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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 11 (January 1, 1939)


The visitor who approaches Saint Mary's Church in New Plymouth for the first time, is filled with delightful surprise at finding in our young country a church breathing an atmosphere so truly saturated with reverence and tradition. The massive grey stone walls speak of strength and security, the green, oh! so green, grass covers tenderly the sleeping dead, the lich-gate speaks of old churches far away, whose Sabbath bells have tolled “Come and Worship, Come and Pray” to countless generations of English lords and villagers.

St. Mary's is a very old church, as we New Zealanders count years, for New Plymouth was one of the earliest settlements in New Zealand, being now nearly one hundred years old. The Church was built—a tiny church the first one was—in 1845, and almost every one of the seven hundred settlers gave his mite towards the work, whether in money, labour, or material, gave it lovingly and freely. Some carted stones—rough, large, grey ones, from the beach, stones that had probably been carried from the beds and banks of the lovely mountain streams which tumble rapidly down the gently sloping Mount Egmont. Some shaped the stones, others made cement, others did the carpentry, and thus, because of this loving labour, the Church opened free of debt.

A tiny church it was and, from time to time, additions have been made—the western wall, the southern, the eastern, have been removed and new portions added, but always grey stone has been used, and every one of the original stones brought from the beach has been retained, and thus each still gives its gift of beauty and strength to the whole. With so much alteration one might, not unreasonably, expect a most unharmonious result, but this is not so. The building is a true unity.

If the grey stones of St. Mary's could speak how much they could tell! In the tiny original church many settlers found refuge during the fierce and turbulent years of the Maori War, and in the church-yard where soldier-dead have lain for over seventy years, the stock of the settlers grazed in those days of very bitter fighting.

The interior of St. Mary's is interesting, apart from the beauty of stone and carved wood and stained glass. Many brass tablets tell, in dignified letters of crimson and black, of the faithful service of past parishioners. To the reader with imagination and the gift of understanding, the whole history of the district might be revealed in these shining memorial tablets. Here is one, partly in English, partly in Maori, and, reading this, one rejoices that the noble man of whom it speaks was an Englishman, doing his duty, “in that state of life to which it pleased God to call him.”

“To the memory of Robert Parris, who so conducted himself throughout a long and eventful life as to earn the respect and love of his fellow colonists and of the Maori people, in whose hearts the memory of ‘Ropata Parete'—in war their most generous enemy, in peace their truest friend—will ever be green.”

The Maori words, translated, are as follows:—

“Depart! O Chief!
Depart! O thou great one!
Depart! O thou brave!
Fallen has my green totara tree,

(Rly. Publicity photo.) Looking down on the station yards and platforms at Wellington before the departure of the Wellington-New Plymouth express.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Looking down on the station yards and platforms at Wellington before the departure of the Wellington-New Plymouth express.

Whilst I bow down in grief like the tree fern.
Thou has gone by the morning tide,
Whilst we follow by the evening tide.”

Pendant from the solid wooden pillars supporting the arches on either side of the aisle hang flags and hatchments of the regiments which took part in the Taranaki Maori War. The hatchments were designed and painted by Archdeacon Walshe, a much loved Vicar of the Church. One is to commemorate the first volunteer regiment of the British Empire to see active service, but that of probably the greatest interest to overseas visitors is the one inscribed “To the Friendly Maoris,” those who remained loyal to the pakeha in the troublous times. This shows two Maori weapons—a patupatu and a taiaha,—long powerful wooden weapons, carved, in the case of the taiaha, in the traditional manner of the Maori, and, in the case of the patupatu, ornamented with tufts of hair from the Maori dog.

Those who fought in the bitter Maori War are not the only soldiers held in remembrance at St. Mary's. A marble memorial to those who fought in the South African War rises above the green turf surrounding the grey church, and, inside, near the choir, is a Roll of Honour to those who fell in the Great War.

Laurence Binyon spoke truly when he said: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.” Here, in a far-flung outpost of page 40 our great Empire, fresh flowers always waft their fragrance upwards from a little marble slab at the foot of the white stone tablet.

Shafts of light, in mediaeval purples, wines, and blues, come from the stained glass window, and are repeated in the flags and hatchments. Elsewhere, all is grey or brown—grey of stone and brown of polished wood. Scarcely a sound from the outside world reaches through the walls. One is alone, but not solitary; sombre, but not sad. Who could be truly sad in the midst of so much that speaks of self-sacrifice and heroism, and the trinity of Faith, Hope, Charity.

Passing out of the church by the main door, one reads these moving words: “Whosoever thou art that enterest this church leave it not without one prayer to God for thyself, for those who minister, and those who worship here.” This request with its humility of spirit, and its faith in the power of prayer, is surely answered by all who enter this building where every stone and pillar tells a story.

The churchyard surrounding Saint Mary's is truly a God's Acre, such as the devotional writers of earlier generations have written of in many a tender vein. Here sleep a little band of very early settlers, and soldiers killed in the Maori War. The gentle mounds of the grass are covered by closely-cut green grass, which gives place to moss under the magnificently spreading deciduous English trees, alongside which grow some natives—a silvery-leaved crimson-flowering pohutukawa or Christmas tree, a noble puriri, a graceful rimu with its lovely pendant branches, a young totara—a tree beloved by the old-time Maori because its wood was used for making canoes—and a “tree” fern and flax bushes, in which a tui sings his lovely songs.

In this old world plot in a new world, we see and feel the links which bind together the young Dominion and her Motherland, and we read the whole history of Taranaki.

In the early days privation, lack of proper sanitation and of proper medical facilities made it a difficult task to rear very young familes. Typhoid and diphtheria were frequent. Here we notice several graves where many children of one family lie; in one case, three within a year—one of thirteen years, one of eight, and a baby of only a year.

Here lies a boy of fifteen—“Killed in action, 1860, son of Rev. Henry Bradley and Sophia Wilhelmina Brown.”

Here lie Lieut. MacNaughton, son of Sir E. MacNaughton, Bart., C. Antrim; Capt. Henry King, R.N., who in 1871 died at the ripe age of 92 years. Henry Hant and Thos. Millard (killed 1860) of H.M.S. Pelorus; ten men—each little mound with its tiny cross—killed in “the Maori trouble” (how Irish an expression!). Sapper Geo. Chubb—(alas, only 21 when killed), and an Asst. Surgeon of 68, murdered by rebel Maoris in 1863.

These and many others bore the heat and burden of the day in a strange land, far from the hedgerows and lovely garden that was their England—an England then of beauty and spaciousness, but an England whose face was rapidly changing. They sleep their last sleep in a place hallowed by the years, the loving thoughts and grateful, gracious care of those of later generations, bound closely to Mother England because of their lives and sacrifice.