St John the Evangelist Church (Anglican)

Wakapuaka Road And Cable Bay Road, Hira

  • St John the Evangelist Church (Anglican), Hira. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 21/03/2014.
  • St John the Evangelist Church (Anglican), Hira. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 21/03/2014.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 1656 Date Entered 30th October 2009 Date of Effect 30th October 2009


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Pt Sec 28 Sbrn Nth (RT NL62/233), Nelson Land District, and the building and structure known as St John the Evangelist Church (Anglican) thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Nelson City


Nelson Region

Legal description

Pt Sec 28 Sbrn Nth (RT NL62/233), Nelson Land District

Location description

When driving north from Nelson on the Nelson to Blenheim highway, Hira is the settlement immediately after Wakapuaka when travelling over the Gentle Annie Saddle. The church can be seen when descending this hill just prior to entering Hira village. Parking is available on the shoulder of Cable Bay Road which is clearly indicated by a sign on the highway directing travellers to Cable Bay.


St John the Evangelist Church (Anglican) in Hira is the only remaining example of several early churches in Nelson's Suburban North which is on its original site. Constructed in 1888 as a result of demand from the increasing local population, the building is a characteristic example of a vernacular country church inspired by Gothic Revival architecture.

By the mid 1850s the New Zealand Company of Nelson had coalesced and expansion into the surrounding districts was underway. A reflection of the maturity of the settlements in Nelson's Suburban North had reached a point that the community was able to build its first Anglican churches by the early 1860s. When St John the Evangelist Church in Happy Valley, later called Hira, was constructed the area had a complement of four Anglican churches. One of these had previously been in Happy Valley but was relocated which meant that there was no longer one in the immediate vicinity. However, with the establishment of the community at Cable Bay and further increases in the population at Happy Valley, by the late 1880s there was local demand for a church to be once again located at the periphery of the parish. By the late twentieth century the parish was consolidating itself and all of the early churches, except that at Hira, were either relocated or demolished. St John the Evangelist Church could have suffered a similar fate because of its degraded condition, but several instances of community driven and funded repair and restoration work meant that the church was able to see in its second century in good condition.

The Anglican church at Hira is typical of many country churches in New Zealand of the period which reference Gothic Revival architecture but within a New Zealand vernacular. The building is a simple design consisting of a porch, nave, and vestry, this later section featuring one of the most remarked upon aspects of the church, which is that it has retained its chimney. The building is an unabashed timber structure, which reflects the prominence of this material locally at the time, and combined with the modest scale and minimal decoration on the exterior, is indicative of the economic considerations that the community and architect had to confront when undertaking the project.

St John the Evangelist Church has considerable local historical and social importance as the only remaining vestige in its original context of the initial spread of Anglicanism in Nelson's Suburban North as its rural settlements coalesced. While the church is significant locally as a place of worship, it also facilitates social interaction, an aspect that was particularly valuable within this sparsely populated district in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before technical developments enabled ease of transport and communication. St John the Evangelist Church is still identifiably a country church in its form and because of the retention of the pastoral nature of its surroundings, and it is mostly because of this that it is a local landmark.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Although not founded on a denominational basis, by the 1870s Anglicanism was ingrained in the life of the population of Nelson and had the largest number of congregants. The state of the roads stretching north from Nelson inhibited the settlement of this rural area until the mid 1850s and it took several more years for local population to be able to construct its first purpose-built place of Anglican worship. However, between 1861 and 1874 three churches were constructed, with St John the Evangelist Church built in 1888 as a result of local demand. An indicator of the firm establishment of a community is the construction of religious buildings and by the late 1880s the settlement around the rural centre of Hira had reached this point, helped by the nearby settlement at Cable Bay. However, while St John the Evangelist Church in Hira was the last of the Anglican churches constructed in Nelson's Suburban North, because of demolitions and relocations in the late twentieth century, it is now the only remaining remnant of the maturing of the rural settlements in the northern area of Nelson which is in its original context, and therefore has considerable local historical value.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

The aesthetic value of St John the Evangelist 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 St John the Evangelist Church is a landmark of the countryside north of Nelson and has aesthetic significance.

Architectural Significance or Value:

St John the Evangelist Church has architectural value as a characteristic late nineteenth century proponent of the Gothic Revival style of church architecture which was adapted to New Zealand requirement and the materials locally available, and in doing so became a vernacular style. Typical rural examples of these churches in New Zealand are characterised by their modest size, simple but graceful design, and timber construction, all of which describe St John the Evangelist Church.

Social Significance or Value:

Because of its rural setting St John the Evangelist 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 Anglican worship and other religious events also created occasions where the community could interact and network, which would only have occurred infrequently otherwise.

Spiritual Significance or Value:

Prior to the construction of St John the Evangelist Church access to religious services by the population on the periphery of Nelson's Suburban North was complicated by the relocation of an existing Anglican church and the distance along rudimentary roads that this then required. The religious imperative of the increasing population of Hira and Cable Bay in the late 1880s lead to the building of their new local church and since its construction in 1888 St John the Evangelist Church has been the venue of innumerable Anglican religious services and celebrations. Therefore the church has been directly associated with the spiritual aspect of thousands of local residents lives since its construction, which means it is of considerable local spiritual importance.

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

St John the Evangelist Church is an important site because it physically represents the concurrent spread of European settlement and the Anglican faith in New Zealand. It also reflects the determination and commitment of the faithful in rural districts such as Hira, in their efforts to create these symbols of their religious convictions.

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

St John the Evangelist Church is known to have been the church of a prominent local Maori family, the Matengas who gained national fame in the 1860s for their heroic deeds in rescuing people from the wreck of the Delaware. This fam-ily was heavily involved in church life because they were responsible for trans-porting many local congregants to services.

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

As the base at the rural periphery of Nelson's Anglican parish since 1888, St John the Evangelist Church has been attended by thousands of local people since its construction and therefore many have a close personal and family connection with the building. It is also a local landmark and the combination of these factors has meant that at times when the building's physical integrity has been in question the community has rallied around it donating money, materi-als, and labour in order to assure its continuance. This high community esteem for St John the Evangelist Church has also been demonstrated by large atten-dance at its various anniversary celebrations, including the presence of dignitar-ies such as senior clergy.

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

The country churches affiliated with Anglicanism and other denominations which dot the landscape throughout the Nelson Province mark the historical progress of this New Zealand Company settlement and are indicative of its spread, development, and maturing by the late nineteenth century.


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


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Black, R

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The settlement of the Nelson region is said to have begun with the landing of the prominent early iwi, Waitaha, in the waka Uruao. This travelled from Hawaiki and the voyagers made landfall on the Boulder Bank circa .850, near what would become Nelson city. From there scouting parties set out to explore the interior while others continued their journey by sea down the east coast of the South Island. The settlement of the Nelson region then ensued and was driven by the fact that the area was found to be rich in resources, such as minerals for fashioning tradable items like adzes. Food, in the form of seal, moa and shellfish, was plentiful too and the district also had large tracts of land with fertile soil, or soil whose fertility could be manipulated, suitable for growing kumara and other garden produce. It was because of this abundance of resources that the district is said to have been 'one of the most fought over in New Zealand.'

A European association with the Nelson area was first established in 1642 when Abel Tasman anchored in what was to be called Murderer's, then Massacre, and now Golden Bay. The result of this first visit was a lethal exchange between the Dutch sailors and Ngati Tumatakokiri. It was centuries after this initial encounter that European interest in the area began in earnest with explorative visits from Captain James Cook and Dumont D'Urville and a few others. Then in the late eighteenth early nineteenth century flax traders and sealers began to frequent the coast around Nelson. However, because there were few whaling stations in the immediate area there was no substantive European settlement until the New Zealand Company's establishment and settlement of Nelson from 1841.

The company explored the potential of several sites for its settlement but Nelson was chosen as the nucleus, despite the generally swampy nature of the low lying areas, because of its harbour and the plentiful supplies of game and fish. It was then a matter of Captain Arthur Wakefield meeting with the various iwi of the region to persuade them to agree to the proposed settlement. This was essentially a confirmation and extension of a land sale organised by the Tory expedition in 1839. The meeting took place at Kaiteriteri and Wakefield eventually negotiated a deal with those in attendance. However, subsequent events demonstrate that in regard to this and some later transactions there were discrepancies in what each party believed they had agreed to. This led to several instances of conflict in the Nelson region during the 1840s, in particular. Perhaps the most well-known occurrence was the 'Wairau Affray' in 1843.

Movement and settlement north of the settlement at Nelson was greatly inhibited until 1843 when a road was constructed to Hira, which generally consisted of widening existing Maori tracks. At this time it was reported by Arthur Wakefield that the New Zealand Company was 'smoothing the way to Waukapowaka [sic], on which road there are some very pretty sections and excellent land.' It was the beginning sections of this road that Wakefield and others, including some of the road workers, used when they set off to the disastrous meeting at Wairau. While the presence of the road was an encouraging thought and helped promote northern settlement, in practice it was often frustrating to navigate because of its condition which meant that transport and communication were still difficult, and consequently it was not until the 1850s that the area had concentrated settlements.

This development of rural settlements in Nelson's Suburban North in the 1850s is consistent with the coalescence of the Nelson community and its other satellite towns. Provincial government was established in 1853, and most of the farm land from Wakapuaka to Brightwater was occupied by this date and settlers were gradually moving further north of Wakapuaka which saw the establishment of rural settlements such as Happy Valley. By the 1850s all of the major Christian denominations could also boast of clergy and associated buildings in and around Nelson. Between 1853 and 1858 the European population of the district had risen from 4,587 to over 7,000 and continued to grow and prosper into the 1860s and 1870s with the aid of the local gold rushes and the nationwide demand for the area's produce. This growth in population can be seen in the coinciding increase in churches and school buildings which were necessary to supplement those already established.

Rural religion and St John the Evangelist, Hira:

Nelson in the 1840s seems to be what one would expect of a 'frontier' society; horribly unhygienic by modern standards and rough behaviour abounded. One solution to this, which the New Zealand Company approved of, was the influence of religion. Unlike the later settlements of Canterbury and Otago, Nelson was not founded around denominational lines and as such all the major Christian sects were able to gain a foothold, although the Church of England was by far the most popular. In the early 1850s Nelson, with its disparate religious communities was accorded the distinction of being the seat of the Anglican Diocese. This confidence was rewarded in the 1870s with Anglicanism becoming more ingrained in the city and throughout the district.

The first divine service in Waimea was reported to have taken place at the home of a Mr Kerr in 1842. However, deliberate settlement in the area of Happy Valley, later known as Hira, did not begin until the 1850s when the Provincial Government advertised sections for sale. The nature of the roads was a main inhibitor to growth in the area, however by the 1870s settlements were well established which led to a second wave of church building, as it did in other areas of Nelson, such as the Waimea Plain.

St John's was not the first church in what was known as Nelson's Suburban North or in Happy Valley. This distinction belonged to St Barnabas' which was constructed in 1861. Other churches in the area included St Andrew's at Wakapuaka (1865) and St Peter's (1874) which have now both been moved from their original sites. St Barnabas' was also relocated in 1876, however later in the 20th century it was demolished. The relocation of St Barnabas' left the Happy Valley congregation without a church in the immediate vicinity and services were held in a local school room. The community in the area was also growing as a result of the Cable Bay station which was established in 1876. Therefore in the late 1880s there was a move to replace St Barnabas' with a new church dedicated to St John the Evangelist; the last church built in the area, but now the only one surviving on its original site.

Like other country churches, the construction of the building relied greatly on the community being motivated to see it happen and then to back this up with financial or other contributions. The church site is said to have been picked by Bishop Suter and the landowner, Hugh Martin, then donated the section. The church itself was designed by R. Black. It is unclear whether the date dictated the dedication of the church to St John, or vice versa, but on St Johns Day (27 December) 1888 the new church was consecrated. Because the parish did not have a resident minister one of the unusual features of the building, the fireplace in the vestry, came in handy as a means of providing warmth for visiting clergy who stayed overnight in the church. This aspect of the building has meant that St John's is frequently referred to as 'the church with the chimney.'

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 many of the rural settlers still lived in relative isolation. Therefore occasions such as church openings and services were important social gatherings, particularly for women and children who did not have the same opportunities as many of the men to mingle. This was found to be true of the churches in Nelson's Suburban North and it is recorded that '..the church played a grand part in the lives of those who did attend, and the little church in each area has a significant role in the heritage of many local families.'

At the turn of the twentieth century the church is reported to have been 'almost always fully attended, both by children and the farming families' and, although it was not customary, sometimes a few local Catholics would also come. While the services themselves were undoubtedly viewed as important by those in attendance, the use of the church after they had finished as a place where people could interact and conduct farming business was also vital for the community. Often local people would go to St Barnabas' for morning services and then come to those at St John's in the evening using Hemi Matenga's trotting horses which pulled the carts for transport. The Matenga family, who are known to have been staunch supporters of the church, gained fame in 1863 for their heroic efforts in rescuing crew from the shipwreck of the Delaware. Transport for the successive vicars of this reasonably large parish was characterised by horse and cart and then bicycle up until 1930 when it was finally decided that a car was a feasible option.

Throughout the mid twentieth century the church continued to mark the rural end of the parish at a time when consolidation of the local churches which were closer to Nelson was being considered. In the late 1960s it was necessary to attend to the church building as it was showing signs of its age. Therefore an association was formed called the Friends of St. Johns, Hira in 1969 and they raised $1000 towards repairing the building. Donations came from the congregants, and other local people also gave generously. Dry rot was a particular problem and this was repaired by G.T. Wilson in 1970. At this time the exterior and roof were also painted. On the interior the carpet was replaced and D. Beattie provided two new candlesticks for the altar.

This community effort was recognised late in 1970, on the 82nd anniversary of the church's consecration, by Bishop Sutton who rededicated the church in front of a large congregation and other senior clergy. However, this was not to be an end of work repair work at St John's, because only a few days later the chimney was blown down in a severe storm. An anonymous donation early in the next year meant that the church was able to be buttressed against similar future events. Then further repair work was then discovered to be necessary in 1976, which was able to be completed due to a grant from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. The churchyard was also beautified during this period with donated perimeter trees, and Dr and Mrs Hudson also donated a ships bell and lantern to go above the entrance. The lantern was of particular importance because it had been used at Dunkirk in 1940, but it was stolen from the church in 1979. This lantern was then replaced with another.

In early 1984 it was the turn of the interior to receive attention and timber from a matai donated by a local family was used to reline the sanctuary wall. Other work such as replacing rotten sills and other timber components was also required which meant that the church was closed for the month of January while the work was done. This work, as well as the fitting of a window from the former St Andrew's Church into the porch and newly created circular stained glass windows depicting doves of peace, was completed so that the church was in a fitting state to see in its second century. This it succeeded in and at the 120th anniversary of the church approximately 100 people attended the celebrations, many in period costume.

Physical Description

St John the Evangelist Church, Hira, is located on a corner section in a rural area north of Nelson. Geoffrey Thornton has said that whatever direction you view St John the Evangelist Church from 'it melds into the landscape and also gives a well-mannered point of emphasis.' This setting has also inspired poetic titles for the church such as 'the church with the chimney in the valley of kissing waters.'

The church sits towards the back of its small churchyard and is accessed either through gates on Cable Bay or Wakapuaka Roads. The later is the main entrance to the churchyard as it has a path which leads directly to the entrance porch of the church and is close to the simple external timber, gable canopy, and freestanding belfry which still has its bell in place. It is unclear when the belfry was constructed, but its bell is that which was donated by Dr and Mrs Hudson in the late 1970s.

The combination of the simple style of the church building with its characteristic entrance porch and vestry, and nave featuring a high stud and steep pitched gable, as well as other aspects that emphasis the height in this modestly sized church, such as lancet windows with prominent hoods, 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, and in particular rusticated weatherboards, in the construction of St John the Evangelist Church.

The economic considerations and priorities of the clients, the local community, which R. Black, the church's architect, would have taken into account in the design meant that the building does not feature any excessive decoration, although there are small touches such as the rosettes which flank each of the hoods of the four sets of double lancet windows along each length of the building, as well as the southeast side of the porch, and the largest set of windows, the three-light lancet blind window on the nave's south fa├žade and behind the altar. An original decorative feature of this same elevation was a quatrefoil in the gable end, into which a stained glass window featuring doves of peace was inserted in 1984. At this time the window in the entrance porch, formerly from St Andrew's Church, was also installed.

Aside from instances of remedial work which have required the replacement of degraded original fabric, there has been little alteration to the form of the building and its external appearance since its construction in the late nineteenth century. One notable difference, however, are the buttresses along the length of the building. The original buttresses had been removed by the late twentieth century which necessitated the installation of new, simple functional skeletal buttresses as a protective measure after a severe storm in 1970. During this storm the distinctive brick chimney of the vestry was damaged. It is unknown whether this was repaired using the original bricks but from photographic evidence this feature appears to be of a slightly shorter height than when first constructed.

The interior was not able to be accessed or photographed during the creation of this report but among other features the walls are lined in matai and three timber scissor trusses support the steeply pitched gable roof.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1888 -
Church constructed

1969 -
Repair work undertaken on areas of external cladding affected by rot

1970 -
Chimney repaired

1971 -
Buttressing constructed

1984 -
Restoration of interior including relining of walls with matai

Construction Details

Corrugated iron, glass and timber

Completion Date

14th July 2009

Report Written By

Karen Astwood

Information Sources

McAloon, 1997

Jim McAloon, Nelson: A Regional History, Whatamango Bay, 1997

Mitchell, 2004

J and H Mitchell, Te Tau Ihu o te Waka - A History of Maori of Marlborough and Nelson, Wellington, 2004

Newport, 1966

J N W Newport, A short history of the Nelson Province, RW Stiles ad Co Ltd, Nelson, 1966

Wells, 2003

A. Wells, Nelson's Historic Country Churches, Nelson, 2003

Thornton, 2003

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

Evans, 1981

Suburban and Rural: A Church on the move, A short history of the Parochial District of Atawhai-Hira 1861-1981, Nelson, 1981

Wastney, 1977

P and N Wastney, Early Tide to Wakapuaka: The district and its pioneers, Nelson, 1977

Other Information

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.