NZ Life & Leisure - - Con­tents -

Breath­ing new life into a de­con­se­crated church in Old Cromwell Town caused no end of chal­lenges for the Ur­lich fam­ily. But the end re­sult has them thank­ing the heav­ens

BREN­DON UR­LICH WAN­DERED UP the front path to his hol­i­day home, kicked his shoes into the pile of jan­dals al­ready at the front door and wan­dered in­side. Be­fore he could close the door sev­eral peo­ple from a mini­van parked on the road­side fol­lowed him in­side af­ter neatly de­posit­ing their shoes at the door.

“Whoa,” he said hold­ing up his hands. Ascer­tain­ing they were Rus­sian tourists, he tried (with his best “Olaf the Rus­sian tour guide” im­per­son­ation) to tell them with ges­tures and pid­gin English that his pri­vate home might well look like a church, in fact used to be a church, but was no longer a church. It was his home.

Af­ter a mo­ment of be­wil­der­ment, the vis­i­tors re­al­ized that they weren’t in a sac­risty but a kitchen. With good grace, they re­treated out the door, down the path and climbed back into their mini­van and dis­ap­peared.

“Who was it this time?” called Bren­don’s wife Kerry from within the church liv­ing room. They’re used to this, hol­i­day­ing as they do in the old Pres­by­te­rian church on the banks of Lake Dun­stan in his­toric Cromwell Town. When it is lo­cals who come peer­ing or knock­ing, cu­ri­ous about progress on the old church, Bren­don and Kerry are more likely to in­vite them in for a quick look around. It pleases them that af­ter more than a decade of ef­fort sav­ing and restor­ing the de­con­se­crated church it is now a source of pride. Not just for lo­cal trades­peo­ple, whose long slog brought the build­ing back to glory, but its for­mer con­gre­ga­tion mem­bers too. Bren­don won­ders if these same proud lo­cals were among those who, in 2004, com­plained that “for­eign­ers had bought our church”.

It’s true that Bren­don and Kerry have spent al­most all their adult lives out­side New Zealand, as Bren­don’s ca­reer with multi­na­tional com­pa­nies has taken them from Burma (in their early 20s) to Sin­ga­pore, Dubai, Ser­bia and Lon­don be­fore a five-year spell back in New Zealand and then off to Viet­nam two and half years ago. How­ever, they are only as “for­eign “as their re­spec­tive Kaitaia, Mt Eden, Bal­moral and Up­per Hutt child­hoods could al­low. “I’m a Dally boy from the Far North at heart,” says Bren­don, now CEO of L’Oreal Viet­nam.

Quite how Kerry and Bren­don, who had never been to the bar­ren hot-and-cold moun­tains of Cen­tral Otago un­til 13 years ago, ended up pas­sion­ate about the re­gion and be­sot­ted with a stone build­ing still rather as­tounds them both.

Kerry’s child­hood fam­ily hol­i­days were spent trav­el­ing the North Is­land in one of the many VW Kombi vans owned by her dad. They were usu­ally head­ing for VW con­ven­tions (al­low­ing for re­cur­ring break­downs) but only ever reached as far south as Nel­son. Bren­don’s child­hood hol­i­day mem­o­ries were made in the sub­trop­i­cal bush and warm blue seas around Kaitaia and at Ahipara Bay. And, since be­com­ing ex­pats, the pair’s New Zealand hol­i­days tended to re­volve around al­ways vis­it­ing fam­ily and friends in Auck­land, Hawke’s Bay and Welling­ton.

Then their world tipped slightly on its axis dur­ing a visit to friends who had moved to Cromwell to open a café. A last-af­ter­noon bike ride took them to the his­toric precinct on the wa­ter’s edge. There, out­side an im­pos­ing stone church was a “for sale” sign. Many times since then, they’ve asked them­selves, “What the hell have we done?”

“When we spied the for-sale church my re­ac­tion was im­me­di­ate. ‘Oh my God Kerry, the po­si­tion of that church is in­sane. It’s right on the water­front, right over the lake.’

“We had a quick poke around but we were re­turn­ing to Dubai the next day. We worked out an of­fer quickly on a servi­ette and placed it with the real es­tate agent on the way to the air­port. Part of the of­fer was for the church to have free rent while build­ing a new church in the new part of town.”

And that was the be­gin­ning of some­thing Bren­don de­scribes as to­tally fis­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble but so sig­nif­i­cant for their fam­ily (now num­ber­ing four) that he and Kerry have put the prop­erty into a tightly con­trolled trust for their two boys, Jay­don, 12, and Luka, 8. These thor­oughly cos­mopoli­tan boys, cur­rently at­tend­ing the In­ter­na­tional School of Ho Chi Minh City, love their Cen­tral Otago lake­side hol­i­days for rea­sons that may con­fuse lo­cal kids.

“Luka loves be­ing able to walk to the dairy by him­self,” says Kerry and ex­plains that an equiv­a­lent trip in Saigon would in­volve a driver and a helper to es­cort him and the des­ti­na­tion would be a bor­ing 7/11 store with none of the lol­lies and cho­co­late-dipped ice cream won­ders of a Kiwi dairy. “Yes­ter­day, as Luka and I were walk­ing to the dairy to­gether, he com­mented that we were walk­ing on a re­ally lovely foot­path. It made me re­al­ize how they see the world. It’s so or­derly and calm here by com­par­i­son to the colour­ful chaos of Viet­nam and the boys en­joy that change.”

Bren­don likes to tell the boys to stop and lis­ten. ‘ To what?” they ask. “Ex­actly,” he replies. “There’s noth­ing to hear. In Saigon, there’s a con­stant white-noise back­ground to life. Driv­ers use their horns like radar sonar, just to let peo­ple know they are there. Honk honk. Beep beep.”

But down by the lake in Old Cromwell Town where the sounds are in­di­vid­u­ally iden­ti­fi­able and the stars are di­a­mond bright in inky night skies, Jay­don and Luka can muck around all they please on the ru­ins of the old mu­seum, run along the wob­bly top of a fall­ing down stone wall, and sit in the shade un­der wild plum and ap­ple trees with­out a driver or helper in sight. Quite pos­si­bly not an­other soul in sight on some days. And if the lake is warm there’s bis­cuit­ing, swim­ming and pad­dling to do. And at cof­fee time, if they ac­com­pany Bren­don and Kerry on their morn­ing saunter to Ar­mando’s Café in the old precinct, there’s a hot cho­co­late to be drunk.

The Ur­lich fam­ily come home to Cromwell twice a year; in ad­di­tion to their sum­mer hol­i­day there’s al­ways a mid-win­ter visit to the Cardrona slopes where the boys and Kerry ski while Bren­don per­fects his re­cently ac­quired snow­board­ing skills.

The church is now a three-bed­room lake­side home, with masses of liv­ing space with nei­ther a hint of in­side/out­side flow nor a sin­gle lake view through the mul­lioned win­dows high in the plas­tered walls. Still to come, in stage two of this project, is a four-bed­room­plus-liv­ing-room wing on a fine con­crete blade span­ning the rolling ter­rain be­tween the church and the lake.

“Hav­ing a place to call home and be­ing able to hol­i­day in Cromwell has been a bless­ing. It was won­der­ful this past hol­i­day to stay in one place, un­pack, set­tle in and for the en­tire hol­i­day truly re­lax… how­ever, the down­side was not see­ing some fam­ily mem­bers,” says Kerry.

“There­fore once the new build oc­curs it will be won­der­ful to have the ac­com­mo­da­tion to in­vite them down to en­joy Cen­tral Otago as much as we do.”

Con­sent work for this stage two is un­der­way now de­spite Bren­don’s ad­mis­sion that he has “no idea of what the church restora­tion project has cost to date and no de­sire to know. In fact I have in­structed my ac­coun­tant not to add it up.”

The walls of the 140-year- old church were al­ready dou­bledepth stone be­fore a 20- cen­time­tre- thick false in­te­rior wall was added to hide masses of in­su­la­tion and struc­tural steel. WORDS K ATE COUGHL AN PHO­TOGR APHS R ACHAEL H A L E MCKENNA

LEFT: “Fill­ing the walls to make it more homely will be spo­radic due to be­ing there only twice a year,” says Kerry who loves mak­ing things her­self. She has al­ready made wall hang­ings, cur­tains and du­vets for the church. Some of their favourite fur­ni­ture (from dis­ in Viet­nam) in­cludes the din­ing ta­bles, many of the side ta­bles, kitchen chairs, mas­ter bed and a wooden sofa. BE­LOW: The church bell, named “Old Suzy” in hon­our of Kerry’s de­ceased mother, can be rung from a rope above Kerry and Bren­don’s bed.

THIS PAGE, FROM TOP LEFT: The boy’s bunk- style bed­rooms are above the sec­ond bath­room; the mas­ter bed­room is el­e­vated above the main liv­ing area and is of­ten flooded with morn­ing sun­light fil­tered through the stained- glass win­dow; the tiler faced a tough chal­lenge in the steepled win­dow of the mas­ter bath­room. “Crafts­man­ship of this qual­ity is amaz­ing,” says Bren­don.

“Noth­ing in this build­ing was square or straight,” says Ant Robert­son ( left) of Lifestyle Con­struc­tion, who is proud of what he and his men achieved. Ver­dun Burgess (next to Bren­don), a spe­cial­ist in mak­ing new look like old, says the church was built in a time of hand­craft not ma­chine- made. “Many peo­ple gave their opin­ions and some were help­ful such as the old trades­men who would tell me how to do some­thing.” Not so help­ful was the old sticky- beak who caused a stop­work be­cause she sus­pected the stone re­pairs were not be­ing done cor­rectly.

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