Sacred Heart Church (Catholic)

Church Street And Walsh Street, Reefton

  • Sacred Heart Church (Catholic), Reefton. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 30/01/2012.
  • Sacred Heart Church (Catholic), Reefton. CC Licence 2.0 Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Mattinbgn - Wikimedia Commons. Taken By: Mattinbgn . Date: 29/11/2011.
  • Sacred Heart Church (Catholic), Reefton. Stained glass window. CC Licence 2.0 Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Jocelyn Kinghorn. Taken By: Jocelyn Kinghorn. Date: 12/04/2007.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 1689 Date Entered 14th May 2008


Extent of List Entry

Extent of registration includes the land described as Secs 381-382 and Pt Sec 383 Town of Reefton (CT NL2B/60), Pt Sec 383 Town of Reefton (CT NL2B/59), Secs 384-385 Town of Reefton (CT NL2B/61), Nelson Land District, and the building known as Sacred Heart Church (Catholic) and its fittings and fixtures and chattels (altar) thereon (Refer to map tabled at the Board meeting on 2 May 2013).

City/District Council

Buller District


West Coast Region

Legal description

Secs 381-382 and Pt Sec 383 Town of Reefton (CT NL2B/60), Pt Sec 383 Town of Reefton (CT NL2B/59), Secs 384-385 Town of Reefton (CT NL2B/61), Nelson Land District


Sacred Heart Catholic Church, built in 1878-9 on the corner of Church and Walsh Streets in Reefton, is a tangible reminder of the large and active Catholic population of Reefton during the gold mining era. One of the larger buildings belonging to nineteenth century Reefton, its historical significance is that it is an early church in Reefton town, and is a key part of a larger complex of Catholic buildings. Its social significance lies in its use as a community gathering point, and from a spiritual perspective, it represents how the large Catholic community in Reefton required a new church to worship in, as they had outgrown a smaller chapel that had been built nearby in 1873.

The building is notable for its size and prominent position amidst what was originally a neighbourhood of Catholic institutional buildings. This lofty Neo-Gothic timber church has a dominant porch at the western front elevation, and a range of tall lancet windows with stained glass. The steeply gabled nave roof is surmounted at either end by wooden crosses.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church is significant as a design of prominent architect, engineer and Catholic layman, Charles O'Neill. It is also connected to Fr John Baptist Rolland, a revered early parish priest, and an important figure in the establishment and consolidation of the Catholic Church on the West Coast.

A number of renovations have taken place on the church, notably in the 1930s when a number of changes were made to the interior, and the roof was replaced with corrugated iron. Further changes were made in the 1960s on the interior to accommodate the liturgical innovations of Vatican Two, and at this time the exterior of the building was re-clad with Fibrolite tiles.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Sacred Heart Catholic Church has historical value or significance as an early church in Reefton town, and is part of a larger complex of Catholic buildings. Built within seven years of the establishment of Reefton, and to replace a smaller building (built in 1873), it reflects the rapid growth of mining settlements on the West Coast during the latter half of the nineteenth century and in particular the influx of Catholic miners and their families to the coast. The ease with which the money was raised to build the church also reflects the amount of wealth in these relatively new communities. It also reflects the role of the Marist Order on the West Coast.


This place has architectural significance or value as a design of architect, engineer and surveyor Charles O'Neill, a prominent Catholic layperson. It is a relatively simple example of a Neo-Gothic designed church.


This place has social significance or value as an important community gathering point. Built to have seating capacity of 500, in its early decades it was often it was full to capacity. Today the church is still considered important to the Reefton community although there continues to be a decline in parishioners.


The Sacred Heart Catholic Church has been a place of worship for over 125 years and remains

Category of historic place (section 23(2)): This place was assigned a category status having regard to the following criteria: a, b, e, f, g, h and k

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

Sacred Heart Catholic Church reflects the influx of miners to settlement on the West Coast during the nineteenth century, many of whom were Catholic. In this, it is a representative aspect of New Zealand's religious and industrial history.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

This place has architectural significance or value as a design of architect, engineer and surveyor Charles O'Neill, a prominent Catholic layperson. It is also connected to Fr Jean Baptist Rolland, a revered early parish priest, and an important figure in the establishment and consolidation of the Catholic Church on the West Coast.

(e)The community association with, or public esteem for, the place:

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church has been held in high regard and continues to be used as a place of worship. Especially in its early days, the church was often full to capacity which is a measure of the number of Catholics living in the area and going to mass.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church provides the potential for public education about the development of the town of Reefton, the importance of Catholicism for part of its community, the place of the church within a wider complex of Catholic institutional buildings, and to a certain degree the effects of the Murchison and Inangahua earthquakes on Reefton township.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:

Although relatively simple in its neo-Gothic design, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church is notable for its scale and for its collection of stained glass windows produced by the German firm F X Zettler in Munich, an internationally renowned stained glass firm.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place:

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church symbolises the place of Catholic worship within the history of the mining town of Reefton.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church is part of the NZHPT registered Reefton Historic Area (record number 7050). This historic area comprises: Penington House and Fountain, the School of Mines and the Masonic Lodge on Shiel Street; the Oddfellows Hall, the Courthouse and the Surveyors' House on Bridge Street; the Sisters of Mercy Convent [although recently destroyed], the Sacred Heart Church and St Stephens Anglican Church on Church Street and the War Memorial on Buller Street. In the context of Catholic institutional buildings, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church is a survivor of what was a wider historical and cultural Catholic complex that included the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy (1897, destroyed by fire in September 2007) and the Sacred Heart Catholic School (1891, replaced 1965) and Presbytery (1885, replaced 1981).

Category: Category II

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church has historical, spiritual and cultural heritage significance and as one of the larger buildings in Reefton, is a notable landmark surviving from the nineteenth century mining days.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

O'Neill, Charles

Charles Gordon O'Neill (1828-1900) was born in Glasgow, studied engineering and mechanics at the University of Glasgow, and served for 14 years as assistant superintendent of the city's public works. O'Neil emigrated to Otago in 1864, where he was appointed a surveyor, then southern district engineer, for Otago Province. In 1868 he moved to Thames, where he was promoted to the position of provincial engineer and chief surveyor in 1869. From 1866-70, O'Neil served as Member of the House of Representatives for Otago Goldfields, and from 1871-75 represented Thames. In 1876, O'Neil moved to Wellington, where in 1878 he opened the first steam street tramway in the Southern Hemisphere. In 1879 he designed buildings for the Kaiwharawhara Magazine in the Ngaio Gorge (Register No. 7215, Category II).

A committed Catholic layman, O'Neill first joined the charitable Society of St Vincent de Paul in Glasgow in about 1850. In 1860 he was elected President of the Western District Region of Scotland, and a member of the Society's Council General in Paris. After emigration to New Zealand, O'Neil founded the first Conference of the Society in this country, in Wellington in 1876. From 1880 O'Neil lived in Sydney, where he continued to practise as an engineer and architect. In 1881 he founded in that city the first Conference of St Vincent de Paul in Australia. Within a decade he had founded a further 20 Conferences throughout New South Wales. Although O'Neil resigned his offices with the Society in 1891 because of financial embarrassment, he continued to be active in its work amongst the poor until his death. O'Neil is today regarded as the founder of the Society in Australia.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Michael King, in his book God's Farthest Outpost - A History of Catholics in New Zealand, discusses the demographic and cultural consequences of the discovery of gold in the 1860s and the intensive immigration programmes of the 1870s that transformed the Catholic Church in New Zealand. Mining men brought out wives, partners and children, resulting in a proper community that needed schools and permanent churches. Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Reefton was created as a result of the influx of Catholic gold miners and their families in Reefton.

The Inangahua district, of which Reefton forms part, was first prospected in 1866 during the first wave of alluvial gold mining on the West Coast. Settlement did not take off however until 1870, when gold-bearing quartz reefs were located in the Murray Creek system in the Inangahua Gorge. Further quartz reef discoveries quickly followed, allowing for the development of a stable and prosperous gold mining industry in the district. In the wake of these discoveries, a number of service and distribution settlements grew up. Chief among them was Reefton, founded in 1871 on a flat at the Inangahua Gorge mouth. The new town grew rapidly, and by 1873 it could boast a newspaper, two banks, and telegraphic communication with Westport and Greymouth.

In common with other raw goldfields settlements, Reefton attracted a large Catholic community. At first Reefton's Catholics were attended by priests from Ahaura or Greymouth, who paid occasional visits to the district. In 1873 however, a building was erected in Walsh Street to serve both as chapel and schoolroom for the nascent congregation. The school fell initially under the supervision of Fr Pertius of Ahaura. The following year, 1874, Reefton was constituted a parish of the Wellington Diocese, under the pastoral care of Fr Cummins. Cummins was a Marist Father, and the parish was to remain a Marist charge until 1935.

In August 1875, Fr Cummins initiated a meeting to consider the erection of a new church. Cummins left Reefton in 1876, but his successor Fr Carew enthusiastically took up the cause. Parishioners apparently subscribed the large sum of ₤1,400 in a single day, and construction of a building on a new site in Walsh Street commenced in early 1878. Designed by Wellington architect Charles Gordon O'Neill (1828-1900), Sacred Heart Church was completed a year later at a cost of £2,400. The church was blessed by the Bishop Moran, Bishop of Wellington, on Easter Sunday 1879. The lofty building was designed to seat about 500, but in spite of this, was 'usually taxed to its utmost capacity'.

Although the parish was keen to retain Fr Carew, he moved to Greymouth in 1883, and was replaced the following year by Fr Jean Baptist Rolland (1834-1903), who had earlier been resident in Reefton in 1873-74. A very popular priest, the French-born Rolland became a legend in his own lifetime. He arrived in New Zealand in 1864, and proceeded to fill a number of capacities throughout the country. Accompanying troops in Taranaki during the New Zealand ('Land') Wars, Rolland attended the wounded and dying of both sides on the battlefield. He visited the West Coast for the first time in 1869, then returned in late 1872 or early 1873 until 1874 as resident priest there prior to Reefton becoming a parish in its own right. .. About 1877 he returned for a third and final time to be stationed at Ahaura, where he also ran a school. After eight years at Ahaura, Rolland became Reefton's parish priest in 1884. A good horseman, he was a constant traveller throughout his parish, which extended up to Murchison. During his incumbency, a new presbytery was built in 1885, the Sister's of Mercy arrived to run the parish's two schools in 1891, and a fine new convent building was opened in 1898. After thirteen years devoted service to his parish, Rolland gave up his charge in 1897, but remained as assistant priest until his death in 1903. His funeral was the largest seen in Reefton up till that time.

After Sacred Heart Church was slightly damaged by the Murchison earthquake in 1929, the then incumbent Fr Seymour took the opportunity to undertake a general renovation of the church's fabric, funded in part by a successful Queen Carnival. The focus of the renovation, completed in 1934 by carpenter Jack Switzer, was a complete refurbishment of the sanctuary, side altars and screen. This area was extensively plastered, incised, and new plaster capitals, corbels, niches and other mouldings were applied. Faux rafters, marbled pillar sleeves and oak ply dado panelling were fitted. Furnishings and fittings including the main and subsidiary altars, crucifix, Stations of the Cross (at ₤10 each) and some devotional statuary were also replaced at this time.

Other work carried out on the church interior during the 1930s included the re-graining of the woodwork by Bill Pennington, the fitting of leadlight screen doors and the installation of four of the five stained glass windows. Until the 1930s, Sacred Heart had only a single stained glass window, donated in memory of Timothy McLaughlan in 1898. As part of the general refurbishment however, Reefton's medical practitioner Dr William Conlon donated two stained glass windows in memory of his wife to light the side altars, and two further windows on the north wall in memory of the priests and nuns of the parish. All five of the windows (including the 1898 one) were manufactured by Zeitler of Munich and are stylistically similar.. At some point during the late 1930s, a group of carpenters from Greymouth were carrying out a contract in the town, and Fr Seymour's successor, Fr Fletcher, had them re-clad the tongue-in-groove walls of the nave with the then novel material of Pinex.

Other work executed on the exterior of the church around this time included the replacement of the buttresses, demolition of the free-standing timber bell tower (and its replacement with a metal structure), and re-roofing. The church roof had originally been shingled, and was re-roofed about 1940 with new white pine shingles by carpenters Jim Paton and George Lockington. These however lasted only a short time before buckling and splitting, and within a few years the building was again re-roofed - this time with corrugated iron. The ventilator gables were probably removed at this time.

The refurbishment of the 1930s secured the church for the next twenty years, but with the winds of change blowing through the Catholic Church in the early 1960s, a further set of changes were made. To accommodate the liturgical innovations of Vatican Two, the altar was altered, and the altar rails removed to storage in the choir loft - where they remain today. A new foyer was constructed under the choir loft, and the leadlight screen doors replaced. A second confessional at the rear of the church was probably removed at this point, leaving only the one set into the southern wall. The exterior of Sacred Heart was re-clad with Fibrolite tiles, a luminescent cross was applied to the west elevation, and the roof crosses were replaced in simplified form. As it had in 1929, the church again suffered a small amount of damage in the 1968 Inangahua earthquake.

After Reefton's Sisters' of Mercy convent closed in 1981, two stained glass windows were removed from the building and installed in Sacred Heart's sacristy in place of the original frosted glass windows. Around the same time, the steel bell tower dating from the 1930s was demolished. During the 1980s it was discovered that the structural integrity of Sacred Heart was threatened because of the failure of the buttresses. The stepped enclosed buttresses of the 1930s were no longer performing the function for which they were intended, so were largely replaced with simple timber props in 1993. To augment the new buttresses, a steel box beam was also placed across the nave. The same year, the nave was carpeted. Between 1996 and 1998 a further programme of repair and renovation was undertaken. At this time, Sacred Heart's original 1878 pews were replaced with those from the demolished St Patrick's Church in Greymouth.

The size of Sacred Heart's congregation has fluctuated in recent decades as the fortunes of the traditional drivers of the local economy - gold, coal and timber - have waxed and waned. The church however has a small but faithful core of parishioners and a resident priest, and after a long period of stasis, Reefton's economy and population are again growing thanks to a new gold mining boom.

Physical Description

Reefton is a small mining and service town at the mouth of the Inangahua River gorge. Two streets to the north of Reefton's main street, Broadway, is Church Street. At the eastern end of Church Street, between Walsh and Bridge Streets, is a number of ecclesiastical buildings, including St Stephen's Anglican Church, and the Sacred Heart Catholic School, Presbytery, Church and, until its destruction by fire in September 2007, the former Sisters of Mercy Convent. The two churches are included in the Reefton Historic Area registration (record number 7050), as indeed is the former Sisters of Mercy Convent although this will be reviewed as a result of its recent destruction.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church is situated on a rise at the south-eastern corner of Church and Walsh Streets. Although it has a Church Street address, the building is oriented east-west, and therefore sits parallel to Church Street, with its entrance opening onto Walsh Street. To the north of the entrance is a shrine containing a statue of Our Lady. The western (front) elevation of the lofty Neo-gothic church is dominated by a porch set with a deep compound arch. Above the porch are three single lancet windows glazed with clear glass. Surmounting the central window is a crucifix applied to the wall. The south elevation features five tall clear-glazed paired lancet windows and a smaller stained glass single lancet. The north elevation features two tall clear-glazed paired lancets, two tall stained glass single lancets, one tall stained glass single lancet with a paired top, and a smaller stained glass single lancet. Each window on the north and south elevations is separated by a simple timber buttress, except at the eastern end of the southern elevation where a confessional projects through the plane of the wall. Here two of the original enclosed staged buttresses remain. The steeply gabled nave roof is surmounted at either end by wooden crosses. At the eastern (rear) end of the church, an unusual mansard roof covers the sacristy and sanctuary. Small gables either side of the mansard denote side chapels. The sacristy has two stained glass casement windows with fanlights.

Beyond the exterior doors, the interior of the church is entered through a pair of glass screen doors and a small foyer. The diagonally sarked roof is supported by light-weight rafters that spring part way up the wall from wood-grained engaged columns. The rafters are braced with iron tie rods. The north and south (side) walls are lined with pinex above a wood-grained timber dado, and feature Stations of the Cross between the windows. A confessional is set into the southern wall. The west wall is lined with tongue-in-groove, and features a choir loft, supported on hexagonal timber columns. The wood-grained loft parapet is set with a quatrefoil motif, which is repeated in the gallery stair balustrade. At the eastern end of the church are the sanctuary and two subsidiary chapels, separated from the nave by a triple arched screen. The plastered screen is decorated with plaster mouldings, and supported on marbled columns with plaster capitals. The sanctuary and altars are plastered, lined with an oak-ply panelled dado, and have curved plaster ceilings supported by rafters springing from plaster corbels. Above the altars in the side chapels, lit from the side by the smaller stained glass windows, are plaster niches containing statues. Crowning the main altar and tabernacle is a large crucifix.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1878 - 1879

1898 -
Installation of first stained glass window.

1929 - 1934
Major renovation of sanctuary screen, sanctuary and side chapels; installation of remaining four stained glass windows and leadlight screen doors.

1929 - 1934
Replacement of buttresses, Stations of the Cross, altars and possibly some devotional statuary.

Recladding of interior walls with Pinex, re-wood graining of interior timber surfaces. Shingled roof replaced with shingles, then soon after with corrugated iron; probable removal of ventilators.

Demolished - additional building on site
1938 -
Demolition and re-construction of free-standing belfry.

1960 -
Exterior detail removed, re-cladding with Fibrolite.

Construction of foyer, replacement of screen doors and roof crosses; installation of luminescent wall cross, removal of altar rails and rear confessional.

Alterations to altar

Replacement of sacristy windows; installation of steel box beam bracing across church, demolition of belfry.

Alterations to altar, replacement of pews.

1993 -
Replacement of buttresses, carpeting of nave.

Addition of southern confessional, additions to sacristy.

Construction Details

Rusticated weatherboard over-clad with fibrolite, with a corrugated iron roof.

Completion Date

1st December 2007

Report Written By

G. Wright, R. Burgess

Information Sources

Bolitho, 1999

E E Bolitho, Reefton School of Mines; Stories of Jim Bolitho. 1886-1970. Friends of Waiuta Inc, Invercargill, 1999.

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1906

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 5, Nelson, Marlborough, Westland, 1906

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Stace, F. 'O'Neill, Charles Gordon 1827/28?-1900', updated 7 April 2006. URL:

Fortune, 2000

T Fortune, Sacred Heart Parish, Reefton: Millennium History Update 2000.

New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)

New Zealand Historic Places Trust

Reefton Historic Area Assessment Report NZHPT, 1996.

O'Regan, 1974

D O'Regan, One Hundred Years 1874-1974: to Commemorate the Centennial Celebrations of the Sacred Heart Parish, Reefton Hokitika: Richards and Meyer, 1974

Reefton Centennial Booklet

Reefton Centennial Booklet 1860-1960 Reefton: Reefton Volunteer Fire Brigade, 1960.

King, 1997

Michael King, God's Farthest Outpost - A History of Catholics in New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland, 1997.

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region office

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.