This landmark was the largest residential building in Lyttelton when it was built c1930, by Mr J.B. McCormack, in the classical colonial Georgian style as a two-storey brick convent with slate roof and columned entrance porch. The grounds are still surrounded by the original high walls with an arched brick gateway and solid double gates. The builder (J.B. McCormack) was granted a £ for £ subsidy as part of the government employment scheme to provide employment during the Great Depression.
The previous building on the site was an earlier timber house built in 1864. Frederick Le Cren owned this house and land (TS 87) and by 1869 Mr Henry John Augustus Perrin, an accountant, lived here.
Captain F.D. Gibson lived in the original house on TS 88 by 1868. Captain Gibson took over from Captain Sproul as Lyttelton’s Harbour Master during the provincial years before the Harbour Board took control in 1877. Captain Gibson had eight clever daughters; five of them were graduates of Canterbury University College and two of them opened Rangi Ruru School and managed it for fifty-five years.
The Sisters of Mercy arrived here in 1890 and extended the original house with additions of a chapel and classrooms in 1895. (See adjacent photograph, which shows the chapel and classrooms to the left.) The nuns did much good work in the community and parish, including visiting the prisoners at Lyttelton gaol.
The nuns had no wish to be a financial burden on the small working class parish of St. Joseph’s, so to earn an income the Sisters of Mercy taught fee paying high school students here. St Mary’s Convent School, nicknamed “the top school” was opened in February 1890. The Press of 5th February 1890 reported. "A convent was recently formed in Lyttelton in connection with St Joseph’s Church, under the charge of Rev Mother Aloysius. The Rev Mother with her assistant sisters and competent lay teachers opens a school for the higher class of education for ladies on Monday next."
St. Mary’s Convent school continued for sixty two years; it provided both primary and secondary education until it closed in 1952 when the remaining pupils transferred to St. Joseph’s.
The nuns also taught music; singing, piano and violin; the little music room that also housed the primers (1918-26) still survives at the rear of the convent which now has access from Canterbury Street and is a small weatherboard building. (Refer photographs) The nuns also taught at St Joseph’s School after 1899 but were not paid regularly until 1940. A history of the two schools 1869 – 1994 titled Beacons on the Hill.,researched by Terry Byles was written for the 125th anniversary.
Mercy Through the Years; The Centennial History of the Sisters of Mercy, published in 1978 has more details about this historic building.
The new convent was built on the site circa 1930, as the original convent was beyond repair and more space was needed. This imposing brick building still graces the skyline as an important landmark. It is very much in original condition (see 2005 photograph, below). By 1980 there were only five nuns left here, so the building was sold for use as a conference centre and the sisters moved to 19 Exeter Street.
This historic building is listed as a notable building by the Christchurch City Council in the former Banks Peninsula District Council’s Proposed District Plan.