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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 2 (May 1, 1936)

St. David's Memorial Church— — Unique — Architectural — Features

page 46

St. David's Memorial Church—

(Photo., Havelock Williams, Timaru.) St. David's Memorial Church, at Cave.

(Photo., Havelock Williams, Timaru.)
St. David's Memorial Church, at Cave.

Only in the world's great cities may classical buildings be seen that attract sight-seers from the ends of the earth; but New Zealand can now claim to possess a building that is attracting increasing numbers of people within her own borders and many a visitor from overseas. But this building is not in any of her cities—not even in a village, but in the “way back,” where it stands in all its artistic and romantic beauty, placed there as a monument. It is therefore, surely, unique.

This building is St. David's Memorial Church, situated on the crest of a low hill some twenty miles from Timaru. Remarkable alike, as stated, with regard to the site, but more so for its architecture, the mode and materials of its construction, and, above all, shall we say, the conception and purpose it is designed to serve.

It is safe to say that in hardly one feature is this building like any other church of which the writer has knowledge. No other combines within or without its walls so much that is romantic, poetic, chaste—the expression of a noble sentiment and a gracious memory. That may sound a big claim, for a building situate away in the “out-back” of Canterbury, but as proof of its justification, the New Zealand Institute of Architects awarded the gold medal for 1934 for the building of best design in New Zealand since 1930 to the architect for the building, Mr. H. W. Hall, of Timaru.

Quite appropriately this church might be termed the “Cathedral in the Wilderness” (although, be it noted, the surrounding country possesses scenery both varied and beautiful). But, excepting the Railway siding buildings and a few dwellings in the valley below, there is no township within miles.

The building is on the property of T. D. Burnett, Esq., and built by him primarily in memory of his parents, Andrew and Catherine Burnett, who settled in the Mackenzie Country when that frigid region was still in its pristine wildness; and secondly, to commemorate also, the noble band of pioneer run-holders who took up runs in the Mackenzie and other South Canterbury areas enfolded by the snowclad Southern Alps. On the walls of the Church are the names of the original run-holders—some forty-odd—with name of the run, its area, and date of occupation. But interesting as such records undoubtedly are, it is when we come to the architectural design, variety of detail, and the rare artistry of its execution, that the beholder is filled with the wonder of the unexpected; and spell-bound by the accumulated effects of this chaste memorial, born of a memory that truly carries the heat and colour of its birthplace—the heart of the one to whom the whole edifice owes its being.

The Church is built of boulders gathered from the nearby hills (what a labour?) all carefully selected for size, colour and texture, the boulders being split to show the colour. The roof is of split slates from Westmoreland—probably the finest obtainable. The spouting and downpipes are of thick copper.

The porch is paved with smaller stones, but the steps of bigger ones; and here one may halt to gaze on the rugged mountains that lie behind. When the worshipper leaves the Church there is cover overhead, but no glass to obscure the view, which may be of sheep in the far distance. On a slab of Timaru blue stone is inscribed these words:—

“This porch is erected to the Glory of God, and in memory of the sheepmen, shepherds, bullock-drivers, shearers, station hands—who pioneered the back country of the Province between the years 1855 and 1895.”

The light above in the porch is the actual masthead light of a ship that entered Timaru roadstead before there were any harbour works, and the lamp sheds rays of electric light generated in the far Highlands.

The Interior.

The great principals are rough forest giants. They are ironbark, whilst the rafters are of jarrah, all rough adzed, with very few bolts securing the timbers, as they are mostly pegged, and nowhere is iron visible, so that the acoustic properties might be as perfect as possible. The walls are plastered, but it is rough thrown. The floor is altogether something apart. It has two feet of shingle ballast, with four inches of concrete, whilst on top-of these are inlaid blocks of totara, 9 in. by 3 in. by 2 in. on bitumen paint—the surface finished with a dual polish, the colour contrasting with the: page 47 grey of the walls and windows, and throwing back the dark brown of the ceiling, which is similarly coloured. The seats, solid and massive, are of red beech, also rough adzed, and backs and ends all pegged.

The pulpit is probably the most original ever erected. It is also built of boulders brought from Mount Cook station, and were the hearthstones of the first habitation of Andrew and Catherine Burnett—a V-shaped hut.

The top of the pulpit and the border are rare works of art amidst the primeval of Nature. The wood is portion of a prehistoric forest. This beautiful piece of totara (grown on the Cave Downs) and drooping to the Bible rest of mountain-ribbon wood and mountain lily, shows a finish of the polisher's art which experts regard as mahogany. The boulder work of the pulpit and the polish of its top certainly show the work of a master hand.

The Font is another most inspiring conception. Certainly, nothing so absolutely unique could be imagined. The base is a huge boulder of gray whacke brought from the Jolly River gorge, weighing about four hundred weight, and was previously used in the building of a musterer's hut. Above the boulder is placed the great hub of a bullock dray in which the pioneers first travelled into the Tasman Valley. The crowning piece of the Font is of sandstone and was used by the fore-bears of the Burnetts in Scotland, as the mortar in which they ground the oats and barley.

Suspended from the centre of the Nave is an electrolier, quite as original in design as the other parts. It is composed of wrought iron, and the links of its chain are also hand wrought with no marks of a file to be seen. It carries seven electric candles. The porch, choir, and vestry are also lit with electricity, and the Nave by the same power. All the electric switch covers are hammered out of wrought iron.

There are fourteen memorial windows of medieval grisaille; twelve depict the Twelve Apostles, and each quite distinctive, and the other two the pioneer women of the Mackenzie Country—all works of the highest or-der. These windows are Norman in design, surmounted by Tudor arches. The inscriptions on the Mackenzie windows read—

“To the Glory of God, and in honour and in memory of the pioneer women of the Mackenzie Country who, through arctic winters and in the wilderness, maintained their homes and kept the faith, these windows are dedicated.”

The arch over the pulpit is built of limestone quarried from the hillside in Mona Vale. The keystone was originally cut for the Christchurch Cathedral. The ceiling is of jarrah and is pegged, in order that the acoustic properties might not be affected. The floor of the Choir is paved with small boulders in keeping with the boulders of the pulpit.

The chief characteristics here are the memorial windows in the Eastern gable. The first is that of Ruth, the Moabitess, who spoke the finest love declaration in all literature (that is the opinion of the writer, at all events), in making answer to her mother-in-law, Naomi who, resolving to return to her own country of Bethlehem-Judah, besought her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to remain behind with her own people. A part only of her declaration is given:—

“Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge.”

In the second window, the central figure is that of Christ, the “Good Shepherd”: underneath being the words:—

“The Lord is my Shepherd.”

The third represents David, the Shepherd King, with the words:—

(Photo Havelock Williams.) An interior view of St. David's Memorial Church.

(Photo Havelock Williams.)
An interior view of St. David's Memorial Church.

“The Lord is my Shepherd.”

On a brass tablet is the inscription:—

“This Church is erected to the Glory of God, and in loving remembrance of Andrew and Catherine Burnett, who took up the Mount Cook sheep run, May, 1864, and in the wilderness founded a home.”

But all that is attempted of description fails to convey the thrill that this memorial inspires—this noble shrine, beautiful in its rugged simplicity, in its strength and variety of conception and master workmanship, makes powerful appeal to the mind of every beholder who can react to such wealth of love and veneration so bountifully expressed.