Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

24 July 2009

Country Churches of NZ 1. Introduction

I wrote and illustrated Country Churches of New Zealand. It was published in 2002 by
New Holland Publishers and is still on sale in bookshops.

The publishers have kindly agreed to me re-publishing some of the book’s contents.

This is the introduction to Country Churches of New Zealand

 IN THE BEGINNING I had a list of over 500 historic churches from around New Zealand. I spent the following three years travelling the country illustrating, observing and collecting snippets of history. It wasn't possible to include so many churches in a book of this sort so, as my main interest was in the uncomplicated structures more likely to be found in the country, I eliminated almost all city and major provincial churches. That led to the title Country Churches of New Zealand which just about sums it up. The odd city church has crept in because it was probably built when the city was no more than a small town and has that simple charm that so much takes my fancy.

I wrote and illustrated a book titled The Good Old Kiwi Pub a year or two ago and have been intrigued at how much old churches and pubs have in common. They were at the heart of new colonial communities, being practically the first public buildings to be erected. They were focal points, the church offerings being spiritual; the pub's more likely spirituous. They both would have offered not only comfort but also entertainment: comfort at the pub in a sympathetic barmaid's ear; entertainment in church through the sheer joy of a lustily sung Sunday hymn or Christmas carol. They were almost invariably built of the same materials - whatever came to hand, mostly timber. There the resemblances end. Churches, being used with sobriety and civic responsibilty, had a good chance of survival whereas pubs more often than not burned down, not unusually through a glowing cigarette butt falling from drunken fingers on to a straw-packed palliasse on a Saturday night thus to deny their victims the opportunity of repentance the following morning.

The oldest surviving church in New Zealand was built in 1835. Since then, due to fast, cheap transport, good roads, and the urbanization of population, small rural settlements have shrunk, many to the point where congregations have virtually disappeared. No church is a more poignant example than St Paul's, Whangaroa, where a plaintive note inside apologises that the cemetery is overgrown because there remain only twelve active parishioners all of whom are over 60. Now New Zealand is left with two sorts of country church: the first is a collection of decaying hulks bereft of support; the second survives with the financial help of the Historic Places Trust or earnest local communities of particular affluence and spiritual substance.
External architectural forms are my sphere of illustrative interest. That's why I have, over the years, drawn and painted old stores, houses and cottages, pubs and churches. I like variety of colour, texture and shape. This allows me to pick and choose which churches to illustrate without regard to denomination or creed. Country Churches of New Zealand contains Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Ratana houses of worship. (I would have relished an historic synagogue or mosque but never found one.) I'm drawn to them all, not only for their graphic possibilities, but also because, not being a religious man, I am fascinated by the spiritual energy that went into their construction. It seems that with few resources beyond their physical strength, newly arrived settlers were able to erect their churches as quickly as possible as if their spiritual survival were as important as the need to dig wells, build houses, plant crops and husband stock. And the additional miracle is that they carried the incumbent polytheistic Maori with them with such speed and to such effect that now, in the twenty-first century, they are some of the most devout of worshippers. An infidel such as I can only be astonished.

In gathering information, I have mostly encountered enthusiastic and generous contributors whom I have acknowledged elsewhere. But it wasn't all plain sailing; some guardians have been distant, unhelpful and secretive perhaps simply because their churches' histories have been forgotten, or for shame at their neglect, or maybe because they haven't trusted my motives. I was actually ejected from one churchyard with most unchristian-like hostility but the less said about that the better...

Here and there I have mentioned building costs in pounds (£).When New Zealand went metric in 1967 the pound was divided into two dollars thus £100 equals $200. I have not attempted to convert old values to current.



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By Don Donovan