on Sunday 12 February, 1905.

Construction of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament 1901-1905

Interior shots of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament


Petre also designed houses and commercial buildings in Dunedin and Christchurch. He was active in the establishment of a professional association of architects, and was a founding member and secretary of the Dunedin Institute of Civil Engineers and Architects in 1876, a fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects on its foundation in 1905, and president of the Institute in 1907–8. Frank Petre died at his home in Dunedin on 10 December 1918, survived by his wife, and 13 children. He is buried at Anderson’s Bay Cemetery in Dunedin.

Gravesite of Frank Petre in Anderson’s Bay Cemetery

Here is a list of some of the buildings designed by Petre, within the Christchurch Diocese:

Sacred Heart Convent  (Built in 1881, demolished 2011)

Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Ashburton. (Opened 10 December 1882, demolished due to damage 1931)

St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Hakataramea (built around 1885).

The Magdalen Asylum, Halswell, Christchurch (built in 1886).

St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Greymouth (above) (Opened 20 May 1888,  demolished due to earthquake risk 1994) [#D1625]

St Joseph’s Church, Morven (above) (built in 1895)

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Barbadoes St, Christchurch (Opened 1905)

St Patrick’s Basilica, Waimate (opened 1909)

Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Timaru (opened 1 October 1911 )

References and Acknowledgements:

Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Thanks to Bernard Hempseed for the use of his photographs of Petre’s gravesite.

Images are from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives – Unaccessioned Photographiccollection

Further information on the building of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament can be found in Michael Hanrahan’s ‘A Suitable Temple: A History of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Christchurch, New Zealand 1905-2005


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