402 South Road (New Plymouth-Okato, State Highway 45) And Waireka Road East, Omata
Historical Significance or Value
The history of St John’s reflects the settling of Omata and the impact of the New Zealand Wars in the area. The first St John’s was built soon after Pakeha settlers arrived in the area in 1848, and was the first Anglican church built in rural Taranaki. During the wars services were held at the Omata Stockade for the safety of the congregation. All buildings in Omata, except three churches, were destroyed during the New Zealand Wars. The new Omata village was rebuilt a little closer to New Plymouth and the present St John’s was also built there – being opened in 1875. St John the Evangelist Church has historical significance for Omata and Taranaki.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
The aesthetic value of St John the Evangelist Church is enhanced by its rural setting. Country churches are visually appealing because their presence in the landscape is not overstated due to their modest scale, but they provide a point of reference in the landscape. Although it has minimal external decoration, its contrasting paint scheme, entry door and simple cross above the door, contribute to its aesthetic appeal. St John’s is beautiful in its proportions, simplicity and repetition of gables and gothic window arches. The building is located on a rise and is a focal point of the countryside south of New Plymouth and has aesthetic significance.
Architectural Significance or Value
St John the Evangelist Church has architectural value as a characteristic late nineteenth century proponent of the Gothic Revival style of church architecture which was adapted to New Zealand requirement and the materials locally available, and in doing so became a vernacular style. Typical rural examples of these churches in New Zealand are characterised by their modest size, simple but graceful design, and timber construction, all of which describe St John the Evangelist Church.
Cultural Significance or Value
St John the Evangelist Church is located in an area of importance to Taranaki Iwi, and which saw numerous interactions between Maori and the Crown during the years of European settlement.
Social Significance or Value
Because of its rural location St John the Evangelist Church was a socially significant building for the community, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through its services and Sunday School for children it provided occasions where the community could meet and interact. Fund-raising activities for the church, such as fairs, have also provided social occasions for the community. The location of the First World War memorial outside the church gates links it with the church - for example, when the memorial was re-erected in 1992 after being damaged, the blessing was performed by the Anglican Archdeacon of Taranaki. The memorial has provided a focal point for local commemorations. The church also records the names of those from the area who served in both World Wars.
Spiritual Significance or Value
Since its construction St John the Evangelist Church has been the scene of innumerable Anglican religious services, marriages, funerals, baptisms and other events, and therefore has been directly associated with the spiritual lives of hundreds of local residents. It was also a place of Anglican religious education for generations of local children, housing a Sunday school until the 1950s. This makes it of considerable local spiritual importance.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
St John the Evangelist Church is representative of the concurrent spread of European settlement and the Anglican faith in New Zealand. Slower transport and poor road conditions in the nineteenth century made Omata a more remote location than it is today. The church is an example of small timber churches seen in many parts of the country, which contribute to the character of rural New Zealand. Unlike some similar churches which have been converted to other uses, St John’s still functions as a church.
The church also tells of the impact of the New Zealand Wars on the settlement of Omata. As the township was largely destroyed during the fighting, the settlement was rebuilt closer to New Plymouth. The present St John the Evangelist Church, replacing an older building, was constructed at this new site.
(d) The importance of the place to tangata whenua
St John’s has significant cultural value to the descendants of Taranaki Iwi. The location of the Church lies between three Taranaki Iwi areas of interest: Te Ngahoro; Nga Turi in the north; and Opotikitaua across the valley. This area was in the heart of a stronghold of early Taranaki Iwi Maori settlement. The area in between Omata and Waireka particularly was a popular vantage point and became a hot spot for Crown and Maori interaction.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place
As a church since 1875, St John’s has been attended by hundreds of local people and therefore many have close personal and family connections with the building. It is also a local landmark and the combination of these factors has meant that at times when the building’s physical integrity has been in question the community has rallied around it through various fund-raising efforts to assure its continuance. This high community esteem for St John the Evangelist Church has also been demonstrated by a full attendance at its reopening in 2003 after refurbishment.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place
The location of the First World War memorial in front of the church gates, along with two ‘roll of honour’ boards inside the church commemorating those who served in both World Wars, has given St John’s a close association with local war commemorations. There are also three plaques in the church commemorating local residents.
Summary of Significance or Values
This place was assessed against, and found to qualify under the following criteria: a, d, e, and h.
It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category 2 historic place.
The Taranaki region is thought to have been settled by Maori at least 700 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that pa were being built in the area which surrounds Mount Taranaki, as early as the fifteenth century. A number of iwi hold mana whenua in the west coast of the region, including Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga, Te Atiawa and Taranaki.
Tribes from Waikato raided Taranaki and Whanganui in the late 18th century, and warfare continued until the late 1830s. Also in the early 19th century, other tribes from the north raided Taranaki, armed with muskets, and enslaved some and took them north. The Ngāti Toa tribe of Kāwhia was also under pressure from Waikato tribes, and they migrated to the Kapiti coast and Wellington area around 1822–1824. On passing through the Taranaki region they were joined by some people of the Te Atiawa, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama tribes. These upheavals and the depopulation of the area altered the balance of power. Between 1834 and 1837 Taranaki iwi defeated Waikato iwi in three battles in the area and finally a sacred peace known as ‘Hou-hou-rongo’ was negotiated.
European whalers and trading vessels initially arrived along the Taranaki coast in the first half of the nineteenth century. Organised colonial settlement at Taranaki was first instituted by the Plymouth Company in 1839–1840, who arranged to purchase land from the New Zealand Company for the settlement of immigrants from Devon and Cornwall, although this purchase would be much disputed in the future. The site of the township was chosen and laid out by Chief Surveyor Frederic Carrington in February 1841, and settler ships arrived from England from March 1841 onwards. By this time the Plymouth Company had fallen into financial difficulties, and was formally merged with the New Zealand Company in May 1841. Settler ships continued to arrive, but disputes over the Crown’s role in transferring land out of Maori ownership, and between tangata whenua over who had the authority to transfer land were already evident, affecting all involved.
The series of prolonged conflicts during the 1860s, now commonly known as the New Zealand Wars, were waged between the Crown and Maori in response to Maori uprising against the enforced alienation of their land. These caused widespread deprivation, suffering and loss of life and land for iwi, resulting in the heavy confiscation of tribal land taken by the Crown under the Land Settlement Act of 1863.
The conflicts also affected the fledgling European settler communities, with many residents of outlying areas abandoning their homes and taking refuge in the urban centre of New Plymouth, or leaving the region altogether for a time. As the Waitangi Tribunal report stated, although the period 1860 to 1869 has been given for the Taranaki fighting, conflict was apparent from 1841, and it continued after 1869 – military action on the Government’s part did not end until the invasion of Parihaka in 1881.
Omata is about seven kilometres south of New Plymouth and is within Taranaki Iwi rohe. The location of the Church lies between three Taranaki Iwi areas of interest: Te Ngahoro; Nga Turi in the north; and Opotikitaua across the valley. This area was in the heart of a stronghold of early Taranaki Iwi Maori settlement. The area in between Omata and Waireka particularly was a popular vantage point and became a hotspot for interaction between the Crown and Maori.
The 12,000 acre Omata block was bought from Taranaki hapu for £400 in 1847. These purchases failed to fully reserve a tenth of the land for native purposes, and the land that was reserved for Maori remained under the ownership of the Crown for future disposal. The two reserves of 381 acres were granted to Maori were Ratapihipihi and Ruataku. The block was opened for purchase in 1848. Among the early Pakeha settlers were the artists John Gully and Georgina Hetley. Gully is best known for his landscapes mainly in watercolour; but in Omata he was at first a farmer and from 1854 a storekeeper, however bankruptcy forced the family to move into New Plymouth in 1858. Georgina Hetley (nee McKellar) is best known for her book on the native flowers of New Zealand – she lived with her mother and siblings at Omata and married in the local church in 1856, but was widowed within a year and moved back to her mother’s house. She noted: 'The town of New Plymouth lay far away in the distance, but we could not see it, it was hidden by the smoke of the burning ’bush’.'
The first St John’s church was built in 1848/9 in Omata Road (now called Waireka Road West) and had a raupo thatched roof. It is said to be the first Anglican church built in rural Taranaki. In 1855/6 the church was moved to another site further along Omata Road (now Waireka Road East). This site was donated by a prominent Anglican layman and was more conveniently located for the people of Omata and for the Minister, Rev. George Bayley, being opposite his house. In 1859, Rev. Henry Brown arrived from England with his wife and nine of their children and began a ministry of 34 years in the area. ‘Parson Brown’, as he was known, had a farm in the area, learnt Te Reo Maori and was known for his generosity. He sometimes conducted up to five services on Sundays; consequently his services were said to be short as he often had another to go to.
By 1860, Omata had three churches – a Primitive Methodist and two Anglican. The Anglican churches were St John’s on the lowland, and St Bride’s located in hill country. St Bride’s was opened on January 6 1860, but by the end of March the settlers were abandoning their houses for the Omata stockade, New Plymouth, or further afield, as the fighting that began the New Zealand Wars spread. The Omata Stockade (NZAA site P19/35) had been recently built on an older Maori site, called Ngaturi. A party of Maori passed over Parson Brown’s land and according to the children’s governess: ‘They encountered one of our men at work in the clearing; on finding that he was working for ‘Brown’, they shook hands with him and passed quietly on. I think now, we shall not be molested as they all respect the Missionaries, and Mr Brown has been very kind to some of their people.’ The notable battle of Waireka took place at Omata on 28 March 1860. By the end of the wars the only buildings left standing in Omata were the three churches, although they had suffered some damage.
It was decided to rebuild Omata village closer to New Plymouth because of the desire for safety. Church services had been held at the Omata Stockade during the conflicts and continued to be until the early 1870s, when the stockade’s impending demolition forced the community to consider rebuilding St John’s at the new town site. Fundraising efforts were made in 1873, including a ladies ‘Fancy Fair’, which raised £130. On 9 August 1873 the old Omata church was to be auctioned in New Plymouth by Mr Yems. Some older sources of information have suggested the old St John’s church may have been re-erected in 1875 on the new site, but this is not the case. Tenders for the erection of a new church were called for on 17 June 1874, the plans being available for inspection at Mr G Robinson’s residence.
The church was opened on 14 February 1875 with Archdeacon Govett conducting the service. The Taranaki Herald reported at length on the opening, including: ‘The first church … was homely; but it suited the circumstances of the settlers. But that had gone, and a more seemly building had been erected … The funds at the disposal of the Committee being limited, carving and other embellishments had to be dispensed with; but, nevertheless, the church is an ornament to the district’.
The new church was designed by George Robinson (1796–1876), builder of the first section of St Mary’s Anglican Church in New Plymouth, and supervisor of its Frederick Thatcher-designed second and third additions. The builder of St John’s was Thomas Penwarden (ca. 1846–1921). The first site of the old St John’s Church is now known as the Waireka Historic Cemetery (NZAA site P19/382).
Historian Geoffrey Thornton states that small country churches ‘made a statement that religious belief was important to country folk. Moreover, the country church often became the focus for community activity well before the advent of the community hall.’ Occasions such as church openings and services were important social gatherings, particularly for women who may not have had the same opportunities to meet as many of the men.
In 1894 an anonymous report in the Taranaki Herald noted the church was ‘fast going to decay. It presents a most dilapidated appearance’. The writer was possibly unaware that the church committee had already let a contract for repairs to be carried out; however in June that year a strong wind knocked the church over. The building was re-erected and opened again in September. However, the damage to the liturgical east end was too great and the re-erected church was considerably smaller. When first built, the newspaper report said the church was 40 feet long by 15 feet wide (12.2 metres x 4.6 metres); it is now 26 feet long (7.9 metres). Seating capacity was reduced from about 100 to around 50.
In 1906 a small sanctuary (2.75 metres x 1.56 metres) was added off the liturgical east end of the church; although it has a matching gable roof, the height is lower than the roofline for the nave of the church. At the same time, the whole church was lined with diagonally-laid oiled rimu tongue-and-groove panelling, and the exterior was painted. A small belfry was also added over the west gable.
Following the First World War a framed roll of honour was put in the church, with the names of 60 men and one woman (a nurse) who had served from the district; 11 had died. About 1920 a war memorial obelisk was erected outside the gates of the church; the unveiling was attended by a large crowd as can be seen in photographs from the time. This site created a potential access problem for the church, but they were granted a lease in perpetuity giving legal access to their gates. In 1940 the church was repiled with concrete piles. Following the Second World War, two further panels were added to the church with the names of 38 men from the area, four of whom had died in the war. When the war memorial obelisk was re-erected in 1992 after being damaged in a traffic accident, the blessing was performed by the Anglican Archdeacon of Taranaki.
By the 1950s the St John’s Sunday School was meeting in the Omata School and St Bride’s Church had closed. The St Bride’s altar, made in 1888, and lectern were given to St John’s. In 1956 parish boundaries were reorganised and St John’s was transferred from St Mary’s, New Plymouth, to St Chad’s, West New Plymouth and since then the vicar has served both St John’s and St Chad’s. The belfry was removed in 1969 when repairs were needed to the roof, and was replaced in the period between 1975 and 1980, when other repairs were also made. When the church gates were stolen in 1999 a local businessman donated their replacement. In 2003 a comprehensive upgrade of the building was undertaken. This included repiling and replacing timber where necessary, treating the roof with mouldicide, adding drainage, and replacing the vestry entry door with a recycled one of an appropriate age and style. The church was full (47 people) when it re-opened on 12 October 2003 and it continues to be used for services once a month.
Omata is located about seven kilometres south of New Plymouth, today on State Highway 45, only a few kilometres from Port Taranaki. Sited on a rise on a triangular section, St John’s Church is a prominent landmark for people travelling south from New Plymouth; although it is now somewhat overshadowed by two large trees. Unlike some country churches of a similar era it does not have a graveyard surrounding it - the cemetery remained at the location of the first St John’s, and is now the Waireka Historic Cemetery.
The church designer, George Robinson, was familiar with the church designs favoured by the Cambridge Camden Society (or Ecclesiologists) through working with Frederick Thatcher’s designs for St Mary’s Church, New Plymouth. St John’s gables are 55 degree angles rather than the recommended 60 degrees, but the belfry is located over the west gable, the forms are simple, and the pews are open rather than closed - all features favoured by the Ecclesiologists. The church was originally unlined, but was lined in 1906.
As with many rural colonial churches it is built of native timbers, in this case rimu and kauri predominate. Another characteristic of New Zealand’s early country churches is the limited use of exterior and interior decoration. This was mainly dictated by the limited budgets available, which meant the functionality of the building was the highest priority. This is the case with St John’s Church as there are only a few decorative features on the building, such as the cross and lintel over the entry door.
The interior decoration of the church is likewise minimal and generally only occurs in the fixtures and chattels that have been donated to the church over the years. The diagonally laid rimu lining, and the current brown and white paint scheme, do, however, give decorative interest to the interior. The interior features include the altar, the two matching altar rails (with five open Gothic arches between the lower and upper beams), 10 pews, and lectern (all these are of rimu); a white stone font, harmonium and prayer desk and chair. The chair may be the oldest piece of furniture in the church; it has wooden joints rather than metal fastenings. As well as the two Roll of Honour boards commemorating those from the area who served in both World Wars, there are also a few plaques in the church commemorating local settlers.
The church is 7.9 metres long, with a small apse or sanctuary extending another 1.6 metres at the east end. The main part of the church is 4.7 metres wide (the sanctuary is 2.75 metres wide), with an entry porch on the north-west side extending another 1.7 metres, and a vestry on the south-east extending another 2 metres. The church has a gabled roof, with the sanctuary similarly gabled, but at a lower level. The peak of the sanctuary gable reaches to the bottom of the east façade window. A small gabled belfry is positioned over the west end of the roof. The church has two Gothic lancet windows on the north and south facades (each of 10 panes), a larger, 12-pane, window at the west end and a four-pane window at the east end above the sanctuary. No window was built into the sanctuary itself.
The ceiling is supported by two trusses. The interior wall and ceiling panelling was laid diagonally - the only area to have parallel panelling rather than diagonal is the ceiling of the sanctuary, but this is not visible from most of the church. The current (2010) interior paint scheme is a chocolate brown for the walls and a white ceiling; while the exterior is white with blue trim for the door and window frames. There is no water supply at the church and therefore no toilets or sprinkler system.
The entry porch is the only area that still shows the original board and batten interior walls (the rest of the church has been lined) and kauri floor dating back to 1875. The main entry door is also original, although some of the timberwork was replaced in 1975.
Construction of the present St John’s Church
St John’s is blown over in a gale and re-erected at a smaller size
Small sanctuary is added at the east end and a belfry over the west gable; The building is lined with rimu panelling
War Memorial is erected outside the gates of St John’s
Church is repiled with concrete piles
Belfry is removed due to leaking roof underneath it
1975 - 1980
Belfry is reinstated, and other repairs are carried out
A major upgrade of the church is undertaken, including repiling and replacing timber where necessary, adding drainage, and replacing the vestry entry door with a recycled one of an appropriate age and style
Wood; concrete piles; asbestos tiles on roof
Public NZAA Number
6th June 2012
Report Written By
Vivienne Morrell and Blyss Wagstaff
Waitangi Tribunal Report, www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz
The Taranaki Report: Kaupapa Tuatahi, available at http://www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz/reports/view.asp?ReportID=3FECC540-D049-4DE6-A7F0-C26BCCDAB345, accessed 15 February 2012.
G & R Lambert. An Illustrated History of Taranaki, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1983.
'New Chapel at Mangorei', Taranaki Herald, 16 Oct 1869, p. 2.
‘Omata Fancy Fair’ 12 February 1873, p. 1;
‘Saturday, 9 August’, 6 August 1873, p. 3;
‘Tenders for the erection of a church’, 17 June 1874, p. 1;
‘The opening of the Omata Church’, 17 February 1875;
‘Omata’ , 18 April 1894;
‘Opening of the Omata Church’, 3 September 1894
Nigel Prickett, Historic Taranaki: An Archaeological Guide, GP Books, Wellington, 1990
G. Thornton, Worship in the Wilderness: Early country churches of New Zealand, Auckland, 2003
Lawn, Charles A., The pioneer land surveyors of New Zealand, New Zealand Institute of Surveyors, Wellington, 2005
Available from http://www.surveyors.org.nz/sites/all/files/parts%201_3_THE%20PIONEER%20LAND%20SURVEYORS%20OF%20NEW%20ZEALAND.pdf, accessed 15 February 2012.
A fully referenced report is available from the Central Region Office of NZHPT.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.