By ROSALEEN MacBRAYNE
The theft of precious heirlooms from a historic Anglican church at Omaio on the East Coast has dismayed the closeknit community.
"It is as bad as robbing graves," said Astrid Tawhai, whose brother-in-law, the Rev Koro Tawhai, is the local minister.
"It is like they have taken part of our ancestors with them. We are all absolutely devastated," she said.
Still in regular use, tiny St Patrick's Church on State Highway 35, 56km from Opotiki, was built on Tawhai family land in 1925 and is about to undergo restoration work.
Carved rimu chairs, brass candlesticks, chalices and a Bible holder disappeared while three busloads of people from the small coastal settlement were away at last month's national kapa haka festival in Auckland.
"Everything on the altar was wrapped in the altar cloth and taken in a clean sweep," said Mrs Tawhai, weeping as she spoke of how upset her husband, Aubrey, and Mr Tawhai were.
Among items stolen were memorial candle holders inscribed with the names of the brothers' grandparents, Timutimu and Mere Tawhai.
Timutimu was the first minister of the church, which is built from native timbers and sits across the road from the sea.
Services are held there every fortnight for a congregation of up to 30. The church contains only eight pews, four on each side.
Mrs Tawhai has looked down on the church from her front verandah for 38 years.
"I have never known it to be locked against the travelling public," she said. Passersby often stop to look inside or pray.
The exodus to the kapa haka festival left only a handful of residents at Omaio.
Mrs Tawhai said the burglary was discovered a few days after their return from Auckland, when the minister's daughter went to arrange flowers for the Sunday service. The two-weekly worship sessions will continue, to help "mend feelings".
"All we want is our possessions back," said Mrs Tawhai.
Constable Kevan Verry said police and the community were appalled. The items had been in the church for more than 70 years and had enormous sentimental value.
There was a high probability the stolen goods had gone from the district and might be pawned, he said.
He invited anyone with information on the theft to give it in confidence to the police in Te Kaha.
Other old churches along the picturesque coast beyond Te Kaha have had their share of upheaval.
A distinctive Norfolk pine alongside the 107-year-old Anglican Christ Church, which sits on a headland at Raukokore near Waihau Bay, was sawn down last year.
But this time it was not vandalism. The huge 65-year-old tree was diseased and threatening the stability of the kauri building.
On the other side of the road the Catholic church has not been a place of worship since the 1970s.
But locals still regard the 1932 building as sacred and were scandalised three years ago when they found out it was being used as a drying room for cannabis.
By ROSALEEN MacBRAYNE