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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

The Churches

The Churches

During the 1890s Saturday's Star carried a directory of south Taranaki church services. The list for Sunday 19 February 1899 neatly summarised the success of the churches in establishing a worthwhile presence in Kaponga:

PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH 11—Mr Purvis; METHODIST CHURCH Palmer Road, 2.30—Mr J. Clement; WESLEYAN CHURCH 7.30—Mr Harwood.

Three of the five services were conducted by lay preachers, while the Anglicans and Catholics had clergy visiting to conduct the sacrament. Only the Wesleyans were meeting in their own building. The Catholics completed theirs next, in May 1900, the Anglicans followed in April 1901, and the Presbyterians in July 1910. This order roughly reflects the relative strengths of the denominations in the district. Not only were the Wesleyans a strong element in the founding population but, as elsewhere, they proved particularly adaptable to frontier conditions, with their strong traditions of lay involvement, lay preaching and direct personal giving. The Palmer Road ‘Methodist Church’ service was a Primitive Methodist one at Mahoe Despite their considerable strength in Taranaki the Primitives were not very significant in Kaponga's story.

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Clearly Kaponga church life suffered from these divisions, with their replication of facilities and personnel. Each denomination had to wrestle with recurrent redrawings of district boundaries and ever-changing arrangements for its clergy and lay preachers to circulate around their group of largely struggling causes. Thus in the programme for 19 February 1899 the Rev A.W.H. Compton would have been visiting (probably from Opunake) to celebrate the Anglican communion and went on to take services at Awatuna at 2.30pm and Opunake at 7.30pm; the priest conducting the Catholic mass would have come from Hawera via Manaia (for a 9am mass) and gone on to Eltham before returning to Hawera.14 The Presbyterian lay preacher, Purvis, was to be at Kapuni at 2pm and at Manaia (probably his home town) at 7.30pm. This ‘circuit’ approach to filling the pulpit was paralleled by close relations between each scatter of small congregations, so that strong contingents travelled to support any special local occasion, countering the development of any excessive localism.

Probably more than any other institution the church brought families into close friendly relations with other families further afield with whom they shared deeply valued traditions. But although most settlers coveted the reassurance of familiar traditions and old remembered surroundings they also wished to nurture their growing bonds of fellowship with neighbours from different backgrounds. So while working to create viable relationships with those of their own church in surrounding centres they also strove for local harmony and gave neighbourly support to any denominational cause struggling to get established in Kaponga. We will examine how this twofold approach, and the strong need for lay leadership, contributed to Kaponga's social life as the Wesleyans, Anglicans and Roman Catholics worked to get established.

The competing claims of community and denomination led to some ambiguity in the origins of Kaponga's first church building. In his Memories of Kaponga (1916) the Anglican Rev O.M. Stent implies that it should have been a union church. He tells how folk responded enthusiastically to a challenge put by the Wesleyan Rev Robert Young when he visited Kaponga in 1887:

The response Mr Young received far exceeded the most sanguine of expectations. A section was obtained with the money freely subscribed. Timber was forthcoming. No regard was given to the denominational question. The people had a mind to the work, and so it was that in course of time the little church—primarily intended for the use of all—was erected on the site now occupied by the present Methodist Church…. But a reaction set in, and trouble soon followed. The Building Committee, realizing that, by law, the church and property had to be vested in some trust, caused it to be assigned to the Methodist Trustees…. The inception for a Church emanated, in the first instance, from the Methodists and there is not the slightest doubt but that, as Christian men, and men of honour, they would always have given page 170 every facility for the church to be used for general purposes by every denomination. But the Anglicans and Presbyterians were by no means satisfied with this arrangement. They did not (and this was their point of view) wish for Methodist hospitality…. The church should have been, as the one at Mangatoki subsequently was, vested in Public Trust as a Union Church.

The Wesleyans had a different version. The New Zealand Methodist of 3 August 1889 reported the ‘Opening of the Kaponga Wesleyan Church, Hawera Circuit’ with the only clergy present being two Wesleyans. That the money put into the venture was predominantly Wesleyan seems likely from a report by the Yeoman's Manaia ‘Our Own’ (1/2/90):

We were favoured with a visit from the Rev P.L. Cameron last Sunday, when he preached in aid of the ‘General Church Fund’ of the Anglican Church. Those who went to hear him in the expectation of hearing some ‘straight talking’ were not disappointed, as he was very outspoken. He gave the people of the Anglican Church here a pretty good keei-hauling for being, as he called them, laggards, in regards to the progress of their Church on the coast. He spoke very highly of the pioneer work done, and the progress made by the Wesleyan Church.

In 1890 Kaponga was transferred to the Opunake Wesleyan circuit. Throughout the decade the Kaponga congregation maintained a steady programme of services, annual ‘Anniversary Tea Meetings’, annual socials and picnics, and soirées for occasions such as the welcoming and farewelling of ministers. Step by step they improved their facilities, acquiring an organ in 1891, completing the lining of the church in 1894, and erecting a vestry about 1899.15

Lacking the strong church planting and self-help traditions of the Methodists, the Anglicans lagged about a decade behind them. In 1892 the Diocese of Wellington carved the Waimate Plains Parochial District ‘west of the railway and south of the Mountain’ from the parish of Hawera. The district had neither church building nor vicarage, and the only change the first vicar brought for Kaponga was transferring worship from the Methodist church, first to the new schoolroom, then to the new town hall. It was the appearance of strong lay leadership that made it possible for the second vicar to get things moving in Kaponga. Besides its lack of church planting and self-help traditions settler Anglicanism was further hampered by its general unwillingness to respond to the leadership of other than cultured clerical gentlemen.16 It is therefore worth our while to sketch the background of the most prominent of the Kaponga pioneer lay leaders, Alfred Samuel Hobbs.*

Hobbs's father was a Royal Navy commodore, his mother the daughter of a Sydney judge. As a young man he had a varied pioneering career with sheep ‘in the interior of Otago’ and on a South Australian cattle station. In page 171 1863 he married a well-connected young Hobart woman, and till 1877 ran a Victorian cattle station, where most of their large family was born. Crossing to New Zealand in 1878, Alfred farmednear Hawera for about 15 years and became a lay reader of St Mary's, Hawera. About 1893 the family moved to a son-in-law's dairy farm on Palmer Road and he was soon playing a prominent part in getting the Anglican cause established in Kaponga.17 Alfred's acceptability as a leader included his good social class credentials, his record as a mature pioneer settler, and his long experience in church affairs. So he appears as MC of building fund socials, as a member of the building committee, and as an acceptable lay preacher enabling frequent and regular Anglican services to be offered in Kaponga. In December 1914, on the first anniversary of his death, a brass tablet memorialising Alfred and Mary Hobbs as ‘Pioneers of this Church’ was unveiled in St Mark's.

Another who began long years of work for St Mark's with service on the building committee was Allan Grace* of Rowan Road, He is an example of the modest, loyal contributor who makes little show in the public record.

Both Roman Catholicism and Presbyterianism drew strength in settler New Zealand from their respective Irish and Scottish nationalisms. The Catholics completed Kaponga's second church building in May 1990, a full decade ahead of the Presbyterians, because of their relative strengths in the settler inflow. The district's first mass was offered in 1891 in Daniel Fitzgerald's home. Later that year masses began to be offered in the schoolroom. Services were moved from the schoolroom when the town hall became available.18 A strong drive for a church building was launched in January 1899.” A social and dance for the building fund, held in the town hall on Easter Monday, had good support from south Taranaki Catholics and local citizens of other denominations:

Visitors from Opunake, Awatuna, Eltham, Stratford, Okaiawa, and Hawera were present. Holiday makers hurried back from New Plymouth and Patea so as to participate….The Rev. Father Cahill … stated that as the priest is with the people in their sorrows, he thought they should also be with them in their joys and it was a pleasant thing to see people of all denominations gather together and assist one another in the good work of building churches. (‘Our Own’, 5/4/99)

Good lay leadership helped carry the project to an early conclusion. Maurice Fitzgerald chaired the building committee and A.J. Hastie, helped by others, was MC at the socials.20