For our visit to this beautiful, historic church, we were very fortunate to be accompanied by two individuals closely associated with it: Stan Pardoe, a local historian who has had four generations of his whanau use the church and James Blackburne, the architect who lead its restoration.

We learnt that the existing building, consecrated in 1913, is one of four built over the years by the Angican Mission, the first in 1835.  The current church is justly famed for the quality, size and unique design of its whakairo, wood carvings.  The Manaia representation of figures was the outcome of a disagreement between missionary William Williams and carver Rahuruhi Rukupo.  Williams objected to traditional human phallic representation in a house of God, hence use of the mythological Manaia forms.  Rukupo is regarded now as one of the most distinguished of the 19th century carvers and it is his whare that can be seen, on loan, in Te Papa.

A report in the 1990s highlighted need for restoration of the brick building, a project destined to become “a bit more than a labour of love” for James Blackburne.  He began by researching the form and location of all four buildings, particularly focusing on the original materials and design of the current church.  An unforeseen complication that vastly increased the project duration (16 years), complexity and cost, was a result of the Christchurch earthquakes.  Gisborne company Pultron Composites, visited by our group the day before, generously provided strengthening required to bring the building to 100% code compliance.  Pultron fibreglass rods were inserted to pin the walls and strategic points of the building.

The floor to ceiling totara whakairo panels were taken to a cool store to be cleaned and restored by local carvers.  Windows when extracted were found to have originally been put in upside down, an anomaly undiscovered for 100 years.  Pressed aluminium roof tiles, closely resembling the 1913 asbestos diamond-shaped ones, were sourced from the US.  Bucketloads of ammonia, diluted, removed a century of black wax from the floorboards.  And a new bell-tower matching the original design was installed to replace the original one, taken down back in the 1960s because of rotting timbers.

The whole community collaborated with every aspect of the restoration project and contributed to its funding and both James and and Stan shared anecdotes to bring alive to the process.  Right down to discovery of flooding in the vestry.  The cause: pigeons nesting in the roof.  And the solution?  Large holes, drilled in the floor by Stan to allow the water to escape, and left to commemorate the event.

Elizabeth Ellis