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When life as they knew it changed, Vanessa Hardy and Warren Chilton set up home in a former...
When life as they knew it changed, Vanessa Hardy and Warren Chilton set up home in a former church in Waitahuna. Photos by Gregor Richardson.

A Canterbury couple displaced by earthquakes have created a vintage vibe in a former church. Kim Dungey reports.

''Abandoned-house chic'' is how Vanessa Hardy and Warren Chilton describe their unique decorating style.

''We quite like industrial with retro with `oh my gosh, you should have thrown that out','' laughs Vanessa, her self-deprecation not accurately reflecting the delightful home the couple have created in a former South Otago church in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes.

When the big quake hit in February 2011, Warren was thrown around like a rag doll inside Tete a Tete, one of two vintage clothing and curio stores the couple owned in the Christchurch CBD, and Vanessa thrown to the ground as she walked to their accountants.

The couple were devastated to lose both shops, most of the stock and Vanessa's personal collections of vintage lingerie and early children's clothing and shoes. But they were thankful to be alive.

''It's just stuff and more stuff comes,'' Vanessa says.

''It doesn't need to define you when you go through something like that. It gives you tools to deal with other things.''

After opening a shop in their backyard and trading online, the couple needed to catch their breaths so sold their two-bedroom bungalow in Rangiora and took to the road.

They found the former Waitahuna church in February 2013 after travelling the length of the country in a campervan they christened Basil.

''We were definitely looking for our next home to be not your traditional house,'' Warren explains.

''We looked at halls, warehouses, a post office and another church but nothing really ticked all the boxes like this one did.''

Deconsecrated in 1988, St Brigid's had the light, space and open-plan layout the couple wanted, as well as a half-acre section with fruit trees and a large wooden-framed glasshouse.

Vanessa says they knew they would buy it as soon as they emerged from the small cloakroom into the main part of the building, with its high vaulted ceiling and some of the original stained-glass windows still intact: ''When the sun is out, the light just sings in here. It's magical.''

But the irony of them living in a 90-year-old brick building after their experience of earthquakes and insurance claims is not lost on the pair.

''The earthquake taught us that life is fleeting and we always wanted to live in an interesting old space like the church so when the opportunity presented itself, we took it,'' Warren says.

''For those who lived through the quakes, 'fear of loss' is measured on a different scale to most and we aren't as worried now about things we cannot change . . . ''Since being converted to a dwelling by a previous owner, the church and its internal spaces have been put to new uses.

The vestry where the Catholic priests donned their robes is now the guest bedroom, the confessionals serve as wardrobes in the master bedroom, and the area where the altar stood is now the kitchen.

A mezzanine floor that was probably extended at some stage now has two work stations, including one where Vanessa makes jewellery and repairs vintage clothing destined for Two Squirrel Vintage, the store they opened nearby Milton about a year ago. 

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