From issue: Summer 2003
by Christopher Moor
A little church prepares for its 150th celebrations despite a major fire and the threat of removal
Christ Church, Taita.
Photo: Grant Sheehan
Taita's 150-year-old Christ Church owes its survival on its original site to the passion of its parishioners, including descendents of its first worshippers. That battle for its survival also sowed the seeds that bore fruit in the form of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
The serene little Anglican church has witnessed the area's evolution from a tightly integrated rural community of 32 households to a sprawling Lower Hutt city suburb of predominantly WWII state housing. But that link nearly came to an end in 1950.
In a vociferous, sometimes passionate meeting on December 7 of that year, the good people of Christ Church rose up against a proposal to move the church to Stokes Valley. One speaker said that if the people of Stokes Valley wanted a church they should take off their shirts and build their own. Another, George Hooper, reportedly stated no bulldozer would go over the graveyard where his ancestors were buried if he could help it.
George Hooper's great-grandfather lived at Taita from 1841 and was one of the original parishioners. His aunt was the tenacious Mona Ronning who tirelessly peddled her bicycle around the Hutt, drumming up support for keeping the church at Taita.
From those present at the meeting, the Christ Church Preservation Association was formed with the aim of raising £150 annually for the maintenance of the church. Today most of the association's members are descended from the original pioneer families. The headstones in Christ Church's graveyard read like a who's who of Wellington.
The movement to save Christ Church sparked a nationwide call for the equivalent of Britain's National Trust, which eventually led to the formation of the Historic Places Trust in 1954.
The church's design was based on one seen in any typical English parish, with the architecture attributed to Octavius Bousfield, a draughtsman employed by the Survey Department.
The successful tender went to Sidney Hirst, a Yorkshire-born carpenter and joiner, who completed the construction late in 1853. Hirst, who is buried in the churchyard cemetery, built the church on land donated by the Rev Alginon G. Tollemache, an English clergyman who never visited this country.
Hirst used no nails in the building's construction. The original mortise and tenon dowel joints still remain in the window frames, but the totara shingle roof has long been replaced with iron.
The first service was held on January 1, 1854. Fire since has left an indelible mark on the church's history. An arsonist destroyed more than a third of the interior early on November 18, 1989. The intruder forced entry, tore several pages from the old Bible on the lectern before setting them alight.
All the church's original parish records burned during a fire at St James Church, Lower Hutt, in January 1946. Six years earlier, the Christ Church Sunday School had burned down. The building stood next to the church on land gifted by the Welch family in 1888.
Restoration after the 1989 fire began in February 1991, helped by a $10,000 grant by the Historic Places Trust towards the restoration. The reconstruction was based on an architect's maintenance plan completed two years before the fire. Photographs enabled a craftsman to make a replica of the lectern, and drawings by architecture students in 1951 were used for reconstructing the communion rail.
Specially milled totara came from Hawkes Bay for the restoration. The original totara was from the local bush and pitsawn by Abraham Harris, who hauled the timber on to the site by a bullock dray. Harris is buried in the churchyard.
Brass plaques, commemorating those who have played a role in the church's history, have been returned to the walls. The handcarved totara font was badly charred in the fire. It was painted over in black lacquer and still stands as a reminder of that devastating day. Fifteen pews were rebuilt from the original 30.
Anne Erwin, the preservation society's president, is descended from the Harris and Mabey families. James Harris and Mary-Jane Mabey were the first couple married in the church, just 10 days after the original service in 1854.
Christ Church's 150th anniversary celebrations will take place on the weekend of February 21-22, 2004.
The centennial was commemorated prematurely in 1945 - accidentally. More than 500 people attended, including descendents of the pioneer families, the Labour Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, The Minister of Finance and MP for the Hutt, Walter Nash, the Leader of the Opposition, Sidney Holland and the Governor-General, Sir Cyril Newall. The centennial received nationwide coverage and was hailed as a notable event in New Zealand's history. It was not until some time later that organisers discovered the church was built in 1854, not 1845.
Christ Church Taita is registered as a Category I historic place. Read its listing on the Register On-line, or visit its website.