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A musical couple have been in seventh heaven since moving into a converted church. KIM DUNGEY reports.
When they first saw the former Roman Catholic church at Seacliff, Christopher and Lisa Clifford were reminded of Sleeping Beauty.
Like the castle in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the church's entrance tower was covered in greenery.
But they could see the property had potential: ''It was the sort of building which said to you that if you looked after it, it would repay you.''
Mr Clifford says that after they bought the building in 2011, he spent a month prising ivy off the walls, cutting back plants that leaned against the windows and wondering what they had taken on.
Then he spent two weeks in the middle of winter waterblasting the exterior and getting ''thoroughly wet''.
''But out came this gleaming church. You could see it was made with a lot of love and care, just from the [quality of] the brickwork and all the pointing.''
The building had been converted to a home in the late 1980s and Mr Clifford says the previous owners had done ''great work'' on the interior, turning the main part of the church into an open-plan living space, adding a mezzanine floor at one end and installing a woodburner to keep the 160sqm space cosy.
On one side of the former sanctuary, the sacristy became a kitchen and the confessional a pantry.
On the other side, the former Sunday school became a bathroom.
New doors gave access to the garden and local leadlighter Hazel Heal remade most of the leaded Flemish glass windows, reusing the original borders and diamond-shaped quarry tiles but replacing other components to let in more daylight.
Having done all that work, the then owners later rented the property out as holiday accommodation, which meant the Cliffords could stay a night before deciding whether to buy it.
The musical couple - one a countertenor, the other an alto - played their music as loudly as they could and found the church not only had excellent acoustics but the 40cm-thick walls prevented the sound from reaching neighbouring properties.
Mr Clifford, who is the artistic director of the New Zealand International Early Music Festival, says it has since been used for rehearsals, concerts and parties: ''It can seat about 60 people if you move everything away and people bring chairs with them. We've even had them sitting on the bed [on the mezzanine], just to fit everyone in.''
Among their antique pieces are a keyboard, many music scores and an early wind instrument called a cornetto.
One of the challenges of living in a large, open-plan space is keeping it clean, he says, wiping his hand over the lid of a piano and smiling: ''But it's sacred dust, after all.''
Having repainted the exterior and added interior lighting, the couple are now creating a bedroom and bathroom for visiting family and paying guests.
They would also like to rebuild the belfry, which disappeared many years ago, and to form a network of church owners to exchange restoration ideas.
A shrine to ''Our Lady of Perpetual Succour'' which once stood in a corner of the church is no longer there, but the brass railing which surrounded it is on the mezzanine, between their bedroom and the study.
Although they are aware some people do not approve of historic churches being sold into private hands, the couple feel it is better for them to be ''lived in and loved'' than to become dilapidated.
Ms Clifford, senior transportation engineer at the Dunedin City Council, had always thought it would be ''neat'' to live in something other than a standard house and says the 30km drive from Dunedin is ''not a big deal'' given that she used to commute for one and a-half hours each way on the train between the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane.
''I go over the hill, from town, and just exhale. It's another world on the other side ... and like living in a bach full-time.''
Mr Clifford also enjoys the quiet surroundings and sea views. The sloping 1358sqm plot is a challenge to look after, even for a keen gardener like him, but has stunning views across the Pacific Ocean towards Taiaroa Head.
Occasionally, his gaze also rests on the tin shed at the end of the property.
Previously used as an artist's studio, it now contains garden tools and a big piece of matted ivy that he cut from the entrance tower and kept as a memento of his hard work.
Creepers climbing the walls might seem romantic in fairy tales but the reality is different: ''It was a bit of an eyesore [but] mercifully, it hadn't damaged the bricks and the grouting too much.''
An iconic building
Opened in 1936, the Seacliff church was designed as a national shrine to ''Our Lady of Perpetual Succour'', the Roman Catholic title for the Blessed Virgin Mary as represented in an icon thought to be from the 13th century.
The focus for parishioners was a copy of the famous painting - obtained from the Redemptorist church in Rome where the original is kept - surrounded by an oak frame and brass railing.
The shrine was seen by many as a source of comfort and strength and large numbers of people would travel by train and car to pray there on the anniversary of the church's dedication.
Dunedin curator and historian Peter Entwisle describes the Seacliff church, designed by J. D. Woods and built by Love Construction, as revived Romanesque in style.
The 1500 and interior fittings required came from a national appeal, launched by Port Chalmers parish priest Fr Walter Monaghan when the local school could no longer accommodate the numbers attending Mass.
Before the schoolroom was used, services were held at the nearby Seacliff lunatic asylum.