Greenhills Church

16 Princes Road, Greenhills, Invercargill

  • Greenhills Church.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Karen Astwood. Date: 10/11/2010.
  • The church viewed from northeast.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Karen Astwood. Date: 10/11/2010.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 3266 Date Entered 23rd June 2011


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Pt Sec 64 Blk V Campbelltown Hundred (CT SL62/201), Southland Land District and the building known as Greenhills Church thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Invercargill City


Southland Region

Legal description

Pt Sec 64 Blk V Campbelltown Hundred (CT SL62/201), Southland Land District

Location description

Greenhills Church is approximately 20 kilometres from Invercargill and eight kilometres from Bluff, along State Highway One. Princes Road is parallel and east of this highway, and is accessed by crossing over the railway line opposite the intersection with Omaui Road.


Completed in 1887 as an initiative of the scattered Greenhills community in Southland, Greenhills Church is a typical New Zealand small country church. This prominent landmark on the highway between Invercargill and Bluff is the oldest timber church remaining in the district.

The land between Invercargill and Bluff did not begin to be settled until the 1860s, but Greenhills, which developed due to local timber, stone, and flax industries, was still relatively isolated. Therefore, it was not until 1886 that the community instigated a project to build a church on land donated by local man, Samuel Sullivan, who also designed and constructed the building. Greenhills Church opened as a Methodist church, and was initially used for religious services and events, and also as the local school.

The church remained Greenhills’ spiritual and social centre throughout most of the twentieth century. However, in 1975 a change, made necessary by mutually reduced Methodist and Anglican congregation numbers, meant that Greenhills Church became a Union church. Despite the efforts to increase attendance regular services at the church stopped in 1989, though the community continued to hold Sunday school classes in the building, until these too eventually ceased. Although disused, local people rallied around the aging building, and it was subsequently deconsecrated in 2001 in order for it to be vested with the Greenhills Historic Church Charitable Trust. The new ownership led to a significant restoration project undertaken in 2003-2005, and currently the building is used intermittently for private functions, such as weddings.

Greenhills Church is a relatively simple building, but one which demonstrates aspects of the Gothic Revival tradition which was popular in New Zealand churches in the late nineteenth century, through its gabled nave, entry porch tower, and lancet windows and doors. A vestry was added to the east end of the nave around 1925, and there have been several instances when sections of the church’s weatherboards have been replaced. Despite this, the building has a high level of architectural integrity.

This building has significance as a good representative example of a vernacular Gothic Revival country church. The well-maintained condition of Greenhills Church points towards the public esteem for it which led to the founding of a charitable trust for the building. As well as being spiritually significant, early churches were historically and socially important to the rural areas they served; often being markers of the progress of that community’s transition from a disparate to established settlement, and an integral place for the community to interact and network, which was certainly the case with Greenhills Church.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Traditionally one of the first things a coalesced community in New Zealand endeavoured to do was create a purpose-built place in which to worship and therefore Greenhills Church has local historical significance as one of the key indicators of the settlement’s maturity. The late twentieth century Methodist and Anglican collaborative arrangement at Greenhills Church, which saw the building become a Union church, is of historical value as it reflects broader consolidation measures within New Zealand’s Christian communities during this period. The eventual deconsecration of the church in 2001 is an extension of this and resulted from a combination of factors, including reduced congregation numbers and population shift.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

The aesthetic value of Greenhills Church comes from the fact that, due to a lack of residential build-up in its immediate vicinity, its rural setting has been maintained. Country churches are appealing because their presence in the landscape is not overstated due to their modest scale, but by the same token they provide a point of reference in the landscape which enhances a feeling of tranquil isolation and pastoral beauty. In this way Greenhills Church is a landmark of the rugged countryside north of Bluff Harbour and has aesthetic significance.

Architectural Significance or Value:

Greenhills Church has architectural value as a proponent of the Gothic Revival style of church architecture which was adapted to New Zealand conditions and materials, becoming a vernacular style used by professional and amateur architects alike. Typical rural examples of these churches are characterised by their modest size, simple design, and timber construction, all of which describe Greenhills Church which was designed and built by a local resident, Samuel Sullivan. The extensive and dramatic use of native timber for the interior lining and fittings cements it within the Gothic tradition and contributes greatly to this building’s overall architectural significance. This building also has local architectural importance as the oldest remaining timber church in the vicinity of Invercargill.

Social Significance or Value:

Greenhills Church was a socially significant building, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because the bringing together of the disparate families of this rural area for the purpose of worship, and other events, created occasions where the community could interact and network, which would only have occurred infrequently otherwise.

Spiritual Significance or Value:

Prior to this first and only church in Greenhills being built the local population had intermittent access to religious services or else had to travel considerable distance to access them. Between its completion in 1887 and its deconsecration in 2001 Greenhills Church was the venue of innumerable religious services and celebrations, Methodist and then Union, and therefore has been directly associated with the spiritual aspect of generations of local residents lives. As such, Greenhill’s Church is of considerable local spiritual importance.

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

Greenhills Church is an important site because it physically represents the spread of Christianity into isolated areas. It also reflects the determination and commitment of the faithful in rural settlements, such as Greenhills Church, in their often prolonged efforts to create these symbols of their religious convictions.

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

Greenhills Church has been attended by thousands of people since its construction and therefore many local people have a personal and or family connection with the building. It was the efforts of the community which enabled it to be built in 1886-87, and their esteem for the building has been shown over the years through their passive or active donations of money for its maintenance, or through working bees and the like. That the church is extremely well-maintained is a testimony to the wider community’s regard for Greenhills Church, as demonstrated through the securing of a large sum from various businesses, the Invercargill City Council, and regional and national charitable organisations to undertake a significant restoration project completed in 2005.

Summary of Significance or Values

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


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


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 told in the south, with Maui arriving in his waka Maahunui, and pulling up the stone to be used as an 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).

Stories of the original explorers of the south are also told. The explorer Rakaihautu journeyed through the south with place names recalling his journey.

After Rakaihautu came the Takitimu waka with Tamatea Pokai Whenua. The waka was overcome by three waves O-te-wao, O-roko and O-kaka, coming to rest near the mouth of the Waiau (Waimeha). The three waves continued across the low lying lands and ended up as features of the landscape.

The early generations learnt about the land and its resources: stone sources were found, and stone (especially pounamu) became an important trading item. Kaika were established close to resources. Rights and resources and places were established, and traditions established which protected the manawhenua.

When traditions were written down Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu dominate the history after Waitaha, with stories of war and peace, and intermarriage that spread through the south. In the early 1820s there was further fighting, with muskets first being used at this time, with major sieges in the more northern area of the South Island leading a retreat to the south. Ruapuke Island became the centre of leadership in the south, its isolation giving a measure of security. The final fight with the northern taua of Te Puoho and his followers at Tuturau in 1835-1836, where Te Puoho was defeated, saw the end of warfare in the region.

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, Turangiteuaru, Awarua (Bluff), Te Whera, Toe Toe (mouth of the Mataura River) and Waikawa. Mokamoka (also known as Mokemoke or Mokomoko) was a settlement at the Invercargill estuary sustained by the rich resources found there. Tauranga waka occur up and down the coast linking land and sea trails with mahinga kai resources. Whaling boats plied the waters from the 1820s leading to changes in settlement patterns and resource use.

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.

Greenhills and its church

It was not long after John Turnbull Thomson (1821-1884) started his survey of Invercargill in 1856 that the first Presbyterian clergyman arrived in the burgeoning settlement, and it is Rev. Alexander Bethune who is attributed with preaching the first Christian sermon in Invercargill in late 1856. Prior to this a Christian presence had been introduced by Maori Anglican missionaries from the North Island, and there were also early Methodist missionaries active in Southland in the 1840s. By the 1850s it appears that most of the major Christian denominations had established a presence in Southland, but it was not until the early 1860s that the first purpose-built churches were constructed.

Despite the strong Presbyterian settler influence, it is important to note that Southland was not a religious colony like Otago, and in the 1860s Presbyterians only nominally outnumbered Anglicans. It was in 1862 that a Methodist clergyman was first assigned to the Otago and Southland region. Rev. Isaac Harding was based in Invercargill but was required to circuit the area, and in 1863 the first Methodist chapel was constructed in the town.

The Greenhills area, south of Invercargill and just north of Bluff Harbour, was first surveyed in the late 1840s, followed by Thomson’s (1821-1884) survey of Bluff and surrounding area in 1856. Greenhills had not been named at this stage and, like Bluff, was relatively inaccessible because it was surrounded in swamp. This isolation lessened when the road between Invercargill and its port at Bluff was opened in 1862.

A railway was built soon after motivated by the fact that as the closest well-established township to the Otago gold-fields that Invercargill’s economy could benefit significantly if it could meet the increasing demand for supplies. It was during this period that Greenhills was laid out with the railway and a flag station at its centre. After the Southland Provincial Council was subsumed back into Otago, Greenhills was surveyed again as part of the Campbelltown Hundred. In the meantime, the flax and sawmilling industries, as well as quarrying, continued to dominate the Greenhills area’s economy.

It was not until 1879 that the first church in Bluff was constructed, and until the completion of a church in Greenhills in 1887 many of that settlement’s residents would have travelled to Bluff for services. In 1886 the Southland Times reported that:

‘In most rising townships progress is shown first by the erection of an [sic] hotel, and in nearly every case these monuments to civilisation precede all other public buildings. The Greenhills residents have, however, departed from this rule. A few weeks ago a meeting was called there for the purposes of considering the advisability of erecting a new church..’

At a subsequent meeting the tender of local man, Samuel Sullivan, was accepted for the construction of a church to his design. The timber for the building was sourced from local sawmills and the church was completed in February 1887. Originally the church consisted of a main gable section with a porch and tower, and was described as ‘a small, but suitable, building.’

It seems that a stated purpose of the new church was that it would be open to everyone interested in Christian teachings. This has given rise to the idea that from the outset it was a non-denominational church. This appears to have been reinforced by the fact that Sullivan, who donated the site and oversaw the church’s construction, is said to have been Catholic. However, from its conception the church was referred to in the local press as a Primitive Methodist church, and soon after its completion the church was incorporated into the Greenhills Bluff Methodist Circuit. Of course, this does not mean that Greenhill Church’s congregation was exclusively Methodist, because it was common for people in rural settlements to take advantage of any Christian services available to them.

It has been said 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.’ Despite steady population growth in the nineteenth century many people in the Greenhills area were still relatively scattered and isolated. Therefore, occasions such as the church opening and its subsequent services were important social gatherings, particularly for women who generally did not have the same socialising opportunities outside of the home that their male counterparts had when they went off to work.

Local women seem to have advocated strongly for the church, and for the first few years of its history the church was also used by the children as a school. Groups associated with the church continued to be socially important for women, such as the Greenhills Methodist Guild, later known as the Methodist Womens’ Fellowship. This guild was still operating in the 1980s, and was responsible for organising various fundraising activities for the church, as well as its cleaning and decoration.

In 1901 the population of the Greenhills area was 133 people. One of these early twentieth century residents remembers attending the Sunday school at the church, and being taught by Salvation Army members before the school came under the jurisdiction of the Bluff Methodist Circuit. When this occurred the minister from Bluff would cycle to the church and take the class before the weekly Sunday church service. As the local population grew, and transportation improved leading up to the middle part of the twentieth century, so did the students attending the Sunday school and the number of teachers required. At one point up to six different classes would be operating at once in the small space: four in the nave separated by curtains, and one class each in the porch and the vestry.

A significant change occurred at Greenhills Church in 1975 when the first co-operative Methodist and Anglican services were held there. Dignitaries at the inaugural service included the Bishop of Dunedin and the Chairman of the Otago-Southland Methodist Church, along with Pastor Hendrick Taakens who became the Minister for the Methodist-Anglican District of Bluff, Stewart Island, and Greenhills. This move was an effort to maximise the use of the church as attendance had dropped, and it was felt that unless this picked up then the church would inevitably have to close. Eventually, in 1989 regular services did cease. The next period of use for the church was solely as a Sunday school. This began in 1991 and was organised by a committee of local people. It was not the lack of students which led to the Sunday school closing five years later, but not enough adults being available to supervise.

Although the Sunday school no longer operated, the Greenhills Sunday School Committee still existed, and in 2001 they called a public meeting to discuss the future of the aging building. It was here that the community voiced its commitment to the church which led to the building being deconsecrated and donated to the newly formed Greenhills Historic Church Charitable Trust in March of that year. Although still sound, by this time the building was deteriorating and as such an early priority of the Trust was to raise $60,000 in order to carry out a substantial restoration project.

Maintaining the church had always relied greatly on the generosity of the community it served for financial contributions or labour. For example, when the west wall required recladding, it was made possible through a street appeal. Slightly later, in 1985, when it was discovered that the building required new piles, the labour was undertaken by local community. However, because the 2003 restoration project involved significant costs, the Trust appealed to the larger community for help and secured contributions from various local and national charitable trusts, as well as some local businesses, and the Invercargill City Council. Therein the required funds were successfully accumulated from a variety of sources, with the main portion being $40,000 from the Lottery Grants Board.

After this significant project was completed, under the direction of architect A. R. Hesselin and builder Alan Gieseg, the building was officially reopened by Invercargill’s Deputy Mayor Neil Boniface on 16 March 2005. In completing the restoration of the church, the Trust ensured the continuance of the iconic building which is the oldest remaining timber church in the Invercargill district. The building is currently open to visitors by appointment and available for private functions, such as weddings.

Physical Description

Located in the rural settlement of Greenhills, to the north of Bluff Harbour, Greenhills Church is a prominent landmark along State Highway One between Bluff and Invercargill. The church is orientated traditionally on a west to east axis, and is set within a triangular shaped section, defined by high hedges on all sides except the streetfront. Although there are domestic buildings immediately to the north, these do not impinge upon or diminish the visual appeal of this characteristic late nineteenth century country church. The relatively unlandscaped surroundings, and reasonably large gravel carpark in front of the building, add to Greenhill Church’s aesthetics by not distracting from the sense that this church is an isolated bastion in the windswept and harsh south of New Zealand.

The combination of the simple style of the church building consisting of a characteristic entrance porch and tower, and nave featuring a high stud and gable roof, as well as other aspects that emphasis the height in this modestly sized church, such as lancet windows and doors, are reminiscent of the New Zealand translation of Gothic Revival church architecture. This vernacular architectural form is also characterised by the use of readily available local materials, which explains the predominance of timber at Greenhills Church because one of the key local early industries was sawmilling. Timber is everywhere within the building: timber framing, rusticated weatherboards, rimu interior tongue and groove wall and ceiling linings, as well as timber floorboards.

The church was designed and construction led by local man, Samuel Sullivan, in 1886 and 1887. The only significant change to Sullivan’s original design for the church seems to be the addition of the vestry, on the east of the nave, around 1925. This extension is also gabled and has external access. The windows and doors in the vestry are distinguished from those in the 1887 sections because they are not lancet shaped. Much later, in 1992 an externally accessible small lean-to addition was built on the east wall of the vestry, providing toilet facilities. However, this was removed during the restoration of the church between 2003 and 2005. It is unclear when the circular window on the nave’s east wall was added, but it does not appear to be an original feature.

Given the relatively harsh conditions of the area in which Greenhills Church is located it is not surprising that the timber exterior cladding has had to be replaced at various points in the building’s 125 year history. The west and southern exterior walls were re-clad most likely in the early 1980s. The west windows were also replaced at this time and the church’s original timber piles were replaced with concrete equivalents during this centenary period as well. Because the site slopes slightly, the church is raised off the ground at its southern side.

The 2003-05 restoration project included: the replacement of some of the east wall weatherboards, as well as the baseboards, re-roofing the building, the replacement of the spouting and downpipes, as well as repairing the windows and doors. In comparison the interior was in relatively good condition and as such the walls and original timber pews only required cleaning, treating, and re-varnishing. The finials adorning every gable apex are not an original feature and appear to have been added at this time.

Like the exterior, the interior of Greenhills Church reflects the modest specifications of the original congregation, consisting of no overt instances of ornamented fittings aside from a moulded cornice around the top of the walls. Timber dominants the interior linings and fixtures, such as the four rows of pews either side of a central aisle. However, the monochrome of the timber is punctuated by the colour of the red central carpet runner, but also the bold blocks of primary and secondary colours around the boarders of all of the lancet windows.

Originally there was also a large raised pulpit at the east end of the building. However, this was removed in 1969 because it was riddled with borer. At this time the church acquired the lectern and altar as replacements. Most of the current chattels in the building were donated subsequent to the 2003-2005 restoration project.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1886 - 1887

1925 -
Vestry added

1980 -
Weatherboards on west and south walls replaced. West windows replaced

1985 - 1986
Building re-piled

2003 - 2005
Restoration project

Construction Details

Concrete, corrugates iron, glass, timber

Completion Date

23rd February 2011

Report Written By

Karen Astwood

Information Sources

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1905

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 4 Otago and Southland, Cyclopedia Company, Christchurch, 1905

Sorrell, 2006

P. Sorrell, (ed) Murihiku: The Southland Story, Southland to 2006 Book Project Committee, Invercargill, 2006

Thornton, 2003

G. Thornton, Worship in the Wilderness: Early country churches of New Zealand, Auckland, 2003

Bremer, 1976

J.E., Bremer, The History of Greenhills, Invercargill, 1976

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.