Church closes after 100 years

By Peter de Graaf

A Russell congregation has sung its last hymn, heard its last sermon and knelt for its final prayer - almost 100 years to the day since its church opened.

Russell Methodist Church, at the corner of York and Wellington St, held a combined centennial celebration and closing service on Sunday, April 21. The decision to close came after the regular congregation dropped to just two church-goers, Ed and Shirley James, in June last year.

Mr James said the church operated under the auspices of the Bay of Islands Uniting Parish with "very dedicated" lay preachers travelling to Russell to conduct the 11am service after finishing their services across the water in Paihia.

Numbers had fallen due to people moving away or "departing this earthly realm". The official closure was a sad event, but also a fitting farewell thanks to a great deal of planning and work, he said.

The service was led by chairwoman Heather McNeill with the Rev Rex Nathan, President of the New Zealand Methodist Church, delivering the sermon. Members from the Paihia and Russell congregations took part in the service with Bible readings, observations and anecdotes.

The church's powerful old American organ sounded like new in the hands of Margaret Lange. The singing was enthusiastic and the final hymn, Guide me, oh, Thou Great Jehovah (sung to the Welsh tune Cwm Rhondda), was a rousing send-off, Mr James said.

Finally the door was symbolically locked for the last time, using the same key that first unlocked it 100 years earlier almost to the day.

"All in all, it was quite a moving, and for some perhaps, emotional service. Shirley and I certainly miss the fellowship," Mr James said.

"I personally do not recall ever seeing white doves in Russell, but after the service one was perched on a power line outside. Then it flew and dived down, narrowly missing the head of Dave Mullan, our parish council secretary. While I hesitate to attach any spiritual significance to the event, it was a rather odd coincidence."

Mr Mullan said the building was owned by the Methodist Church of New Zealand, which was likely to put it up for tender or put it on the market. The parish would not limit future use of the building but hoped it would remain in Russell.

With council charges and the soaring cost of insurance following the Christchurch earthquakes, it had become an expensive building to maintain, Mr Mullan said. Services would continue at the Uniting Church on Kings Rd, Paihia.

Although better known as the South Pacific headquarters for the Catholic Bishop Pompallier and as the site of New Zealand's oldest surviving Anglican church, Russell has also been home to a Wesleyan congregation since the 1870s. The church opened in 1913. In the 1970s it became an ecumenical Uniting Church.


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