Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 56, September 2012
(by Graham Watton)
Waikato Diocese, St. John's Church, in Rotokohu Road, Paeroa, was dedicated on Thursday, May 26, 1932, by the Bishop of Aotearoa, Bishop Bennett.
However, the Church of England first made its presence in the Ohinemuri District in 1865 when funding was provided by an English Church Missionary Society to establish a Maori mission in the district. A site was chosen in a Maori village on the Ohinemuri River, one mile south of the present town of Paeroa. Today the land is owned by the Thorp family.
The timber for the church and a two-storeyed house was taken up the Ohinemuri River by boat. Apparently there was no follow-up by missionary workers and the cottage was lived in for many years by a local Maori Chief. When he died the building remained empty for some time before there was an argument between two tribes over the ownership of the land. This was settled by a survey line dividing the property running along the watershed and the previous Maori owners retained the church site.
In 1875 Mr A. J. Thorp, son of the first European settler in the district, Joshua Thorp, purchased the land on which the buildings were erected. Built of kahikatea timber the buildings became riddled with borer and were demolished about 1912. The actual church site is occupied today by a farm building.
Missionary work was not adopted by the local Maori, some of whom were of the Ringatu faith.
During the First World War period Miss Breerton, a Government nurse, established a Mission in a house made available by Mrs Rihitoto Mataia Nicholls. This building is opposite today's Paeroa College.
Miss Manning also assisted at the Mission but she died in the influenza epidemic in 1918, while nursing Maori soldiers in the Narrow Neck Camp.
For a short period of time Miss Symthe conducted a Sunday School for Maori children in a house in which Mrs Martin later lived for many years in Normanby Road--today the site of Richardson's Real Estate.
The first moves for the church came in 1930 when Mrs Rihitoto Mataia Nicholls, wife of the late Mr W. G. Nicholls, Member of the Legislative Council, gave the Waikato Diocese's Maori Mission Committee £300 ($600) towards a church building for Ngati Tamatera. She also gave the land on which the church was to be built, this being adjacent to the meeting house, Taharua, which is at the rear of the church as it stands today in Rotokohu Road. This meeting house was built about 1890 close to the Ohinemuri River and was moved twice to make way for river stopbanks.
There was another £200 ($400) required to meet the cost of the project. Fund-raising was started in earnest and by April, 1932, funds were to hand and the construction was commenced by the Huntly Timber Company. Two months later the building was completed.
Simply constructed, but yet bearing all the lines of a church building, this little structure, which is capable of comfortably accommodating 100 people, cost about £500 ($1000) to erect and furnish. Of this amount £300 ($600) was donated by Mrs Rihitoto Mataia Nicholls, while the Diocesan Trust provided £75 ($150), and the balance was raised by private subscriptions among the Maori of the district.
The interior of the church is as simply executed as the exterior, while all the necessary church furniture, except the font, was provided; either in the erecting of the structure, or by the generosity of the people on the district, and those in other districts whose interest lies in the welfare of the Maori people.
For instance the altar was given by Messrs Farrar and Meek, of Huntly; the altar cross and altar candles by Mrs E. P. Fathers, of Paeroa; lectern and prayer desk by Mr Marston, the builder, of Huntly; chair, mirror and desk by Mr W. Ellerington, of Paeroa; and the Bible by Mr C. Wayne.
There was also considerable assistance lent during the building operations by interested Paeroa businesses. The outside work around the church section was carried out by a band of local Maori under the direction of Messrs W. E. Ward, W. Moore and E. P. Fathers.
For the dedication of the building, on Thursday, May 26, 1932, there was a representative gathering of clergy from the Anglican church, both Maori and Pakeha, from throughout the Diocese.
The dedication service was carried out by the Maori Bishop of New Zealand, Bishop Bennett, while the first Holy Communion service was conducted by Bishop C. A. Cherrington of the Waikato Diocese. Other clergy present were: Arch-Deacon Riti (Huntly), Canon K. A. Karaka (Morrinsville), Rev. E. Riiwhi (Thames), Rev Maioha (Te Kuiti), Rev H. Harawera (Waitoa), Rev. K. M. Hikairo (Taumaranui), Rev. C. W. Turner (Te Aroha), Rev. G. Palmer (Katikati), Rev. R. J. Boyt (Frankton), Rev W. T. F. Skey (Raglan) and Rev. W. G. H. Weadon (Paeroa).
The clergy and the large congregation assembled at the west (front) door of the church, where Bishop Bennett received a petition from the minister of the parish, Canon Karaka, and some of the principal inhabitants praying for the consecration of the church.
The petition was read on behalf of the people of the parish by Mr V. Nicholls and, following a short prayer, Mrs Rihitoto Mataia Nicholls turned the key in the lock and opened the church door.
Then followed a very impressive service, the prayers being given alternately in Maori and English by Bishop Bennett. Prayers of consecration and dedication were said at the chancel steps, the lectern and the sanctuary steps and the altar. At the conclusion of the dedication service Bishop Cherrington administered the sacrament of Holy Communion to a large number of worshippers.
The service concluded with an inspiring address in Maori given by Bishop Bennett, who later gave it in shortened form in English for the benefit of those Pakeha among the congregation.
The Bishop expressed the gratitude of the Maori people for all that had been done for them. Although the consecration of the church was a privilege of the Bishop of the Diocese, he had considered it fit that this church be dedicated by himself representing the Maori people.
The Bishop also sincerely thanked Mrs Rihitoto Mataia Nicholls for her generosity saying that no other church in New Zealand had been given in the same manner, and as a building, it stood supremely alone, a very real expression of faith and hope.
As a Maori church, the Bishop continued, it was the largest and most complete in the Diocese, and was evidence of the wave of spiritual revival that was sweeping over the Maori people.
In concluding his address Bishop Bennett once again referred to the assistance given by Pakeha during the building of the church, and the expression of the hope that the two races would continue to work harmoniously together towards whatever destiny the future held in store.
Representatives of Maori tribes from Coromandel to Ngaruawahia were present at the dedication service. Notable among them were Princess Te Puea of Ngaruawahia and Taite Te Tomo Member of Parliament for Western Maori.
Tents were erected in an orderly manner to provide accommodation for the some 300 Maori visitors as the festivities lasted for three days.
Over the next 20 years regular services and Sunday School classes were held in the Church.
In the 1950s the Rev. Wi Huata conducted monthly services travelling from Te Kuiti where he was based and serving the whole of the Waikato Diocese as Maori Mission Priest.
In March, 1960, at meeting of the congregations of both St. John's and St. Paul's it was agreed that the two parishes merge with St. John's committee being represented on St. Paul's Vestry. This Vestry assisted with repairs and maintenance of St. John's and monthly combined Evensongs were held in the church with Mr Tom Keelan, assisted by Dr. J. W. Bartrum, both being appointed Lay Readers.
The Maori Missioners during the early 1960s who assisted the Vicar of St. Paul's were Rev. Sam Campbell, Rev. Charles Shortland, Rev. Sonny Melbourne, and Messrs Frank Saunders and Gordon Kaa.
Mr Kaa, in 1966, was appointed Curate of the Piako Maori Pastorate and was ordained Deacon in St. John's in 1967, Priest the following year and then appointed Priest in Charge of the Piako Maori Pastorate.
Following his appointment a Mothers' Union branch was formed and an afternoon Sunday School with some 36 children was established in the Aorangi Road Hall, in addition to a morning Sunday School at St. John's.
In the winter of 1978 a severe storm lashed the district and the gale force winds did damage to many buildings and other property in the district. St. John's did not escape; it was almost blown off its foundations sustaining damage estimated at $5000. The Rev. Tiki Raumati took charge of repairs, which were done by Lee Bros. Builders. The building lifted back onto new piles. There were interior renovations carried out inside the church and a side door inserted to meet building regulations. Once repairs were completed a Thanks Giving Service was held in early November the same year.
After 10 years as Priest in Charge of the Waitomo Maori Pastorate Rev Kaa returned, in 1981, to live back in Paeroa and with his wife, Rose, became valued members of the congregation, assisting in many ways both the Vicar and the Parish. He was appointed Canon in 1988.
The golden jubilee of St. John's was celebrated in June, 1982, and to mark the occasion St. Paul's presented a suitably inscribed Processional Cross. A special service was held in the Church with Canon Wi Huata delivering the sermon. Other celebrations were held at the Te Kohahitanga Marae, at Tirohia.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the congregation numbers dropped as members moved away from the district to follow their chosen employment owing to the opening of the Kaimai tunnel and the closing of the railway line followed by the Post and Telegraph Depot and changes to the Ministry of Works. These parishioners presented the church with a set of special tukutuku panels, which are displayed on the rear wall of the building.
During 1991 and up to June 1992, extensive and costly restoration work was carried out for the diamond jubilee of the church. During these celebrations the administration hierarchy was handed from the Diocese of Waikato and the Waikato Maori Pastorate to Te Pihopatanga ki Aoteraoa on to Te Hui Amorangi ki Te Manawa o Te Wheke and finally to Hauraki Rohe.
Another severe storm in November, 1998, did more structural damage to the building because the pole buttresses installed following the 1978 storm provided insufficient support. Insurance money covered the cost of strengthening repairs including the flying buttresses.
As a project to mark the millennium celebrations toilet facilities were upgraded, a disabled access ramp added and a repaint were undertaken. The cost of around $6000 for materials and tradesmen, was met by donations from the Te Moananui, Nicholls and Williams and other associated families.
Voluntary labour was organised by the late Hoha Sutherland while her husband, Colin, was responsible for planning and permits as well as much of the labour together with Lucka Te Moananui.
The roof was replaced on 2002 with colour steel, costing $10,600, and funded by the families, while in 2004 the electrical wiring was replaced.
Today services are held in St. John's, mainly on special occasions.