St Mary's Church (Anglican)

173 Palmerston Street, Riverton / Aparima

  • St Mary's Church (Anglican).
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Chris Horwell. Date: 11/10/2012.
  • St Mary's Church (Anglican).
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand . Taken By: Chris Horwell. Date: 11/10/2012.
  • St Mary's Church (Anglican).
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand . Taken By: Chris Horwell. Date: 11/10/2012.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 2541 Date Entered 25th June 2010


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 1 DP 457 (CT SL5B/88), Southland Land District, and the building known as St Mary's Church (Anglican) thereon, and its fittings and fixtures

City/District Council

Southland District


Southland Region

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 457 (CT SL5B/88), Southland Land District


Picturesque St Mary's Church, overlooking the Jacobs River Estuary in the small Southland town of Riverton, was built in 1902 to a design by prominent Invercargill architectural partnership Mackenzie and Wilson. The timber Church, built in Carpenter Gothic style with a prominent steeple, has been the site of Anglican worship in Riverton for over 100 years.

Anglicans in Riverton worked together to find a site on which to build their first church in the early 1860s. This timber church served as a place of worship until 1902 when St Mary's was constructed on land donated by parishioner and businessman John Mills. Architects John Mackenzie and Edmund Richardson Fitz Wilson were commissioned to complete the design. Wilson was to go on to become a prominent architect in his own right, designing many important civic buildings, including town halls in Invercargill, Bluff and Otautau, as well as churches for other Anglican congregations.

St Mary's is built of timber in Carpenter Gothic style, where the work of the carpenter, for example the framing, bracing and interior timber linings, is an important element in the design and decoration of the building. St Mary's is notable for its simple but elegant design and its steeple which is a landmark in Riverton.

St Mary's has significance to both parishioners and Riverton residents as a place of community meeting and worship shown through the ongoing funding support for the upkeep of the church. Historically it represents the importance of the church to the Anglican congregation and has spiritual significance as a place of worship for the Anglican Parish of Western Southland. Its elegant design and prominent position in Riverton's historic townscape gives it additional aesthetic significance.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

St Mary's Church has historical significance representing the importance of religion, and particularly of the Anglican Church in the Riverton community. The development of the church reflects the period of consolidation of settlement and the building of permanent places of worship by the Anglican Church. The history of community support evident in the construction of the first church, the donation of the land for St Mary's shows the role of the church as a community institution.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

St Mary's Church sits on a prominent corner site on the main street of Riverton. The small Church with its noble spire looks over the Jacobs River Estuary and is a landmark visible from South Riverton.

Architectural Significance or Value:

St Mary's Church has architectural significance as an example of the work of prominent Invercargill architect Edmund Richardson Fitz Wilson. Wilson was notable for his designs for public buildings in Invercargill, and also for his churches for the Anglican Church elsewhere in the South, including Otautau and Christchurch. It is also a representative example of a modest Anglican parish church designed in Carpenter Gothic style.

Spiritual Significance or Value:

St Mary's Church has spiritual significance as the place of Anglican worship in Riverton for over 100 years, which continues to be a place of religious contemplation in 2010.

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

The development of a community of worship in the Southland town of Riverton is a representative aspect of New Zealand history which illustrates the importance of Church of England to parishioners in this area. It represents the period of development in the Anglican Church which saw the consolidation of communities and a steady building programme which saw many new churches con-structed in small towns.

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

St Mary's Church is associated with a number of individuals prominent in Riverton, including local businessman John Mills who donated the section for the building of the current church, and was long involved in the administration of the Anglican parish of Riverton.

St Mary's Church is also associated with prominent Invercargill architect Edmund Richardson Fitz Wilson whose work is significant particularly in Invercargill.

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

The Riverton community has shown its support for St Mary's Church through its practical assistance and through the funding of major restoration work on the church through the 1990s and more recently.

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

St Mary's is a representative example of ecclesiastical architecture, in particular Carpenter Gothic which was a popular style used in many small rural areas where timber was readily available, and its design is a good example of the style.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place

Because of its function, St Mary's Church has had considerable local spiritual significance since its construction, as the site of regular services as well as innumerable Anglican christenings, weddings, funerals, and other religious events. Through the interment of ashes in the columbarium St Mary's Church has commemorative value.

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

St Mary's Anglican Church is recognised as a prominent landmark in the historical landscape of Riverton Township. Its location overlooking the Aparima estuary on the main street of Riverton alongside other historic buildings makes it significant in Riverton.

Summary of Significance or Values

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e, g, h, and k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.

It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

McKenzie and Wilson

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Maori History

Ancient stories tell the origins of southern Maori, with the waka of Aoraki becoming Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island), and its sternpost, Te Taurapa a Te Waka o Aoraki becoming Bluff Hill (also known as Motupohue). The Maui traditions are also told in the south, with Maui arriving in his waka Maahunui, and throwing out the anchor Te Puka o Te Waka a Maui (Rakiura). Maui's achievements are recognised in place names in the south, including Omaui near Bluff, and Te Tapuwae o Maui and Te Rereka o Maui in Fiordland (Maui's footstep and Maui's leap).

The early generations learnt about the land and its resources: stone sources were found, and stone (especially pounamu) became an important trading item. Whanau moved throughout the southern area to take advantage of seasonal resources and trade, and also for reasons of intermarriage and war. Kaika were established close to resources. Rights and resources and places were established, and traditions established which protected the manawhenua.

According to the Ngai Tahu Statutory acknowledgments in the settlement important villages along the south coast included: 'Te Wae Wae (Waiau), Taunoa (Orepuki), Kawakaputaputa (Wakapatu), Oraka (Colac bay), Aparima (Riverton named Aparima after the daughter of the noted southern rangatira Hekeia, to whom he bequeathed all of the land which his eye could see as he stood on a spot at Otaitai, just north of Riverton), Turangiteuaru, Awarua (Bluff), Te Whera, Toe Toe (mouth of the Mataura River) and Waikawa.'

In the 1830s shore based whaling was established, including a station at Aparima (Riverton). Tuhawaiki established his own whaling station. Strategic intermarriage of Maori women to whalers strengthened relationships. Flax and timber as well as other commodities were traded.

1853 saw the Murihiku purchase which left Maori south of the Waitaki (excluding the Otakou Block) with only 4,630 acres, the start of a long quest by southern Maori for justice questioning the legality of the purchase as well as the inadequacy of the land reserved. The major settlements on the southern coast near modern day Riverton in the mid nineteenth century included Pahia, Ngawhakaputaputa, Oraka and Aparima (established probably in the 1820s), although the largest settlement was on Ruapuke Island.

A reserve was set aside at Aparima (Riverton) but was inadequate. A 200 acre reserve promised at Waimatuku was not allocated. The Aparima reserve was the site of the main kaika and included an urupa and a tauranga waka. The majority of the reserve was later taken by the Public Works Act for a secondary school, with only the tauranga waka remaining as reserve, a source of continued grievance. The area of North Beach from Otaitai to the mouth of the Aparima River, inland and back to Otaitaia Stream is considered a traditional strong hold of Ngai Tahu as a site of the kaika and urupa.

The establishment of the Anglican Church

Early Anglican settlers in Riverton had their first visit from an Anglican clergyman with Bishop Selwyn's visit to the settlement in 1848, christening the children of the Paulin family. Bishop Selwyn visited again in 1858, and two years later Church of England members gathered together to discuss the erection of a church.

A building committee was formed in May 1860. The committee decided to post specifications for the new church in a prominent place for intending contractors to view. The tender of Bryden and Cooke for sawing the timber was accepted, and this was pit sawn from the Kaika. The piles were sawn by T.A. Marshall. The roof was to be shingled. Local men were elected as trustees for the church lands.

As the locals moved to create a place for worship, the Bishopric provided a clergyman for the area. In October 1861 Rev. W.P. Tanner was appointed as vicar for Invercargill and Riverton.

On 3 February 1862 tenders for the church were assessed, and the lowest was accepted, that of Galliot and Thystrup, and the plans slightly altered. The construction was a protracted affair hampered by lack of funds. The church seems to have largely completed by the mid 1860s. In October 1869 a bazaar produced further funds, and it was decided to complete the tower and to shingle the south side of the roof with 'Hobart Town shingles', and to erect a fence around the grounds.

By the mid 1870s the church was judged to be insufficient, and tenders were advertised to enlarge the building, and to use ‘perpendicular instead of weatherboards.' The tender of Gunn and Beer was accepted.

In 1881 it was decided that a new church was needed, and a committee was appointed to pursue this goal. F.W. Burwell designed a brick and concrete church and the foundation stone was laid but building did not progress. A ladies committee was formed to raise funds. In 1892 there were renewed attempts to build the desired church, and fundraisers were appointed.

In the late 1890s there was debate about the appropriate location for the new church, further delaying progress. Parishioners in South Riverton wanted a more central location than the existing Havelock Street site. The secretary of the Church Committee was instructed to write to the Bishop suggesting that he make inquiries with Mr Mathew Instone about the possibility of acquiring a section belonging to Whittingham Bros. and Instone. The meeting also agreed that a subcommittee canvass for subscriptions to the building fund, and make inquiries about the cost of building a new church, and report back to the parish committee. By 1900 the secretary was in a position to make an offer for a section, but no sale resulted, and attention turned back to the existing site.

The building of St Mary's Church represents the period of development in the Anglican Church which saw the consolidation of communities and a steady building programme which saw many new churches constructed in small towns. This is the period described by historian H.T. Purchas as the Macrocarpa period where small church buildings sprung up alongside towns where the church building itself grows dear to its community and the work of established religion, education, fund raising and outreach goes on. This was a period where church building accelerated for the Anglican Church throughout New Zealand, when urban centres grew and small centres consolidated. That the community came together, drawing together to donate the land and organise the building of the church shows the importance of the church as an institution both historically and currently.

In April 1900 parishioner and businessman John Mills came to the rescue, offering a section adjoining the Athenaeum, and the parishioners' meeting voted to erect a new church on the land donated by Mills. The land on which the new church was to be built had been crown granted in the early 1860s and onsold to storekeeper John Petchell in the mid 1880s. Storekeeper John Robert Mills bought it from Petchell in 1900, and the section on which the new church was built was subdivided off in 1903. The title looks to have been held by two congregation members before being transferred to the Dunedin Diocesan Trust Board in 1904.

Tasmanian born John Mills settled in Riverton in 1857, establishing a hotel and store. He was a long serving member of the Riverton Borough Council and mayor for four terms. Mills had been involved with the parish since his arrival in Riverton, and was on the working committee in 1860 which oversaw the early discussions about building a place of worship.

The Bishop of Dunedin noted that the eight new Anglican churches were in the course of erection and ‘bears emphatic witness both to the energy of our clergy and to the self-denying loyalty of our lay people.' He considered St Mary's at Riverton (the oldest parish in the diocese) ‘a great ornament to that very pretty place..which for situation could be no better, convenient as it is to both divisions of the town, and an attractive object to pleasure seekers on the estuary.'

The new Church was designed by Invercargill architectural partnership John Mackenzie and Edmund Richardson Fitz Wilson (1871-1941). Invercargill born Wilson was previously apprenticed to Mackenzie and his partner Charles Gilbertson. Gilbertson retired in January 1897 and Wilson took over his interest. In 1903 John Mackenzie sold his remaining interests to Wilson, who continued to practice under the style of ‘Mackenzie and Wilson' and then under his own name. Among Wilson's Invercargill commissions were the Civic Theatre, the Town Hall, St Johns Church and Kew Hospital. He was a prominent in the Anglican Church and designed churches in Wellington, Christchurch and Otautau, as well as town halls in Otautau and Bluff. He was later a President of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Photographs of the new church show Wilson's attention to detail. The church is located on the bend of Palmerston Street, with Riverton's small commercial buildings lining the wide street. The building is designed in the Carpenter Gothic style used for modest timber churches. This style made use of timber both structurally and in the embellishment of the building. As is typical of this style St Mary's is located at the edge of town (emphasising its contribution to the landscape through its location), with a prominent steeple, decorated ventilators in the steep-pitched roof, buttresses, timber fretwork on the gable ends and buttresses on the side elevations. In the interior the craftwork of the carpenter is shown in the timber matchlining of the ceiling with the roof trusses forming part of the decoration.

The last service in the old church was held on 5 January 1902. On 12 January the new Church was dedicated under the title of St Mary, by the Bishop of Dunedin, the Right Reverend S.T. Nevill. The Otago Witness reported that the interior of the church has ‘surprised many by its excellence and when quite finished will be a credit to the architects, Messrs Mackenzie and Wilson, and from the south side of the river the exterior is most pleasing.' The Church was consecrated in November 1904 by Nevill.

A vestry was added to the north east elevation of the church in 1967 the style matching the existing building.

The church community has continued to worship in and value St Mary's. This is shown in the ongoing maintenance and commitment shown to preserving and protecting the heritage of the church.

In 1996 the bell tower of St Mary's was repaired and restored with the funding assistance of the New Zealand Lotteries Grant Board supported by the Archdeacon of Southland, the Lions Club of Riverton (who also provided funds for the project), Southland District Council and the Southland Branch Committee. The community groups commented on the architectural beauty of the building and its prominent location in Riverton, where it was acknowledged as being part of the ‘living history' of the area. In common with other churches St Marys is a centre for community and social service, as well as educational activity. The building is a focal point, not only through its presence in the landscape, but also, as the Church of England itself recognises, as a ‘physical expression of the poetic longings within the human soul' embodying a community's ‘history and collective memory.'

In 2003-2004 a columbarium was built along the north east elevation of the vestry for the interment of ashes.

In 2005-2006 a major programme of maintenance was under consideration again with the substantial support of New Zealand Lotteries Grant Board. Alterations were halted because of building by-laws and the plan for the accessible toilet was deleted in December 2008. Only exterior maintenance was carried out.

The Riverton Anglican Parish was renamed the Anglican Parish of Western Southland in 1999. St Mary's Church continues to be used for Sunday morning worship, marriages, funerals and meetings. The Parish now includes two country churches in the townships close to the Longwood Range, of which St Mary's remains a place of worship for Anglicans in the Riverton area.

Physical Description


St Mary's Church on its prominent corner site close to the bridge which connects North and South Riverton overlooks the expanse of the Jacobs River Estuary across the bay to the rolling Longwood Hills. The white painted timber Church with its graceful steeple is a significant element in the historic townscape of the small Southland town. St Mary's sits at the edge of the commercial centre of the town.


St Mary's Church is a timber-framed structure with horizontal weatherboard cladding, a corrugated iron roof, and a steeple clad in copper sheeting. The Church is rectangular in plan with a single gable form. The nave of the Church forms the main body of the building with the sanctuary in a smaller gabled portion on the south east elevation. The vestry is a single gabled addition on the north east elevation, with a small lean-to toilet also included in that newer structure.

The main entrance is through a gabled porch on the north east elevation. The projecting decorative porch has fretwork and bracing as its embellishment. The double doors have ornate strap hinges.

The gable end which faces Palmerston Street has a tall paired lancet window with coloured leaded quarry panes. In keeping with the Carpenter Gothic design structural elements are expressed as decoration, with the studs and scissor bracing forming part of the scheme. The octagonal spire is set on the roof line of this elevation. Originally the spire had small lucarnes but these have since been removed, as have those on the main gables. The small octagonal tower at the base of the steeple has louvred vents on alternate faces. The base of the tower has broaches as an additional decorative element.

The long elevations of St Mary's are notable for their sets of paired rectangular casement windows with coloured leaded quarry panes. Timber buttresses alternative with the paired windows down the length of the side elevations.

The south (rear) elevation has a three-lancet light in the gable end wall with the quarry panes matching those in the rest of the church. On the vestry addition a small lean-to toilet projects from the south elevation. The casement windows on the addition match the rectangular windows in the long elevations of the nave.

The Interior

The double doors on the north elevation open into the narthex or lobby. The narthex has a dado rail with timber panelling below and a painted finish above the rail. The joinery is varnished rather than painted. Entrance to the nave is through a pair of modern doors with a single window with religious symbols for Christ and eternal nature of God etched into the glass.

The nave is notable for its exposed timber ceiling with diagonal matchlining, with the roof construction being expressed as an internal detail. The walls have timber panelling below the dado line and a painted surface above. The joinery is varnished rather than painted. The floor is carpeted. The original timber pews provide seating for parishioners.

Entry to the sanctuary is up a single step through a large Gothic arch. The sanctuary, like the nave, has matchlining below the dado rail, an exposed timber ceiling with diagonal matchlining, and the scissor bracing expressed as a decorative detail. The choir runs parallel to the side walls, and the altar, reached by a further step up runs along the end wall.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1904 -

Vestry added to north east elevation

1995 -
Restoration work on bell tower

2006 - 2009
Extensive restoration and refurbishment work

Construction Details

Timber, corrugated iron roof

Completion Date

12th May 2010

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

Apperley, 1989

Richard Apperley, Robert Irving and Peter Reynolds, A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Australian Architecture: Styles and Terms from 1788 to the Present, Sydney, 1989

Evans, 1968

J. Evans 1968 Southern See: The Anglican Diocese of Dunedin New Zealand, J. McIndoe, Dunedin

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Otago/Southland Area 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.