Salvation at hand for Kawhia church

00:15, May 13 2009

Kawhia's graceful white Methodist church has occupied the high ground above the coastal township for nearly 75 years, but in recent times it has looked like a lost soul.

The driveway is barely visible amid the weeds and rogue plants that stand tall around the building, the clay tile roof has leaked, the wooden pews have lost their sheen, windowsills have rotted, and cobwebs hang from the ceiling beams. The bell is silent in its quaint tower, no longer signalling the Sunday services.

Somehow, the church remains strong and beautiful on its hilly site, shrugging off the hardship, and recently it looks to have found salvation in the form of a community group determined to restore it, and build an adjacent hall, providing something special to celebrate for the church's 75th anniversary on November 24.

On Monday morning this week, about eight group members gather to talk about this treasure, and the plans for its future. In a time when dwindling congregations see many small-town churches sold for cafes, art galleries and private homes, the Kawhia group is determined to keep this one alive. Project co-ordinator Nick Tuwhangai mentions there have been a couple of inquiries from people wanting to buy the church for a home; he jokes he's told them it's worth $1 million.

The Kawhia Methodist Memorial Church, to use its full title, has unique history among local Maori and its community would not want it to fall into new hands. But supporters admit it has been a struggle to look after it, with no regular minister or services for some years.

As the group talks, the morning sun filters through the elegant leadlight windows and the stained glass creates rainbows on the dusty wooden floor. The sunshine illuminates the church's beauty, and its neglect, but for an hour or so it is alive with people, and hope.

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Churches are as much about personal history as they are about bricks, mortar and funding, and today there are plenty of memories. Bessie Porima has had a long association with the church; she sits in a pew with her daughter Hinga, who married Hano Ormsby here in 1972, and Hano stands by the carved altar rail showing where he signed the register after the ceremony.

Hinga remembers attending a crowded church service a few years after her marriage when the late Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu was visiting; the church holds about 100 people but there was no room that day for Hinga in the pews. She laughs as she remembers the old people telling her to sit on the floor in the aisle.

In 2006 after the power to the church had been disconnected Hinga says a group held a candlelight service on Christmas Eve. "Everyone came up here with a candle, it was lovely."

Nancy Karena, in her 70s, was christened here, and attended the Sunday School. She looks around the tired interior, and remembers the many ministers and people who have been part of the church: "It is the heart of all of us, it hurts me to see it like this. The ministers and Maori people were all one family. When they had hymns here they used to lift the roof off with their voices."

Nick Tuwhangai, his wife Linda, John Puke and some others talk about the carvings that are a feature of the building. The Kingitanga crest Te Paki O Matariki is on the front of the pulpit, and there are carvings of the Tainui and Aotea wakas. The intricate work was done under the supervision of the late, great singer and carver Inia Te Wiata when he was a young man, and mention of this leads to the story of the church's construction.

It was built by Pikohaua Hikuroa, Linda Tuwhangai's grandfather, and his main stalwarts on the project were Inia Te Wiata and Maharaia Winiata. Te Wiata later found international fame with his singing and carving, and Winiata become a highly regarded Maori academic.

Linda Tuwhangai says her grandfather from the King Country also worked on the distinctive Ratana Temple, at Ratana Pa, near Wanganui, and on the extension wing to the Waitomo Caves Hotel in the late 1920s. Like the Waitomo wing, Kawhia's Methodist church is built of concrete, with a plaster finish.

The church appears to draw its style from the simple lines of Spanish Mission architecture, with perhaps a touch of art deco in its angles and gothic design in the stunning windows. It is not known whether Pikohaua Hikuroa designed the church, but Linda says he was multi-talented, a tap dancer, clarinettist, choir master and comedian as well as a builder.

The stories continue, and I share mine: my mother and father met and married in Kawhia in 1945, and as a child I remember being told their wedding ceremony was held at this church. But youthful memories can play tricks. My parents long gone were not Methodists, and now I'm not sure if the story is correct.

So today I have brought their wedding photograph, taken on the steps of a church. A distinctive stained glass window is visible to one side, and the heavy, grooved wooden door that Nick Tuwhangai opens for me is also part of the image. It is unmistakably the same place. Nick looks at the photo and points to the high edge of the steps where my mother's wedding dress is draped. "Even the steps are the same."

THE church - and an adjacent parsonage, now demolished - were built to mark the establishment of the first Methodist mission in the Kawhia area in 1834. The Rev William Woon arrived on the west coast that year, followed by the Rev John Whiteley, then Rev Cort Schnackenberg in 1853. The names of the three missionaries are marked by a brass plaque in the church, and outdoors there is a foundation stone laid by Maori King Koroki in 1934.

The building was opened by Princess Te Puea Herangai on March 14, 1935, and the Waikato Times reported the event: "The building is a handsome structure of ferro-concrete, the whole work being carried out by Maori workman labouring for their keep and a small weekly allowance. Portions of the interior are beautifully carved . . .

"Unfortunately inclement weather somewhat marred the opening ceremony but a large crowd was present when Princess Te Puea and Chief Tarapipi opened the double doors. Many were unable to gain admission to the church to witness the unveiling of the pulpit ...but the main service was clearly heard by those gathered outside. The whole atmosphere of today's historic ceremony was one of entire friendliness and respect between both races."

Supporters of the refurbishment hope that the church will again serve the Kawhia community, with the new hall as an extra attraction. They envisage monthly services with a visiting minister, family events such as weddings and funerals, and the hall being used by community groups.

Retired builder Don Murtagh is part of the team, and he says the concrete church is still sound. The leaky roof has been repaired, the floor will be sanded, the 16 pews rejuvenated, and there is rewiring to be done. Don has built a new concrete entrance ramp, and he will repair rotting timber. "But there is not a hell of a lot wrong with it, it will be terrific when it's finished."

Much of the work will be done by volunteers. But the biggest project the new hall, with a kitchen and toilets comes under the umbrella of the Te Taha Maori Division of the Methodist Church, and the Kawhia group has a strong supporter in retired Methodist minister the Rev Bob Short, who represents the division on this job.

The Rev Short, from Hamilton, was formerly the district property secretary for the Waikato Methodist Synod; he has kept an interest in the Kawhia situation and is determined to see it through. He was inspired by the Memorial Church's last minister, the Rev Tata Keepa, who died about three years ago: "He was a tireless worker for that community, a dynamic man with energy to burn. I guess he wanted me to take some initiative."

The property is owned by the Methodist church, and Rev Short says an adjacent section will be sold to provide base funding for the hall, a new driveway and other work. Costs have not been finalised. "The hall will be a small, multi-purpose community building that can be used for a million things, and it can be self-sufficient," he says.

Is it worth the effort? "Absolutely," says Rev Short, "we have to mark an historical site. Kawhia was the birthplace of Methodism on the west coast. I'm not going to let it beat me."

The Kawhia group says the same thing. The silent church bell is mentioned it is the one used by the first missioner, the Rev William Woon and Nick Tuwhangai says, "it will ring again, it still works".

For more information on the church restoration, or to offer voluntary help, ph Hinga Ormsby, 07 871 0880; 0275527203.

Making History is an occasional series in the Waikato Times.

Waikato Times