Nestled in the heart of Putiki is a unique building. At first glance it looks like an ordinary church, but once you enter you can see that it is anything but ordinary. It is a richly ornate fusion of Maori and Pakeha architecture, religious beliefs, culture, legends and mythology. Its origins begin with a love story.

In the early 1930s, while studying for a degree at Victoria University, Henare Ngata (youngest son of the famous Sir Apirana Ngata, whose face adorns the New Zealand $50 note) met the beautiful Rora (Lorna) Metekingi. Lorna was the daughter of Maihi Rangipo and Doris Metekingi of Putiki, Whanganui. Their friendship enabled the fifth and current church to be built in Putiki.

Lorna had told Henare that Putiki did not have a church. One had been destroyed in a fire, another in a flood, another in an earthquake and one church was devastated with dry rot.
Henare suggested that perhaps his father could help, as he led a Maori arts and crafts school in Rotorua at Whakarewarewa called Te Puia. "I'll ask him ..."

Museum Notebook.
Museum Notebook.

Kaumatua (elders) from Putiki began talks with Apirana Ngata. He agreed to bring his team of tutors and student carvers to Whanganui over a two-year period.

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"We will carve the most beautiful church that you have ever seen." And they did.

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It was paid for by pennies saved by local children and their families. Four wahine (women) were sent to Wellington to learn how to weave the harakeke tukutuku patterns.They brought that knowledge back and shared it with other local weavers.

My grandmother, Maudie, was 17 years old. She wanted to help with the weaving but was told by the kuia that her job was to sing while the women wove. "Just sing, dear, and when you have finished your waiata, you can make us a nice cup of tea".

The tukutuku patterns adorn the inside walls, each panel telling its own story. Every piece of wood has been lovingly and intricately carved, even the church organ. Only the pews were left plain, a contrast to the richly decorated tapestry surrounding them. The stained glass windows throw a warm light throughout the church and give the feeling of a sense of warmth, comfort and inclusion.

Outside St Paul's Church in 2018.
Outside St Paul's Church in 2018.

St Paul's Anglican church was opened and consecrated on December 5, 1937, 96 years after the first mission was established in Putiki in 1841.

"He thought that we should get married," recalled Lady Lorna of her friend Henare Ngata. "We'd known each other as friends for some time and he thought he'd like to get married before he went away [to war]." The couple wed at Putiki on December 24 , 1940.

The carved organ inside St Paul's Church, Putiki, 2018.
The carved organ inside St Paul's Church, Putiki, 2018.

A special Christmas service will be held at St Paul's Church in Putiki on Sunday, December 22 at 5pm. Nau mai, haere mai. All are welcome.

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Guided tours of the church are available at 2pm, Wednesday to Sunday, $10 a person, book at Whanganui i-SITE, phone 06 349 0508.

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•Lisa Reweti is the public programmes presenter at Whanganui Regional Museum.