Historical Significance or Value
St Mary's Church in Taihape is a nationally significant contribution to New Zealand's cultural and architectural history. It is one of just two churches in the country (the other is St Martin's Presbyterian Church in Christchurch (1953-1954) and is not registered) to have been designed by the internationally renowned architect Ernst Plischke, a driving force behind the introduction of architecture inspired by the Modern Movement to New Zealand after the Second World War. Plischke' s religious buildings were acclaimed for their simplicity, versatility and modernity. St Mary's reflects this through its lack of ornamentation; Plischke allows the inherent beauty of the materials and construction to relieve the austerity of the building. Through St Mary's Church, Plischke deliberately broke with the traditions of New Zealand's ecclesiastical architecture. In planning his design, Plischke has considered the essential nature of the Catholic Mass, and physically interpreted it in concrete and glass. The building emphasises the internal, the spiritual. Through his use of space and light Plischke has captured these elements of the Mass, and verified his belief in the ability of these two attributes to express intense human experiences. The building confidently and skilfully meshes the spiritual elements of Christianity with Modern Movement concepts. St Mary's therefore stands as a landmark design in the both religious and architectural history.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:
St Mary's Church was designed by E. A. Plischke, who has been described as 'one of the foremost early exponents of Modernism in New Zealand architecture'. He has a confirmed reputation for excellence and innovation in architecture, and his work is the subject of study by students of the Modern Movement both in New Zealand and overseas.
(e)The community association with, or public esteem for, the place:
St Mary's Church, Taihape is held in high esteem by the professional architectural community as an example of Plischke's work, and as an expression of the Modern Movement. The church in mentioned in numerous national and international works on Plischke, and continues to be studied by students of his work. The local Catholic community holds the church in high esteem as a place of worship. When the church was constructed, its new and unique construction style was seen to demonstrate the relevance of Catholicism to the modern day, and the latest anniversary publication continues to describe the church's construction in 1954 as 'the highlight of the parish's history'.
(g)The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:
Designed by Plischke, St Mary's Church is a reflection of his view that there is 'no reason inherent in Christian theology or in liturgy for some people to think that only an archaic structure as well as a primitive interior space best expresses Christianity.' Plischke used his commission effectively to demonstrate how architecture inspired by the Modern Movement ideals could express key components of the modern Catholic liturgy.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:
St Mary's Church is one of just two reinforced concrete churches designed by Plischke in New Zealand. As such, it is a rare expression of Plischke's ability to rethink church design to meet and express modern liturgical concepts and requirements.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:
The church is part of wider Catholic and religious landscape. It located on the same street as the original St Mary's Church building, and continues to be linked to this building by the insertion of the original stained glass windows into the entrance doors of the new church. It is located adjacent to the Catholic convent (now a private dwelling), and the church presbytery (1950). It is also located adjacent to the Anglican St Margaret's Church (Category II), which was constructed in 1902.
Overlooking the hills of Taihape on Concordiae Hill, is St Mary's Church, a structure designed by the important architect Ernst Plischke (1903-1992).
In Taihape, a township established in 1894, Catholics were originally served by members of the Society of Mary (Marists), who had first brought the Catholic message of faith to Maori in the area in 1838. In the early 1880s, settlements began to develop in the Rangitikei region along the route of the proposed North Island Main Trunk Railway Line, and calls were made for the missionaries to service the growing European population. This responsibility fell to French Marist Father Lacroix, who set up his headquarters at Mangaweka. He established a number of small churches in the region, including Raketapauma Church (1897) and the church at Karioi (1890). Lacroix travelled once a month to Taihape, and eventually raised a loan to build the first Catholic Church in the township.
The church was built for £600 and Father Lacroix serviced the loan through fundraising procedures that included canvassing money from Irish Catholic tunnel workers labouring on the railway line. Archbishop Redwood officially opened the church, which was named St Mary;s Church, on 24 January 1904. The small wooden building served the Catholic community until the 1950s. It is now known as Saint Mary's Hall and, apart from the absence of the choir loft, steeple and cross, the building remains in close to its original condition.
In 1950 Father Doolaghty, the then priest of St Mary's, held a parish meeting to discuss fundraising for a new church building. After the meeting, two long-standing parishioners, Hungarian couple Maud and John Bartosh, approached Father Doolaghty. They offered to gift funds sufficient to cover the full cost of a new building, on the condition that John Bartosh could be instrumental in its design. The church was to be located on a section at the top of the same street as the original church building. The section had been used for residential purposes since the turn of the century and was transferred to the Roman Catholic Church from Marion Chapman on the Feast Day of Our Lady, 8 September 1948. It took five years to get a permit to build the new church.
On 17 October 1954, the new St Mary's Church was opened by Archbishop McKeefry, at a total cost of $80,000. Then referred to as 'Father Doolaghty's Blue Baby', the church featured blue outside walls, which were symbolic of the colour of the robes worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The designer of the church, Ernst Plischke, was an important force behind the introduction of architecture inspired by the Modern Movement into New Zealand following the Second World War. Born in Vienna in 1903, Plischke qualified as an architect in 1932. Plischke immigrated to New Zealand during the Nazi occupation of Vienna. As a member of the socialist Austrian Werkbund and the husband of the Jewish Anna Lang, Plischke would have been in danger had he remained during the occupation. Perhaps better known for the design of private houses, Plischke also made a substantial contribution within New Zealand to the design of churches. As a non-practising Catholic, Plischke designed 'buildings for a variety of religious denominations [that] were acclaimed for their simplicity, versatility and modernity.' His first piece of religious architecture was a Methodist ecumenical community centre that was constructed in Khandallah, Wellington, in 1948. It had a wooden frame and was finished in plaster. Two churches that were designed with reinforced concrete followed; St Mary's church in Taihape, and St Martin's Presbyterian Church in Christchurch (1953-1954). It was Plischke's Austrian origins, together with his connections with George Gabites, an acquaintance of the then Archbishop of Wellington that secured him the commission for St Mary's. It was felt that his Austrian background would ensure that he designed a building that would be acceptable to the Hungarian John Bartosh, who was to oversee the commission.
Plischke was of the view that there was 'no reason inherent in Christian theology or in liturgy for some people to think that only an archaic structure as well as a primitive interior space best expresses Christianity.' He noted the basis for the designs of most churches in New Zealand was an inverted V hut structure, as used for houses by early settlers in the 1850s. Plischke believed that it was important to create a feeling of space within the interior of the church noting that 'the world of space and form, of light and colour is autonomous and able to express human experiences as intensely as any other form of art.'
St Mary's Church reflects these architectural attributes through its use of space and light. The generous height of the interior is designed to evoke a sense of awe. The space is shaped by sculptural concrete walls, with the verticality further emphasised by detailing such as the suspended light fittings and the fenestration of the articulated bell tower. The location of the distinctive round windows, high in the nave walls, leads occupant's views upwards, to the sky. The windows are high enough to preclude any distracting view of the landscape, but wash the massive forms of the interior of the church with sunlight, emphasising the interior, the sacred space. The apse is similarly flooded with side light from a window screened from the nave. This effectively locates the focus of the building on the altar, without introducing distracting detailing or spatial demarcation.
The use of ornamentation in the building is limited and considered. Rather than adorning the building with elaborate decoration, Plischke allows the inherent beauty of the materials and construction to relieve its austerity. For example, the timber trusses were left exposed and unpainted to reveal both the beauty of the timber and the structural logic of the trusses.
While Plischke drew on the early Catholic tradition of the Basilica (at John Bartosh's request), he broke from the tradition by introducing key asymmetric elements. This includes the bell tower, with its grid of stained glass, which would have lit the original entry with sunlight and colours. The massing of the forms at the altar is also asymmetrical. This lends the space a dynamism and complexity which emphasises key moments in the church ceremony.
While the interior of the church forms and is formed by the Catholic mass, the exterior of the church is notably detached from its environment. Rising steeply from a prominent hill in Taihape, the simple blue/grey forms were intended to achieve a 'restrained and quiet dignity' . As for the interior, the verticality of the forms is emphasised. Plischke has made no use of his trademark overhanging eaves, opting instead to let the walls reach to the sky without termination, the blue/grey of the walls blending with the blue/grey of the sky. This verticality is further reinforced by the detailing as seen in the copper down pipes, and the massing, as found in the bell tower.
The building is identifiable as a church by the distinctive cross fenestration of the circular windows, and the crucifix, which was commissioned by the Archbishop and Monsignor Connelly. Plischke considered that the round windows prevented the building from looking 'too profane, too Government Building' .
The Stations of the Cross were ordered from an Austrian artist, Martin Roestenburg. Roestenburg was also requested to design a mosaic of St Joseph for the foyer, and a figure of the crucified Christ for the wheel window at the front of the church. The pews of the church were designed by Plischke and were constructed by tradesman Hans Verdonk.
St Mary's Church served the Taihape parish in its original form for 49 years until 1993. To allow wheel chair access to the church, a new entrance was constructed in the less visible west wall. While the original entrance was left in tact, the new entrance replaced the grid-like stained glass windows that lit the foyer of the church. At the same time the back of the church was screened off, and a kitchen was installed in the original foyer. In 1998, a new porch was added and, in the panes of the new aluminium entrance doors, two stained glass windows from the original St Mary's Church building were inserted. Despite these changes, the church continues to reflect the skills of its architect, and to stand as testimony to his belief in the ability of the application of the principles of the Modern Movement to express the spiritual elements of Christianity.
St Mary's Church is sited at the peak of Concordiae Hill, overlooking the hills of Taihape. It is based on a rectangular plan. The exterior is covered in roughcast, coloured blue/grey. The corrugated iron roof is unobtrusive. At the front of the church, over the window, is a white sculpture of Jesus on the Cross. At the side is the bell tower, which features grids of coloured glass. The original side entrance was an extension located below the cross. The doors were on the same side as the bell tower and were decorated to reflect the tower's grid-like windows. When climbing the grey concrete steps to the doors, parishioners passed by the foundation stone. This entrance is no longer in use. It has been replaced with a new entrance on the opposite side of the church, in which grid-like stained glass windows were formerly located. The new entrance consists of a verandah and new doors of aluminium and glass. Inset into the new doors are two of the stained glass windows from the original St Mary's Church. On the wall opposite the doors is a mosaic of St Joseph. Doors from the vestry lead into the kitchen and to the wooden stairs to the gallery. The foyer is separated from the rear of the nave by a screen of timber framing and glass. The nave features asymmetrical massing at the altar. A side window floods the altar with light. The four windows on either side of the nave are round and of coloured glass, and are located high up in the walls. Electric lighting and heaters hang suspended over the two rows of simple wooden pews. At the rear of the church is the choir gallery, which is constructed from timber.
Registration includes all of the land in WN34D/292, and the church and its fittings and fixtures thereon. Registration also includes the following chattels: foundation stone, Stations of the Cross, pews, and the memorial plaques.
Addition of water closet
Alterations to entrance and rear; sound system installed
Porch added; rear altered; heaters installed
The foundations are made of concrete. The walls of the church are reinforced with steel and constructed from 6-inch (15.24 centimetre) concrete blocks covered with two coats of roughcast coloured greyish blue. It has white window frames. The windows are of coloured glass supported by timber crosses. The gallery in the interior is constructed from rimu, and has rimu wall panels. The roof is made from corrugated iron that was originally coloured a dark brown.
1st October 2004
Report Written By
Rebecca O'Brien and Xanthe Howes
E Plischke, 'The Building of Churches', Comment: a New Zealand quarterly review, 1961, vol. 2, no. 4, pp 25-31
D. Robertson, 1894-199 ...give me Taihape on a Saturday night, Waikanae, 1995
Shaw, 1991 (3)
Peter Shaw, New Zealand Architecture: From Polynesian Beginnings to 1990, Auckland, 1991
St Mary's Parish, 1999
St Mary's Parish, A Centennial Story St Mary's Parish Taihape 1899-1999, Auckland, 1999
L. Tyler, 'The Architecture of E. A. Plischke in New Zealand: 1939-1962'; University of Canterbury Masters Thesis, 1986
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central 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.