Derelict Invercargill church becomes jaw-dropping heavenly home

Published Nov 2023

This story is from the team at NZ House & Garden magazine.

When people talk about church conversions, images leap to mind of picturesque chapels transformed into bijou homes. So the first surprise about Andy and Sharyon Ralph’s resurrection is pure scale.

The church they have made their home is no charming chapel but a hulking 1000m²-plus brick edifice near the centre of town in Invercargill.

The second revelation is the extent of the project, which was as monumental as the building itself. When the Ralphs bought the 1914 Presbyterian church in 2010, it was utterly derelict. A treasured photo shows Sharyon and Andy and their three children Danielle, Sam and Laura defiantly straddling crumbling piles.

“We had watched too many Grand Designs programmes,” Andy confesses. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he knew a bit about churches and this one, destined for demolition, tugged at the couple’s heartstrings.

This 1914 former church has been converted into a home by Andy and Sharyon Ralph over 11 years of hard work; the age-appropriate front fence was designed using concrete blocks and repurposed cast-iron spears; the ex-church is also used for accommodation and the high Honeymoon Suite at right has its own north-facing deck with views over Invercargill.

Their friends were less enamoured. “Most said ‘What are you guys thinking?’ and walked straight out.” One scrawled on the remains of a wall that the renovation would cost them a million dollars. “We laughed, but he wasn’t far wrong,” says Andy.

But that figure would have been at least sixfold had they not undertaken the work themselves. Over the course of 11 years, alongside full-time jobs, the Ralphs transformed the ruins into a modern three-storey, six-bedroom abode with a distinct industrial ecclesiastical vibe.

Andy and Sharyon, high school sweethearts from Palmerston North, were married at 19 and parents at 20. In 1995 they moved to a Southland dairy farm which Andy runs while Sharyon works as a primary school teacher and WeightWatchers coach.

“We’re a close family and have all worked lovingly on the renovation,” she says, proudly introducing the team. Danielle works in shipping at Tīwai Pt. She drives trucks, diggers, cranes and a Harley-Davidson. “She is her father’s daughter in that she’s a problem-solver and just keeps going.”

Samuel, a fashion designer now based in Melbourne with husband Nathaniel, turned his talents to dressing the church. “He has an incredible designer’s eye and has been instrumental in helping with colours and design.”

Laura, a graphic designer, drew up the plans and created the church’s new logo and helped build the website. She and her husband Tuionuku’s Christchurch home provided a handy collection point for Sharyon and Andy’s many Trade Me purchases during the renovation.

Sharyon’s father, Dennis Dromgool, a retired bricklayer, laid all the tiles in the five en suites.

“We are always trying to mix old and new, quirky with conventional,” says Sharyon, who found the Gillie and Marc dog and rabbit in her favourite local shop, Factory 2 Hair & Home; the staircase was made by Invercargill Engineering Co and the long artwork is an original bus destination blind from Ontario, Canada, where Sharyon’s ancestors hail from.

Aside from certified tradesmen, just one builder helped with the project until near completion, when a team was used for the final push.

In order to realise their vision, the couple spent a lot of time learning new skills, from plumbing and building to generally being creative and resourceful. Andy also crammed woodwork classes into his schedule, saving thousands of dollars by making all of the kitchen and en suite cabinetry.

They say that figuring out the new layout wasn’t difficult. “The church spoke to us,” says Sharyon. “We knew what had to happen.” They knew they needed a second floor but didn’t want to lose the impact of the high decorative ceiling or put a floor across the windows. The solution is a gallery-style mezzanine with a glass balustrade.

The hardest part, they say, was raising a mortgage as the building is so unusual and difficult to value. It also took three years to get council consent as the couple’s engineer was called away to help with the Christchurch earthquake recovery. “But that gave us time to look at things, find things and dream things.”

For visitors, the hardest part is to refrain from saying ‘Wow!’ every few paces. Some mind-numbing numbers: The ceiling is 9.5m high, not counting the 4.5m-high attic.

Much of the work, especially the painting, was done on scissor lifts and scaffolding. “I was terrified at first but got used to it,” admits Andy.

They shovelled 100 sacks of bird poo out of the attic, clad in masks and gloves. They laid 7km of underfloor heating pipes, thousands of metres of wiring and fitted 20 tonnes of plasterboard. All the plasterboard and steel framing had to be carted up the stairs. “My shoulder is buggered,” says Andy.

Dennis laid 3500 subway tiles (picked up for 12c each) while Sharyon applied grout to these and the other 400m² of tiles that he laid.

A typical day would see Andy up at 4am to milk the cows before heading to the church. Sharyon would join him after school and they would work until 9pm before driving home to finish farm chores. Sharyon recalls sobbing all the way home after a particularly gruelling day of painting which included a few head knocks up on high scaffolding. “But we just kept on going and we’re super-proud of what we achieved.”

A low point came after vandals threw rocks through the windows so hard that they punctured the wall. “We were going to cover the hole with a big mirror but decided to leave it. It’s part of the story.”

The conversion faithfully reflects the church’s past but with modern twists. A punched steel staircase with a crucifix motif connects the floors while Andy’s homemade light box in the nave echoes the colours of the stained glass windows.

The 135m² attic has been transformed into guest accommodation. “First and foremost this is our home, but it’s too big for us and our two little dogs so we wanted to share the space,” says Sharyon. It is also a venue for weddings, funerals and corporate dinners.

A few years before they finished, Andy and Sharyon celebrated the church’s 100th anniversary and their joint 50th birthdays. With Sam on keyboard, Laura on guitar and Danielle on drums, the church once again resounded with song. With a 5.1m kitchen bench in place of the altar and the pulpit converted into a mobile drinks station, the church is well set up to celebrate the communion of family and friends.

Q&A with Andy, Sharyon, Danielle, Sam & Laura Ralph

Best thing about the renovation: Learning new skills. (Andy)

Seeing Andy’s outstanding development of skills to not just project manage but actually rebuild this church. (Sharyon)

Advice to renovators: Hold true to your vision and create ways to make it work. (Andy)

Dig deep to the mongrel gene and don’t give up when you face the 10th roadblock that day. (Sharyon)

Hunt for unique pieces to make it more personal and complement the building. (Laura)

Best budget tip: Hunt for bargains, ask for discounts and support local. (Sharyon)

Do it yourself and if you don’t know how to, then teach yourself. (Sam)

Splash out on important things and find bargains where you can – like the $1.29 vintage porcelain sink Dad found. (Laura)

Best money spent: Buying a property that was due for demolition and saving part of Invercargill’s history. (Danielle)

Getting Nigel Cleaver and his team in to complete the attic build. (Andy)

Bravest thing we did: Take on a project of this size. (Andy)

Mix different styles together – modern, industrial, original. If it wasn’t done right it would look wrong. (Danielle)

The thing that caused the most debate: Placement of any art – because of the sheer scale, pieces had to look right. (Sam)

Favourite find: Old slate roof tiles now used as serving platters. (Danielle)

Vintage light shades in every room. (Laura)

A quote I often use: Give me time to think about it. Sometimes it took me six months to work out how to get from A to Z and how to get enough money. (Andy)

Favourite chore: Pushing the button on the robot vacuum cleaner. (Andy)

Favourite tool: Kenwood cake mixer – a great tool for thanking people. (Sharyon)