The grief was palpable as sombre Christchurch residents arrived on Sunday in small groups at a hastily arranged outdoor church service in their earthquake-devastated city.
There were tears and hugs as people greeted each other and slowly made their way across a suburban park to where Anglican priest David Moore was waiting.
“The sheer scale of death is very difficult to fathom,” said Moore shaking his head.
Standing beside him at St Alban’s Park, near a barricade cordoning off the New Zealand city’s shattered downtown area, the Dean of Christchurch, Peter Beck, offered people a comforting embrace.
“We share a common bond this day — there is a deep, deep sense of grief,” Beck said.
People arrived with camp stools and blankets to sit on, two had their dogs and three were in wheelchairs. One woman who lives near the park invited everyone back to her home for morning tea afterwards.
There were similar scenes across the city as thousands of people attended church services to mourn for those lost in Tuesday’s destructive 6,3-magnitude earthquake, which flattened parts of New Zealand’s second largest city.
Many of the services were held outdoors because a large number of churches, including the city’s iconic Christ Church Cathedral, now lie in ruins.
In suburban St Albans, Moore organised a communion service for congregations from three inner-city Anglican churches, two of which were destroyed and the other inaccessible behind security cordons.
“We gather in very difficult times. Everybody knows someone who is painfully affected by what has happened,” Moore told the gathering as the death toll rose to 147 with more than 50 still unaccounted for.
On any normal Sunday the three churches would expect a combined congregation of nearly 700, but with telephone communications down, only about 50 made it after learning of the time and venue by word of mouth.
‘We can’t replace lives’
“The people who could make it have come from all over the city,” said priest David Williams.
“But most would have stayed home because it is so difficult to drive across the city.”
It could have been any autumn day in Christchurch, with the sun shining and children playing in the park, but the faces of those at the church service told of the tragedy that has hit the city.
Ian Lothian rode his motorcycle 15km to reach the service, saying he felt the need to be there.
At the opposite end of the city centre cordon, on the lawn of the Christchurch South Library, at least 100 people attended a multi-denominational service.
“We wouldn’t go to church normally but we needed to come and share our story today. It is better than sitting alone crying and togetherness is good for the spirit,” said Kendra Street.
Jennifer Hamilton, who usually attends the Roman Catholic Holy Cross Chapel that is now a heap of rubble, said she was driving past the library when she saw the gathered congregation and decided to join in.
“I felt the need to get together with people and worship,” she said.
The strain on the people was evident as they struggled to make sense of the destruction, which came just six months after a 7,0 earthquake severely damaged the city.
“Today, throughout the city, small groups of Christians and other faiths have gathered,” Beck said.
“We can replace buildings but we can’t replace lives and the focus now must be on people’s lives.”
Beck, who has been a stoic figurehead in the city as he counselled those faced with the grim task of recovering mangled bodies and tended to others in need, revealed the emotional effort had finally taken its toll.
“This morning I wept for the first time,” he said. – AFP