Christchurch has always been a hive of vegetarian activity. New Zealand’s first vegetarian group was formed in the city in 1882. The group was called the Canterbury Dietetic Association and met at the Temperance Hotel. It aimed to promote vegetarianism for health reasons.
In 1899 the Christchurch Vegetarian Society was formed. The first meeting was held in the Toneycliffe and Carey Building, on the corner of Colombo and Gloucester Streets. 30 members joined at this meeting and another ten joined within the first month. This group had many feminists and in 1901, Kate Sheppard announced that the Christchurch Vegetarian Society would be affiliated with the National Council of Women of which she was President. The Society was affiliated to the London Vegetarian Union and imported vegetarian leaflets from overseas. Monthly meetings were held and activities included cookery demonstrations and cookery demonstrations.
The New Zealand Vegetarian Society was formed in Auckland in 1943 and a branch established in Christchurch by 1950. The first editor of the NZVS magazine the New Zealand Vegetarian Society Bulletin was Mrs Ethel Sherman from the Christchurch Branch. Mrs Sherman also ran Raphael’s Rest Home in the 1940’s which was vegetarian.
In 1988 the Christchurch Vegetarian Centre was reactivated by Yolanda Wisewitch (later Soryl). It was affiliated with and later became a branch of the Vegetarian Society. The group was run by an active committee and organised public meetings with speakers, cookery demonstrations, information stalls, a magazine, and in 1991 held a Conference with Kathy Silk from the UK Vegetarian Society as the keynote speaker. The group petered out in the mid 1990’s and was re-established in 2002 by Yolanda Soryl again on her return to New Zealand. Then followed the most active period for vegetarianism in Christchurch with the establishment of many groups, events and activities for the Christchurch vegetarian community including an annual Expo attracting thousands of participants and which is New Zealand’s largest vegetarian event. The group became a Branch of the Vegetarian Society again in 2008 and then in 2009 opened an office at Christchurch Community House with two paid part time workers.
The official name of the group is The New Zealand Vegetarian Society Incorporated, Christchurch Branch, but is normally called the Christchurch Vegetarian Centre.
On the 22nd of February at 12.51pm, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit the New Zealand city of Christchurch causing massive damage on an unprecedented scale. This has far-reaching effects not only in our city, but for the whole of our country, mourning the loss of homes, businesses, iconic buildings, and most tragically the loss of life. Our office was severely damaged, thankfully nobody was hurt but our organisation has suffered immensely. Despite this we immediately went in to action, and within 24 hours of the quake, the Christchurch Vegetarian Centre had mobilised and responded to meet the needs of our vegetarian and vegan community. The Centre co-ordinated vegan food, gas stoves, drinking water and practical help such as housing checks by a vegetarian builder and emotional support. The Centre checked and confirmed the safety of every member and responded to emails from around the world as to the whereabouts of vegetarian friends in Christchurch. In a time of crisis, having a strong community around you is immensely healing. The Christchurch Vegetarian Centre continues to provide support for its shattered and traumatised community, in a time when our futures remain so uncertain.
When the earthquake hit our Events Co-ordinator Anna van den Bosch was inside our office in the Christchurch CBD. Everything in the Centre’s office fell down around her, and as she ran from the building to safety, the ceilings caved in. Thankfully, Anna managed to escape unharmed, but the future of our Centre office was not bright. We were never allowed back into the building and it was demolished with so many of the other buildings in the central city. We lost the resources that were so painstakingly built up over the years. We did not even have a leaflet to our name. The Christchurch Vegetarian Centre was housed in the very centre of the city, in Christchurch Community House. Many of our members and supporters lived in the city. They lost homes, businesses, and sadly some lost their loved ones.
We launched an appeal to help us to rebuild our organisation, to help us build a new Centre, a solid foundation to house our strong community spirit. We also developed a cookbook The Icing on the Quake to raise funds. We worked from our own homes for 18 months. Due to the great response to our fundraising appeal, from November 2012 onwards we secured office space back with Christchurch Community House as it moved from one temporary office space to another around the city until securing permanent premises in 2014.
Out of the ashes of this terrible tragedy, we saw what an amazing community spirit Christchurch has – everyday people rise to the challenge and become heroes, providing hope for us that we can rebuild, we will recover. The vegetarians of New Zealand and many from overseas donated money and organised fundraising events for us and with this money we were able to re-open our office and buy new resources. It was a terrible time for us all but we learned how awesome the vegetarian community is nationally and internationally and cannot thank you all enough for your help during our darkest hour. We were voted ‘Vegan of the Year’ internationally in 2012 for our work during the earthquake taking care of our community and would like to dedicate that award to those who were lost, those who struggled, those who helped from Aotearoa/New Zealand and all four corners of the earth and to all of the vegetarians and vegans of Christchurch and Canterbury.
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