Auckland: The Lord's song in a strange land

By Allan Davidson

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

St Stephen's Chapel overlooking Judges Bay. Photo / Dean Purcell
St Stephen's Chapel overlooking Judges Bay. Photo / Dean Purcell

"No tradition has remained so strong in New Zealand as the religious one. Churches swarm there."

André Siegfried, a French writer, made this observation at the end of the 19th century. The religious imprint on Auckland at this time was seen in churches, a synagogue, schools, orphanages and the support of charitable work.

The Jewish community dated from the beginnings of Auckland in 1840. Missionaries working among Maori in the early years were gradually crowded out as the settler population came to dominate.

Early religious pioneers often struggled in establishing their churches, recruiting and financing their clergy, and erecting their buildings. Early Presbyterian services took place in the Supreme Courthouse with the elders sitting in the dock! Methodist public worship was first held in a carpenter's shop. But the Governor allocated land, money was raised and churches erected. In 1842 Methodists had a wooden building in High St with a small pipe organ.

Catholics opened a wooden church in 1843 which doubled as a school during the week. Anglicans built St Paul's, a brick edifice, in Emily Place, with its first incumbent, J.F. Churton, designated as "Colonial Chaplain".

Consecrated by Bishop Selwyn in 1844, St Paul's served as the "Garrison Church" for the Albert Barracks. The simple wooden "Selwyn churches", in places such as Howick and Epsom, became, over time, treasured for their architectural merit.

Regular worship played an important role for many in migrant communities. For the early settlers "singing the Lord's song in a strange land" meant holding on to the familiar in a world turned upside down. In Auckland, the Latin mass said by French Marist priests united Catholics from Ireland and elsewhere. For Anglicans the Book of Common
Prayer provided the well-known Cranmerian cadences. Scots Presbyterians
sang their well-known metrical Psalms.

Churches were significant providers of education before provincial government and later state education. Methodists had their Native Institution at Grafton and from 1848 at Three Kings, a forerunner of Wesley College at Paerata. Selwyn's ambitious complex at St John's College included a theological department, Maori teachers' school, English and Maori boys' schools, and an infant department. They proved difficult to sustain, and were closed in 1853, though later had various

The arrival in 1850 of Mercy Sisters under Mother Cecilia Maher introduced what became a formative pattern for Catholic primary education.

Church people made a large contribution to meeting the social needs of colonial Auckland. Orphan homes and women's refuges, chaplaincy ministry in the prisons and hospitals and support for the mission to seafarers, represented the caring, if somewhat paternalistic face of Christianity. The more relaxed early pioneering years gave way to moral probity seen in Sabbatarianism, Temperance and the prohibition movements.

A census in 1882 indicated that only 40 per cent of Auckland's
population were attending church, figures which would bring rejoicing to church leaders today. Handsome and commodious church edifices had been provided by generous and sacrificial giving. Religion had been
transplanted, undergone some adaptation, helped shape moral standards, and left its imprint, but it was by no means universally accepted.

Rev Allan Davidson recently retired from teaching church history at St John's College and the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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