From Heritage New Zealand, Summer 2010
by Keith Newman
The buildings at Ratana Pa tell a storic or cosmic proportions and are the legacy of a prophet, faith healer and visionary
The Glory Hallelujah archway.
Photo: Grant Sheehan
The Ratana movement had its genesis when a series of curious events began unfolding towards the end of 1918. Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, once a harddrinking champion wheat stacker and bookie, received a divine visitation. A voice from a cloud urged him to unite Maori under Ihoa o nga Mano (Jehovah of the Thousands). He was told to turn the people away from their fears of the spirit world and their reliance on tohunga who manipulated and laid curses upon them.
In 1920 the Ratana farm hosted the largest pantribal gathering to be held for many decades. It was the beginning of a new era for a dispossessed people, eager to witness the “miraculous” faith-healing power of T. W. Ratana and hear what he had to say about their land sickness and the failed promises of the Treaty of Waitangi.
In July 1925, when theological differences with the mainstream denominations threatened to divide his people, Ratana agreed to form the Ratana Established Church of New Zealand. Earlier in the year he had seen a vision of “a magnificent temple” representing the mana and symbolism of his ministry, conveying, according to Nga Akoranga Ratana study books, “something greater and nobler than what can be seen by the human eye”.
Today Te Temepara Tapu O Ihoa (the Holy Temple of Jehovah) on the eastern edge of the township of Ratana 13 kilometres south east of Whanganui is the focal point not only for the 50,000 followers of Ratana but also for the town’s 400 residents. The temple can seat up to 1000 and fills to overflowing during the founder’s birthday celebrations on 25 January each year.
Initial plans for the temple were based on those of an old Baptist church and were influenced by Ratana’s vision. They were also influenced by his travels in the United Kingdom and Japan the previous year. Project foreman Tueka Hetet took advice from several other Maori who had building skills and drew up the plans.
Initial construction and architects’ quotes seemed extravagant so Ratana declared the temple would be based on Maori plans and Maori labour; Church members were encouraged to donate at least five shillings each towards the expected £6000 cost.
On his return from the United States in 1925, Ratana added a Spanish-mission influence to the overall look of the temple. His major concern was to oversee the symbolism, including the stained-glass windows and interior wall graphics that would make this building a living monument. However, by February 1926 the prices of cement, timber, steel and glass and the duty and taxes on windows and other items imported from the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan had blown the budget. A reworked design halved the length and width to 30.5 x 15.2 metres and increased the height to 6.4 metres, with twin bell towers rising to 24.3 metres. Metal for the concrete work was hauled from Ratana’s own Turakina property.
The foundation stone was laid on 4 April 1926 and within months the imposing presence of the Ratana temple became a source of pride as the morehu (the scattered remnant) laboured to have it completed in time for a private opening in January 1927.
A year later, on 25 January 1928 – Ratana’s 55th birthday – the public opening of the temple was presided over by Bishop Juji Nakada who had hosted Ratana and his 40-strong party at his mission school in Japan in 1924. The bishop had supplied blue and purple stained glass for the windows and a large clock mechanism which was embedded in the ground at the front of the temple, surrounded by meticulously planted beds of colourful flowers. (In time the clock mechanism failed and it was forgotten about until years later when a gardener found it; it was then buried under the existing flower clock.)
At the temple’s opening Ratana stood outside on a platform between the two bell towers to address the thousands gathered. He said the temple was a refuge for the morehu, a place where “the breath of [the] Holy Spirit… [had] been spilled from heaven, that morehu may drink thereof and be spiritually nourished.” The temple was like a ladder, he said, where the angels would come and go between earth and Ihoa’s throne in heaven.
The twin Romanesque bell towers were named Arepa and Omeka, transliterations of the Greek words alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, terms used by Christ in the Book of Revelation to describe himself. The towers and Ratana’s two sons Arepa (Tommy) and Omeka (Joe Mick) also symbolically represented the two phases of Ratana’s ministry: the Ture Wairua or spiritual works, where he was engaged in lifting curses, healing, challenging the old gods and teaching from the Bible; and the Ture Tangata or physical works, where he was increasingly concerned with the welfare of the people, calling Maori tribes to unify and collecting signatures for a petition to Parliament to revive the Treaty of Waitangi.
Te Temepara Tapu O Ihoa, the Mecca for the morehu, with its white roughcast plaster walls, redbrick-tiled roof and lancet arched windows, featured a blend of Hebrew, Christian and Ratana symbolism.
It was intended to represent the entire cosmology of Ratana’s belief system and his pan-tribal vision for Maoridom, united under one god.
Inside the temple, what University of Auckland lecturer Diedre Brown describes as the “prophetic style of architecture” continued to unfold. Rimu panelling covered the walls to standing height. Everything above was painted blue, including the domed ceiling, denoting the earthly world and the heavenly realm. At the front was an elevated pulpit and seating for the apostles, choir and brass band.
The main tohu or symbol of the Ratana movement is the five-pointed star and crescent moon (whetu marama), representing the Kingdom of Light or maramatanga, standing firm against the forces of darkness or makutu.
It was repeated at equal intervals around the interior of the temple and linked by five chains. The blue point on the star represents Matua or the father, the white is Tama the son, red is the Wairua Tapu or holy spirit, purple the Anahera Pono or faithful angels and gold the Mangai or Ratana’s role as mouthpiece, broadcasting the inspired word to the people. The golden crescent moon (enlightenment) may face different parts of the star, giving it variations of meaning. It is often inscribed “T. W. Ratana”.
In 1935 the Glory Hallelujah memorial archway was added to the temple, dedicated to Ratana’s primary-school-aged son Hamuera (Samuel). His death, like those of his older brothers Arepa and Omeka three years earlier, marked a further shift in Ratana’s mission. In Ratana theology Hamuera is the gatekeeper (Hamuera Te Tatou), representing the east where the sun first rises on the world. His death is believed to point to the opening of a gateway or door on a new era of enlightenment and prosperity for Maori. The Glory Hallelujah archway inscription states: “Te Arepa the beginning, Te Omeka the end, Hamuera the last full stop. Therefore, this treasured memorial now stands revealed, from now on the Spirit will do its work and you shall know its fruits.”
Bruce Sedcole, while researching design influences for the Ratana temple for a Victoria University of Wellington architectural thesis in 1985, stumbled on a booklet showing the atomic devastation of Nagasaki in 1945. It included a photograph of the Urakami Roman Catholic Cathedral featuring two domed bell towers with a peaked gable which “resembles the Ratana Temple in form and proportion, if not scale”. The cathedral, completed in 1895, had been the first Japanese church to be built after a 200-year ban on Christianity and was just 500 metres from the centre of the blast. It was replaced by a similar structure in 1959, commemorating the hidden Christians who retained their faith despite persecution.
After Ratana died on 18 September 1939 a number of the main buildings at Ratana Pa, including the temple, began to fall into serious disrepair. In 1941 one of Ratana’s daughters, Puhi o Aotea, unveiled and blessed the cornerstone before major refurbishment of the temple began. Following her death in 1966, Ratana’s youngest daughter Maata (Te Reo Hura) became tumuaki (leader) and continued the work of restoring Ratana Pa to its former glory.
During its original construction, some had been critical of the architecture of the temple; one builder was quoted in the newspapers saying it was unsafe and would “topple over during the first storm or earthquake”. Ironically, nearly 60 years later respected civil and structural engineer Regan Potangaroa was surprised by how well it had stood the test of time. He was, however, concerned at extravagant plans to make it earthquake-proof. Regan, who co-developed the foundational rocking system for seismic strengthening of buildings, offered a less drastic solution by equalising the different energy stress points. In doing so, he saved the Ratana movement hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It needed only nominal strengthening in the roof plane. The upper structure was so rigid that the ground would yield in an earthquake situation like a modern-day load-bearing solution,” he recalls. His “belt and braces” approach freed funds for other restoration work at Ratana Pa and reconnected him with part of his own heritage. In 1928 T. W. Ratana had been invited to Masterton to lift a curse and remove tapu objects that had been placed under the floorboards of the local meeting house in 1881 by Regan’s great-grandfather, the prophet Paora Te Potangaroa.
Te Reo Hura, who was at her father’s side during many of his healings and world tours, spent much of the 1980s championing the restoration of Ratana buildings, including the temple. The inner and outer walls were resealed and repainted, new windows put in place, the bell towers lined and redecorated, pathways replaced and gardens replanted. Changes to the original artwork had been made in 1933, 1948 and 1972 and in 1991 a dedicated group traced the old symbolism for accuracy before a team of painters, led by apostle Tahu Asher (the official Maori interpreter in Parliament for 15 years until his death in 2005), replaced all the artwork, bringing it back to the way Te Reo remembered it.
T. W. Ratana would have been pleased. He was determined that the buildings and layout of Ratana Pa would speak for themselves long after he had passed away. Among his last words in September 1939 were those expressing his concern that the message conveyed through his teachings and embedded in the buildings would not be corrupted. “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of my works, that this Pa should stand in the likeness of the House of Israel. Let not its values and beliefs be destroyed by man, or by modern learning, or by the Devil.”