St John's Church

102 St John Street, Opotiki

  • St John's Church, Opotiki. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Shellie Evans . Taken By: Shellie Evans – flyingkiwigirl. Date: 1/04/2018.
  • St John's Church, Opotiki. 2007.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: K Pfeiffer.
  • St John's Church, Opotiki. c.1910-1930. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-001103-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
    Copyright: No Known Copyright Restrictions. Taken By: William A Price.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 806 Date Entered 24th June 2005


Extent of List Entry

Registration includes the church building, its fittings, and fixtures, and the land comprised in certificate of title 190807.

City/District Council

Opotiki District


Bay of Plenty Region

Legal description

Lot 2 DP 346436 (CT 190807), Gisborne Land District


Constructed in 1907 in St John Street, Opotiki, St John's Church reflects the growth and development of the Presbyterian population in the township.

In 1872, several years after the Opotiki township was first surveyed by John Gwynneth, the then Minister of Native Affairs, Sir Donald McLean (1820-1877), sent Presbyterian minister Reverend Martin to open a school in the area. Martin held the first religious services for the town's Presbyterian population in the Masonic Hotel. He also held services for Church of England on alternate Sundays. After two years, Martin resigned and was replaced by a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, Reverend Alexander Soutar. Prior to his appointment, Soutar worked for the Church of England in New Zealand. His services in Opotiki were conducted according to the order of the Church of England. On 22 June 1877 it was concluded at a meeting of Presbyterians of the township that a Presbyterian church should be established, and a minister of Presbyterian denomination be obtained. This resolution resulted in an invitation to the Reverend John Gow, who had relocated to Opotiki for health reasons, to become the new minister. Gow was officially appointed on 22 September 1878, and for five years he conducted Presbyterian services in the Town Hall.

Under Gow, efforts to construct a purpose-built Presbyterian church in Opotiki commenced. In 1880, Trustees were appointed to manage Section 2, Allotment 23 on the survey plan of 1860, which had been set aside for a church. In 1883 a church building was constructed on the site by Thomas Abbot for £270. Although the church provided seating for 105 people, by 1890 the Presbyterian population had increased, necessitating the construction of an addition that would accommodate a further 40 persons. Two years later, Gow retired, having devoted 14 years to the betterment of the Presbyterian church in Opotiki. His successor was installed in a newly built manse five months later, and the congregation continued to grow. By 1905, the first Presbyterian church was too small to accommodate it.

Two years later the original church was converted into a Sunday School, and a new, larger church was constructed on the site. The new building was designed by the noted Waikato and - by this time - Opotiki-based architect Thomas Henry White (1843-1923), and constructed by Messrs Ross & Purcell at the cost of £666.0.0. The church, named St John's Presbyterian Church, was a commanding timber structure, whose appearance was similar to a Unitarian Church that White had previously designed in Ponsonby Road, Auckland in 1901 (NZHPT Registration # 7178, Category 1 historic place). In 1946, three stained glass windows were inserted above the altar in memory of the parishioners who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars.

The church is still in use by the Opotiki faithful and retains many elements of its original design. In 1972, the Presbyterian Parish amalgamated with the Methodist Parish. To symbolise this union the church was renamed 'St Johns Union Church'. The main changes to the original building occurred four years later in 1976. These consisted of alterations to the porch area, including the removal of decorative elements around the gable, and the addition of seating at the rear of the nave. The church reaches its centenary in 2007, and remains an important religious centre in the Opotiki district.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The church is of considerable local significance for its connection with Reverend John Gow, the first official Presbyterian minister in the Opotiki district, and the person primarily responsible for the church's erection.

The building has architectural importance as an example of the work of Thomas Henry White, and its stained glass windows, which demonstrate a considerable mastery of painting techniques, add considerably to the church's aesthetic value. Prominently located on an intersection between two major streets, the church also has important landmark qualities.

St John's Church has strong spiritual significance as a long-standing place of worship. It is the centre of Presbyterian worship in the Opotiki district and, more recently, of the Methodist faith. As such, it is a continuing symbol of the strength of the faith in Opotiki.

The social esteem in which the church was, and still is, held by the community is demonstrated by its continuing use, and the addition of the memorial windows and plaques in the interior.

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

St John's Church is associated with the development of the Presbyterian faith in New Zealand. It demonstrates the importance of religion to the early settler community and the size and style of the building provides insight into the nature of the community, which caused it to be constructed.

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

The church is held in high esteem by the local community. This has been demonstrated by the continuing use of the building for almost a century, and the addition of memorial plaques and stained glass windows in the interior of the building.

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

The building is a significant Bay of Plenty example of the religious architecture of Thomas Henry White.

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

The church is a symbol of the development of the Presbyterian parish in the Opotiki area and its continuing strength for almost a century. It is also a centre of the Methodist faith in the region.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

White, Thomas H.

Thomas Henry White (1843-1923) was born in Birmingham, England, and was educated there and in Paris before briefly spending time in New Zealand in the early 1860s. After practising as an architect in Birmingham, he returned to New Zealand in 1873. White undertook architectural work in the Waikato from at least 1875 and was based in Hamilton from 1877 until 1881. He lived on his farm at Taupiri but maintained an office in Auckland as well.

White undertook numerous architectural commissions in the Waikato, Auckland and Opotiki. His work ranged from bridges and substantial brick and plaster commercial buildings to timber shops, churches and dwellings. Notable buildings were the Catholic Church, Hamilton East (1877), Volunteer Hall, Hamilton (1879), the Waikato Cheese and Bacon Company factory (1882), a grandstand at Cambridge (1878), the re-build of the Royal Hotel, Hamilton East (1890) and a hotel at Runciman (1887). He was responsible for the design and construction of a concrete flour mill store at Ngaruawahia (1878), Firth Tower, Matamata (1881-82), St Peter’s Hall, Hamilton, the Royal Hotel, Opotiki, and St John's Presbyterian Church, Opotiki (1907). He designed shops in Matamata (1886) and Hamilton (various dates); houses in Hamilton, Ngaruawahia, Pirongia, Huntly, Waitoa, Whatawhata and Tamahere and six workman’s cottages, Huntly (1888). White was a trustee of the Kirikiriroa Highway Board, an elected member of the Kirikiriroa Licensing Committee, Honorary Secretary of the Taupiri Domain Board and a Justice of the Peace. He was also a musician, playing clarinet and violin.

He died 16 June 1923. see obit Waikato Times 19 June 1923 p.4.

Source: Registration Report for Woodside, List No. 2693, 12 July 2010, with additional biiographical information about his origins and training added by Heritage New Zealand in May 2019.

Ross & Purcell

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

O.G. Miller & Sons

Dunedin - Stained glass window manufacturers).

R.Miller - register number 806

Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description

Located on the corner of St John and King Street in Opotiki, St John's Church is approximately 22 metres by 9 metres, and is based on a 'T' shaped plan. At the rear a small lean-to was constructed to provide a back entrance into the church. A gabled extension on the King Street side also provided a side entrance. The front entrance was distinguished by a bell tower, and a verandah over the foyer. The verandah was modified in 1976 when the foyer was enlarged, and scalloped brackets were used to replace the original, decorative fretwork. Above the verandah was a grouping of three rectangular windows, similar to the ones used along the sidewalls of the church to light the interior. The interior was lined with vertical timber boards stained dark brown. The ceiling features exposed timber arches. At the rear of the nave is a loft with upstairs seating installed in 1976. The front of the church, above the altar, features three stained glass windows that were installed in memory of church members who fought and died in the First and Second World Wars. Under the windows, brass panels flanked by wooden crosses record the names of those who lost their lives during the wars.

Completed in 1947, the three windows are grouped together in a memorial triptych. The windows are lancets and feature cusped arches. The central window is the largest, and is tiered, consisting of at least two segments stacked on top of each other. The two other windows are identical in size, and flank the central window. The windows depict three images of Christ. The centre panel is the 'Risen Christ'. The left panel is 'The Good Shepherd', and the right panel is 'Christ, the Light of the World'. Naturalistic in style, the windows demonstrate a considerable mastery of painting techniques. Comparatively large pieces of stained glass were used to allow the leadlines to flow with the design, and allow the painted image to dominate over the construction technique. The glass is made in the traditional manner of mouth-blowing and flattening into a sheet. Although most of the background glasses are pot-metal, with colour that penetrates throughout the width of the glass, the remaining colour is flashed onto clear glass, leaving a thin layer of colour. Silver nitrate has been applied to parts of the window to give them a soft, gold tone.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1883 -
First Presbyterian church constructed

Original Construction
1907 -
Construction of second Presbyterian church commences (St John's Church)

1947 -
Completion and installation of memorial stained glass windows, new communion tables, chairs, pulpit, and carpet installed

1959 -
First church removed from site (new church hall constructed)

1976 -
Church foyer enlarged and upstairs seating installed

Roof cladding replaced

Construction Details

Timber frame and cladding, with decra-bond roof tiles.

Information Sources

Comrie, 1939

W. Comrie, Presbytery of Auckland; Early Days and Progress, Wellington, 1939

McCallion, 1956

McCallion, A., Their Greatness: Tales of the Pioneers of the Eastern Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, 1956

Morrison, 1997

Kingston Morrison, Opotiki District Council Built Heritage Assessment, Opotiki, 1997

St John's Presbyterian Church, 1928

St John's Presbyterian Church, Opotiki, jubilee souvenir, 1878-1928, Opotiki, 1928

St John's Union Church

St Johns Union Church - History,

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Northern 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.