The Kaipara Tardis
I think that my early fascination with the Tardis has left me with a taste for modestly sized, functional buildings over architectural extravaganzas. I can't stand showy architects like Gaudi and Carey Davies' hero Hundertwasser, and I find the simple but comfortable state houses which John A Lee and his successors gave to suburbs like Point Chevalier and Te Atatu and hydro towns like Mangakino in the '40s and '50s more exciting than the frilly art deco buildings that have made Napier famous, or the pretentious Georgian mansions of Auckland's leafier suburbs. I always have the sense that a relatively simple building might disguise something elaborate and mysterious.
The small, rather plain church which stands a little unsteadily amidst totara trees and cows beside the road that connects the Kaipara hamlets of Matakohe and Ruawai offers an object lesson in how an austere facade can hide a rich and strange interior. From the outside, the building resembles one of the Anglican or Methodist chapels which were distributed over wide areas of the Northland countryside in the nineteenth century, as Protestant missionaries competed with Papists, Maori prophets and each other in their attempts to acquire and retain souls. On the inside, though, the little building is filled with brightly-painted depictions of the cosmos of the Ratana Church, that semi-heretical faith founded in the Whanganui district in the early '20s by a Maori farmer whose coastal property received a series of visits from whales and angels. The flowering suns and curved horizons give the interior of the little building a peculiar spaciousness, and in the right weather the blue and purple brushstrokes of Ratana's devotees seem to flow directly into the pieces of sky which the windows display. Ratana temples are famous for their Romanesque architecture and for the stars cupped in crescent moons which are normally attached to their pillars, but the little building on the road to Ruawai has no such features, and thus gives no clue about what it contains.
I first visited the church on the way to Ruawai after seeing it in the collection of photos the dying Robin Morrison produced during his last road trip through Nortland. Nearly a decade after Morrison's death, Jack Ross published an image of the outside of the building on the cover of an issue of the literary journal brief dedicated to the life and work of a certain Kendrick Smithyman.
Inspired perhaps by the connection to one of his favourite poets, Hamish Dewe produced a laconic and yet mysterious poem about the building. In 'Arepa. Omega', a piece which I discussed here last year, Hamish depicts the rather dilapidated Ratana temple as a portal which can transport him from the backblocks of Northland to the very different environment of a twenty-first century Chinese city. Perhaps Hamish was thinking of Doctor Who's Tardis when he wrote his poem.
After I discussed Hamish's poem and the building which inspired it on this blog, a number of commenters provided information about the mysterious structure on the road to Ruawai, and about the coming of the Ratana faith to the Kaipara. I learned about the long reign of William Gittos, an Anglophile and fervent opponent of Maori nationalism, over the Methodist church in the south Kaipara in the late nineteenth century, and about the role Gittos played in stopping the Uri o Hau people in the area from throwing in their lot with the Maori King Movement during the Waikato War and its smouldering aftermath. Gittos' bigoted brand of religion was eventually cast off by Te Uri o Hau in favour of the Maori nationalist faith which Wiremu Ratana brought with him on a journey to the Kaipara in 1921.
The new converts needed places to worship, and the Methodist chapel near Ruawai was therefore converted to a Ratana temple sometime in the early '20s. That was the view I put forward in my blog post about Gittos, anyway.
It now seems, though, that the history of the building that became a Ratana temple is more complicated than I had reckoned. In a comment he left a few days ago under my post on Gittos, someone named Sebastian offers a quite different version of the history of the structure:
[T]his church...started life as a place of Anglican worship for a group of Te Rarawa, who had migrated to Parirau to find work in the nearby gumfields and forests.
Known as Zion Church, it was the second Anglican church built on this site on Otuhianga Road and its dedication in April 1889 is well documented in the Anglican Church Gazette for May 1889:
'Parirau, Kaipara. – New Maori Church. –It is several years ago that the Maories of Parirauewha, Kaipara, commenced collecting funds wherewith to build a new church, their old one having become dilapidated. They are a colony of the Rarawa tribe from Whangape, Herekino, and Ahipara, and as they had to purchase the land they occupy from the European settlers, they have had a hard struggle to acquire the means for attaining their object. By steady exertion they have succeeded, and are now in possession of a house of prayer of which no English community need be ashamed. The building will accommodate 130 worshippers, and is complete in every detail. The cost, with furniture, was £198, and on the evening of the opening day, not only were all the liabilities defrayed, but there was a small balance to credit...'
The church served the Anglican congregation at Parirau until the 1930s when it was transferred to the Ratana congregation.
It is currently closed for restoration and the local restoration committee is seeking funds for this work. Donations would be gratefully received by:
Zion Church Restoration Committee
110 Tana Rd
RD 2 Matakohe 0594
I apologise to the Zion Church Restoration Committee for getting the history of their building wrong. I'm delighted to hear that they are working to restore the little church, which seemed, when I visited it last year, to be in very poor condition. I hope, though, that the committee's workers won't efface the Ratana symbolism in the interior of the building. Can any of this blog's Kaipara readers report on the progress of the restoration work?