Church marks milestone but numbers dwindle

By Amy McGillivray

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The Western Bay's oldest church turns 145 today. On the eve of its anniversary Amy McGillivray talks to St Thomas' Anglican Church members reminiscing about the building's history and the dwindling number of worshippers.

Members of St Thomas' Anglican Church in Maketu,  Ruby Te Pae Clarke, Rev Kotene Hurae Pihema and Rama Butt are celebrating the church's 145th anniversary. Photo / John Borren
Members of St Thomas' Anglican Church in Maketu, Ruby Te Pae Clarke, Rev Kotene Hurae Pihema and Rama Butt are celebrating the church's 145th anniversary. Photo / John Borren

Sunlight filters in through small cracks beginning to open up between the totara weatherboards of the Western Bay's oldest church.

A few committed members of St Thomas' Anglican Church in Maketu sit on the well-used wooden pews and point out children's footprints on the inside of the wooden roof as they reminisce.

"If you count five boards along there you can see it as clear as day," Dorothy Pihema, wife of Rev Kotene Hurae Pihema, says.

Light bulbs hang from the thin rafters which criss-cross the roof and the huge lock on the front door may well have been there since the 1800s.

The first church service was held in the building 145 years ago today but thanks to a coat of fresh cream paint on the outside and new curtains and carpet inside, the small building looks decades newer.

When Rev Pihema, 77, took over the church in 2005, birds had made their nests in the rafters and squatters had moved in.

Rev Pihema cleaned up the church, replaced broken weatherboards, laid new carpet, hung curtains and re-painted the outside, but despite his hard work the congregation has remained a fraction of what it once was.

The monthly service attracts anywhere from six to 20 people - but he is not bothered.

"I'm happy with the church. I'm happy with the number of people. If there's only two or three people the service still goes on," he said.

The original congregation battled for more than 30 years to get the church built and the reverend and his wife are prepared to take on many more battles.

"The church will continue. Somebody will come to keep it running," Mrs Pihema, 81, says.

The Maketu community first dreamed of building a church in the 1830s but construction did not start until 1868.

The first delay came during the Maori Land Wars when whanau in Taranaki asked the Maketu community for help fighting off the British.

"Prior to the men leaving they had stacked all the timber out here ready to help build the church," Rev Pihema says. "When they got back, somebody had taken all the timber."

The construction of the church was delayed another 20 years when the local chief led his men down to the estuary to collect boulders to use as the foundation of the church, only to be confronted by another local chief and told they could not take the rocks.

"A battle started. It went on for 20 years. It wasn't until he died that we could pick the stones up," Rev Pihema said.

After much delay, Rev Seymour Spencer ran the first service in the church on March 21, 1869.

The Bible given to Maketu's first local Anglican minister, Ihaia Te Ahau, when he finished his training in 1858.
The Bible given to Maketu's first local Anglican minister, Ihaia Te Ahau, when he finished his training in 1858.

The organ he brought with him when he migrated to New Zealand remains in the building to this day.

In 1965 the church was lifted up and placed on to a block foundation after the Te Puke Rotary Club had been asked for assistance.

Ruby Te Pae Clarke, 86, grew up attending Sunday school at the church, playing the organ while her grandmother mowed the lawns, but says a lot had changed when she returned to her home town about 18 years ago.

"There's nobody coming to church. It's heartbreaking. We only come once a month. It's horrible. I used to come every Sunday but it's all changed. Sometimes there's only about five of us. There's no Sunday school," she says.

"Have you ever noticed that we are slowly ignoring the Lord? We're going to pay for that. It's sad." Although the situation may seem dire, Mrs Clarke said she is confident Reverend and Mrs Pihema will ensure the church goes on.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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