By Tony Stickley
Hundreds of people turned out over the weekend to celebrate 125 years since St Andrew’s by the Sea first opened its doors for worship. They came from all over the region and from further afield where possible, despite travel restrictions imposed by Cyclone Gabrielle. Some were baptized in the church, others married there, some had attended services there, while others were newcomers to Whitianga who have made St Andrew’s their place of worship.
One of the oldest buildings constructed when Whitianga was still in its infancy, St Andrew’s is very much an icon of the town. But far from just being just a fusty old legacy of history, St Andrew’s has evolved with the times and continues to be very much at the heart of the community. Indeed, it calls itself “Whitianga’s Community Church,” and is used every day by different groups from around Mercury Bay.
Dorothy Preece is Parish Secretary of what is now called the Mercury Bay Presbyterian/Methodist Co-operating Parish. Dorothy, who is also a member of the Mercury Bay Historical Society, said that the visitor book had quickly filled up with signatures over the weekend and everyone had a tale to tell about their time attending the church and their family connections. “St Andrew’s is an essential part of the fabric of Whitianga society and people who visited described how their memories came flooding back,” she said.
Among those keen to mark the church’s birthday was local woman Toya Johnston who recalled going to Baptist Sunday School there in the early 1980s when her father, kaumatua Peter Johnston would play guitar during the service and Toya would do vocal harmonies in the background. “I remember getting gold stars and I remember the minister, Edwin Stead, who was a very caring man,” she said.
Photos of weddings and christenings going back to the early 1900s bedecked the walls of the church along with images of church ceremonies and other major events in the life of St Andrew’s. On display was a collection of wedding dresses lent by brides who got married in the church as well as christening gowns that marked a major event in people’s lives. Also on view were precious heirloom Bibles belonging to the prominent Hamilton and Lee families as well as a ship’s Bible presented on the day the church was opened in 1898 by Capt. Richard Wood, of the schooner Marmion. Another photo on the wall showed an extract from the original parish minutes stating that the land for the church in Albert Street cost 15 pounds and the church building itself cost 300 pounds. Pamphlets and small booklets giving a potted history of the church and its central importance in the development of Whitianga were also available to visitors.
Much of the information came from local historian, Janet Riddle’s books Seaspray and Sawdust and By Saddle to Pulpit, an account of the tortuous journeys the visiting clergy had to endure to travelling to far-flung parishes such as Whitianga, Kuaotunu, Whenuakite and Coroglen. On Saturday Dorothy conducted a live interview with builder Jeff Riddle (Janet’s cousin) who built an extension to the church, forming the church hall in 2002, an event which was also being marked during the festivities.
In the late 1800s Whitianga was a very small place inhabited by hardy pioneers, many of whom worked in logging and milling in the bush. It was as a direct result of those dangerous professions that the church came to be constructed in the first place. Serious accidents were frequent among the kauri bushmen, many losing their limbs to the saws and others losing their lives. That led to calls from the tree fellers and millers for a hospital to be built (on Buffalo Beach Road, opposite the public toilets), and also for a church so that the dead could receive a proper Christian burial, just like in the old country.
In 1893 a church committee was formed to erect a small church for all Protestant denominations. All the Great and the Good, the Hamiltons, the McLeods, the Lees all contributed, as did lesser mortals. Public subscription forms were placed at locations in Whitianga, Kūaotunu, Coroglen and Whenuakite to raise donations. In 1895 a curiously-named Undenominational Church Trust was set up oversee the project to build a church for use by the Church of England (Anglicans), Wesleyans (Methodists) and Presbyterians, the Baptists also worshiping there later.
According to the history, puriri blocks for the underfloor were supplied free of charge from McLeod’s farm and the interior kauri framing was all cut by volunteer labour at Leonard Lee’s boatyard, just behind the church site. Such was the hurry to get the roof on the building that the roof lining was put in place when varnish that had been applied was still wet, leaving workmen’s fingerprints on the wood that are still visible to this day. Finally, the work was finished and the church was officially opened by Church of England Archdeacon Maunsell on February 20, 1898.
The church was used by all Protestant denominations until 1969 when the Anglicans built their own church in Dundas Street, while the Baptists built a church in Cook Drive in 1985, leaving the Presbyterians/Methodists as the sole users of the original building. The Undenominational Church Trust was wound up in 2000 when the Presbyterians bought the building and changed the name to the much more euphonic or pleasant-sounding St Andrew’s by the Sea. Dorothy said it was clear that the church building project was a community effort right from the very start and that was a tradition that continued to the present day.
“We followed on that tradition by building the church hall (the Kathleen Hodge Lounge) in 2002, a facility that is widely used by all sections of the community. This is as much a celebration about the church hall as about the 125th anniversary of the church itself, because a lot has changed over the past 25 years. The church hall is a place that is really very important for the community and it is used every day of the week by all kinds of groups, mostly for the health and wellbeing of the elderly,” Dorothy said. She added that the church provided 120 meals on a Monday night for those in need from the hall’s commercial kitchen. “We give help to people who can’t cook for themselves for whatever reason,” Dorothy said.
A lot of thought and planning had gone into the sympathetic addition of the church hall which blends in extraordinarily well with the original.
“It is a very beautiful building and emblematic of Whitianga. But it is not a protected building - the Historic Places Trust, who decide these things, said it is not a good example of its type. Obviously, we disagree,” Dorothy said.
On Sundays the Co-operating Parish of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches hold a joint service. Currently there is no minister, so a local team takes turns in leading the service, though Dorothy said they still relied a lot on visiting ministers from elsewhere. Some of those, and other former ministers who served at the church, were unable to attend the weekend of celebrations due to the ravages of Cyclone Gabrielle. Among those who were able to make it included Reverends Mary Peterson and John Twemlow. Dorothy said that as the town continued to expand, so did the Sunday congregation and there were now regularly 40 parishioners or more attending the services.
As for the future, Dorothy had no doubt that, though plain and simple, the church, which is constructed of thick heart kauri, would be around for a long time to come. “It has weathered many storms and cyclones and it will continue well into the future,” she said.