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The first Catholic mass in Wellington, New Zealand, was celebrated by Bishop Pompallier on Christmas Eve 1840. Wellington's Catholic community was served by visiting priests until the arrival on January 12, 1843 of Father Jeremiah Joseph Reily (1799-1880), a priest from the Capuchin order and at the time the personal chaplain to the son of Lord Petrie.
He celebrated his first mass on February 5 that year in a private house in Woodward Street, which in those days was very close to the waterfront. There were 100 Catholics present and with the services of a resident priest they determined to build a church as soon as possible. Wellington's first Catholic church, the Chapel of the Nativity of our Lord (also known simply as Fr. O'Reily's Chapel), was erected within weeks on nearly the exact site that St. Mary of the Angels Church now occupies. The same year a presbytery was built for Fr. O'Reily a little further up the hill in Mount Street.
For seven years Fr. O'Reily was the sole priest in the parish that stretched from Lower Hutt in the north down to Port Underwood across Cook Strait in the South Island. In 1850 Bishop Viard and five priests from the Society of Mary arrived in Wellington to establish a diocese and augment the efforts of Fr. O'Reily. Bishop Viard established his seat at Hill Street on the site now occupied by the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Fr. O'Reily continued to live alone.
Fr. O'Reily's original chapel was enlarged several times until a decision was made to build a new church in 1873. Blessed and opened on April 28 1874 the first St Mary of the Angels cost just 1500 pounds to build, very cheap, even by the standards of the day. Fund raising for the church was almost singlehandedly undertaken by Fr. O'Reily who even went overseas for contributions. The church, a robust Gothic timber structure, was designed by William Clayton, Colonial Architect at the time, and best known for two of New Zealand's finest 19th century buildings, the Government buildings (1876) and Government House (1871). Clayton designed the church to be extended when funds permitted. The church also lacked many internal embellishments and adornments when opened. Nevertheless, at the time of its opening the "Wellington Independent" described the church as a "cathedral in miniature".
Fr. O'Reily died in 1880. Although a man of simple tastes his indefatigable efforts as the pastor of, initially, a huge parish endeared him to all he came in contact with. He had been prominent as a crusader for temperance. An estimated 8000 people marched in his funeral procession and thousands more lined the route. He had no assistant priest until Father M. Kearney, the first Marist priest, arrived in 1875 and in his later years he lived in a small room attached to the church, declining to move into a presbytery built for Fr. Kearney. In 1883 a public meeting in Wellington resolved to build a monument to Fr. O'Reily which can be seen today at the Mount Street cemetery. The huge contribution made to the development of Wellington by Fr. O'Reily was ultimately acknowledged by the Wellington City Council when it renamed the former Ellers Avenue, which runs along one side of St. Mary of the Angels, to O'Reily Avenue.
In 1883 the Pope, through Archbishop Redwood, granted the parish to the Society of Mary, the Marists, in perpetuity, formally securing an arrangement that has lasted to this day. Through the 19th century and again in 1902 and 1913 the parish steadily diminished in size until it became strictly the inner-city parish it is today. In 1892, under the direction of parish priest Fr. J. Devoy the church was extended to its full size, to Clayton's original design. The side aisles were drawn out to the width of the transepts and the church was lengthened.
Disaster struck the parish on May 28, 1918 when a fire quickly took hold of the building. It could not be saved. Insurances amounted to 2,525 pounds, scarcely what would be required to rebuild the church, but it was quickly decided to proceed.