St Joseph's Church and Cemetery (Catholic)

62 Pitfure Road, Wakefield

  • St Joseph’s Church and Cemetery (Catholic), Wakefield. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 15/03/2016.
  • St Joseph’s Church and Cemetery (Catholic), Wakefield. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 15/03/2016.
  • St Joseph’s Church and Cemetery (Catholic), Wakefield. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 15/03/2016.
  • St Joseph’s Church and Cemetery (Catholic), Wakefield. View of memorial gates looking towads cemetery.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Karen Astwood. Date: 1/06/2009.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 1658 Date Entered 11th December 2009 Date of Effect 11th December 2009


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Pt Sec 78 District of Waimea South (RT NL71/101), Nelson Land District and the building known as, and structures associated with, St Joseph's Church thereon, and its fittings and fixtures, and the following chattels: statuary, pedestals, altars and altar furniture, pews, and religious images (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Tasman District


Tasman Region

Legal description

Pt Sec 78 District of Waimea South (RT NL71/101), Nelson Land District

Location description

When travelling south along State Highway 6 from Nelson and entering Wakefield township, continue on a straight trajectory into Pitfure Road when the highway/Whitby Road curves westward. Pitfure Road rises slightly just after this intersection and St Joseph's Church is at the top of the rise on the southern side of the road.


St Joseph's Church (Catholic) is located within a large churchyard which includes a sizeable cemetery, memorial gates and impressive mature trees, in the town of Wakefield, south of Nelson. While now incorporated into a residential area, when the church was first constructed in 1870 it was the focus of a rural Catholic community, and as such it is counted as one of Nelson's historic country churches.

Planned European settlement in Nelson began in the early 1840s and it was only a few years later that people began to radiate out from this nucleus and establish rural farming settlements, like Wakefield, throughout the Waimea Plains. Although there was a small but active Catholic community in the Nelson area from early on, it was not until the arrival of Father Antoine Marie Garin, a French missionary, that the district had a resident Catholic priest. Garin and his curate initiated a building programme and by the late 1860s it was deemed necessary to build a church in Wakefield. By this time the settlement had consolidated and the population in the surrounding district was growing. This was also the situation elsewhere in the Nelson area and there was a second wave of church building around the period of 1870. The community spearheaded the construction of St Joseph's Church with their donations toward the building fund, and then throughout its history similar contributions have maintained and extended the building.

St Joseph's Church is a modest sized timber country church that is a characteristic example of the Gothic Revival influenced church architecture in New Zealand, which developed into a vernacular style from the mid to late nineteenth century. The church, with its loftily gabled and externally buttressed nave, porch, chancel, and vestry, all of which contain lancet windows and access points, has all the component parts of this type of architecture. The wider churchyard is large and features a cemetery with recently constructed lych gate, as well as a memorial entrance gate, and a historic redwood tree that dwarfs the church with its imposing height.

Within Wakefield St Joseph's Church is a landmark because of its prominent position and its aesthetic appeal. Church building is an indicator of the maturing of settlements, and as such St Joseph's Church has historical value because it marks the coming-of-age of this rural settlement. Moreover, the construction coincided with the beginning of a second wave of church building in the Nelson region and as such is demonstrative of the general coalescence and expansion of rural settlements around Nelson province in the late nineteenth century. This church and churchyard also have social and spiritual importance because it was one of only a few Catholic churches in the region when it was built and its construction was the result of the efforts of the local community, as has its subsequent expansions and maintenance.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

It was only a few years after the initial New Zealand Company settlement of Nelson that Pitfure, soon to be renamed Wakefield, was established. However, the distance and relative isolation of the rural community meant that it was not until the late 1860s that this rural centre had coalesced into a town. This trend was repeated in other rural settlements within Nelson province and as such a second wave of church building, reflective of the demands of the increasing population, occurred in the district over a twenty year period from around 1870. Therefore, the completion of St Joseph's Church in 1870 is not only historically significant as being reflective of the maturing of the town, but also of the wider Nelson area.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

The aesthetic value of St Joseph's Church comes from the fact that, despite some residential build-up in its immediate vicinity, its large churchyard has largely maintained the integrity of its setting and its country church aesthetic. Country churches are appealing because their presence in the landscape is not overstated due to their modest scale, but by the same token St Joseph's Church provides a point of reference in the townscape, which is enhanced by the impressive redwood tree in its churchyard.

Architectural Significance or Value:

St Joseph's 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. Typical rural examples of these churches are characterised by their modest size, simple design with aspects which emphasis height, and timber construction, all of which describe St Joseph's Church. 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.

Social Significance or Value:

Because of its original setting as a country church St Joseph's Church was socially significant, 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 Catholic worship and other religious events also created occasions where the community could interact and network, which would only have occurred infrequently otherwise. The social significance of St Joseph's Church is enhanced by the presence of the churchyard cemetery which is a direct link to previous generations of congregants and is still visited by people associated with these individuals as part of grieving rituals and acts of remembrance.

Spiritual Significance or Value:

As the first purpose-built church for Catholic worship in Wakefield, and the second in the Waimea Plain, St Joseph's Church has considerable local spiritual value within the town and the large surrounding rural district. Prior to this church's construction local people had to travel substantial distances in order to fulfil their spiritual needs and obligations. Since its construction St Joseph's Church and Cemetery has been the venue of innumerable Catholic religious services, events, and celebrations and therefore 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 Joseph's Church is an important site because it physically represents the concurrent spread of European settlement and the Catholic faith in New Zealand. It also reflects the determination and commitment of the faithful in rural districts such as Wakefield, in their efforts to create and maintain these symbols of their religious convictions.

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

Father Antoine Marie Garin was among early Catholic missionaries in New Zea-land, and he was the foundation priest of the Nelson Parish. One of his key roles was to promote church building and he is directly associated with St Jo-seph's Church because it was one of the few churches in the Parish, and he oversaw all of the celebrations connected with the building's construction. Sub-sequent Catholic leaders such as Archbishop Redwood and Cardinal McKeefry also have some recorded association with St Joseph's Church.

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

As the focus of Catholic worship in the Wakefield area since 1870, St Joseph's Church has been attended by thousands of local people since its construction and therefore many have a close personal and family connection with the build-ing. 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, or in the lead-up to important anniversaries, the community has rallied around it do-nating money, materials, and labour in order to assure its continuance.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

The presence of the churchyard cemetery at St Joseph's Church has potential for public education about some of the key New Zealand Company immigrants who were allocated land around Wakefield and developed its agricultural and horticultural industries, as well as also being of use to people researching family histories. Other aspects of the churchyard, such as the memorial gates, also highlight key personalities of the early settlement.

(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 Catholicism 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 during the mid to late nineteenth century.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Stewart, Robert

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 sea journey 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 further inland 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.'

European association with the 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 and 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.

The dealings of the New Zealand Company over land 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. After originally being called Pitfure, the town of Wakefield was renamed in honour of Captain Arthur Wakefield, who was killed during that conflict. However, like the other rural settlements which radiated out from Nelson, it was also not until the 1850s that Wakefield began to come into its own as a settlement, and even then there were two separate villages called Upper and Lower Wakefield.

The 1850s saw the Nelson community and other towns in the area begin to coalesce. Provincial government was established in 1853, and most of the farm land from Wakapuaka to Brightwater was occupied by this date. By the 1850s all of the major Christian denominations had resident 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 facilitated a second wave of church building which supplemented or replaced the churches that were already established.

Rural religion and St Joseph's Church:

By the time the history of Catholicism in New Zealand officially began in January 1838 with the arrival in Hokianga of the country's first bishop of any denomination, Jean-Baptiste Francoise Pompallier, there was a burgeoning population of faithful for this first mission to minister to. Catholicism came to New Zealand as part of the cultural baggage of the Europeans who visited and settled from the 1820s, and then more formally with the establishment of a mission. This early population primarily consisted of French whalers in coastal settlements, and also English and Irish immigrants many of whom came to New Zealand from Australia.

Whereas an Anglican mission was sent to New Zealand in 1814 and a Methodist equivalent in 1822, the French missionary party headed by the young Bishop Pompallier only set sail for the Pacific on Christmas Eve 1836. The voyage of the Bishop, four priests and three brothers took them to several islands, such as Tahiti, before they arrived at their Oceanic mission base in New Zealand. This group was expanded the following year with the arrival of three more priests and three brothers who continued to base themselves in the north of the North Island, although a station at the new French settlement at Akaroa meant there was some penetration into the South Island. The third of six eventual missionary groups from France arrived in July 1841 and included Father Antoine Marie Garin (1810-1889).

Garin and others were posted to Auckland's Catholic mission station after his arrival, and it was not until 1850 that Garin arrived to work in Nelson. By 1848 the small but active Catholic community in Nelson had erected its own chapel and school, but the region had no permanent priest. This changed with the arrival of Garin and his curate, Father Delphin Moreau, who quickly set about building churches for the wider Nelson and Waimea communities. Garin embraced his role whole-heartedly and soon became the pillar of the local Catholic community. Prior to 1860 his parish covered the top of the South Island from Marlborough to the West Coast and he was energetic in travelling around it. South of the Nelson parish there were few Catholics and therefore less of a demand for priests. Therefore, under Garin the Nelson parish became an important seat of Catholicism in New Zealand as it was the only strong foothold in the South Island.

Whereas there was an Anglican church in Wakefield from 1846, the first Catholic church built in the vicinity of Wakefield was at West Waimea in 1855. Local English immigrant Joseph Hoult supplied the timber for that church, as he was to do again when St Joseph's Church was built. Hoult had arrived in New Zealand in 1842 and had set up a farm in Wai-iti. The family continued to be avid supporters of the initial church but they became more closely associated with St. Joseph's Church's because it was in closer proximity to their home. In the absence of a place to worship in Richmond until 1939, the focus of the district's Catholic faithful was centred on these two early churches.

The construction of St Joseph's Church in 1870 coincided with a second wave of church building in the Nelson region which resulted from its satellite communities consolidating themselves and expanding further. Despite a two acre section of Dr William England's Pitfure Estate being acquired in 1858, Garin only called for tenders for St Joseph's Church's construction in July 1869. The church building project seems to have been mostly driven by Garin's curate, Rev. P. Chareyre. Chareyre's role in establishing the church was not forgotten and at the building's fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1930, Archbishop Francis Redwood paid tribute to him. The foundation stone and time capsule was laid by Garin at a ceremony he officiated at on Sunday 10 October, 1869. The attendance at the events celebrating the building of the church is evidence of the importance of the church to local people. At the laying of St Joseph's foundation stone it was reported that 'Wakefield, usually so quiet, presented a lively scene on this occasion' with visitors from as far as Nelson coming to support the event.

St Joseph's Church was completed in mid 1870. The Gothic Revival influenced church was designed by Robert Stewart and built by W. Good, their final product being described as 'the most substantial and the best finished building of that kind in province.' Again Garin presided over the dedication ceremony and celebrations which spanned an entire weekend. Like the foundation stone ceremony the attendance was impressive, especially as Saturday was a business day and Sunday's weather was inclement. Garin and Chareyne dressed in full formal regalia for the ceremonies and the choir from St Mary's Church in Nelson also lent their voices to the series of masses which were performed as part of the dedication.

Country churches 'made a statement that religious belief was important to country folk. Moreover, Geoffrey Thornton notes that 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. Therefore, St Joseph's Church was a source of community pride because their combined donations meant it could be built. This generosity reflected favourably on the village and its Catholic community. It is unclear when the porch was added to the church, but it was a feature of the building by 1902 and again would have been the result of the congregation's needs and efforts, as would the addition of the vestry on the south side of the chancel.

The next major changes to the church came in the 1960s. During this period Father M. Bradford was the priest for Richmond Parish, which included Richmond, Stoke, Wakefield and Tapawera from 1960, and he drove a notable period of active church building and repair projects. His first task after finding a suitable presbytery was to overhaul the church hall in Richmond, and then he saw that the congregation in Stoke, which had been worshiping in a public hall, had their own hall which was finished in 1963. Building seems to have been a passion as Bradford usually laboured as part of the construction teams. It was then the turn of St Joseph's Church to receive his attention. The church during that time was described as possessing 'a fine spire and combined with its elevated position was a fine sight.' However, in the interest of safety the aging spire was removed under Bradford's direction. The 1880 bell from the campanile was sold, but in later years it was reacquired by the parish and hung on the exterior of the church. Bradford's work at Wakefield did not stop at this though as in 1967 he began a project of tidying the cemeteries at Wakefield and West Waimea. The changes he instigated included the laying of 'metal' chip paths at both of these places.

The work at the church by Bradford and his band of volunteers meant that St Joseph's Church was in a good condition to see in its centenary in 1970. While the religious ceremonies were held at the church, the social functions took place at the Brightwater Hall whose greater capacity was better suited to cater for the large number of people in attendance. A committee is reported to have worked for a long time to prepare for the event which was attended by Cardinal McKeefry, among many others. The church continues to be used, cared for, and appreciated by the local Catholic community, and in 2000 a lych gate was erected as an entrance to the cemetery as part of millennium celebrations.

Physical Description

General setting and churchyard features:

St Joseph's Church in Wakefield was originally a rural church. However, although close to the periphery of the town, the church has become fully integrated into it through residential spread. Despite being part of a residential street, St Joseph's Church still maintains a country church sensibility primarily because of its large churchyard, but also because there are fields adjacent to its northeast and southeast boundaries. Before the construction of the surrounding houses, and the removal of the church's spire in the 1960s, it would have been a highly prominent building, especially from the north and east because of its location atop a small hill.

Within the churchyard, St Joseph's Church is northwest of the centre of the property, directly in line with the memorial gates, and the cemetery occupies a large square area of land in the southern corner of the churchyard. The remainder of the relatively flat churchyard is grassed with the exception of a few garden beds around the church, and also the shingle parking area between the gates and the church. Along the road side of the churchyard is a wire fence with concrete pillars. There are several varieties of mature trees around the churchyard's boundary. However, it is the mature redwood (Seuoiadendron giganteum) which dwarfs the church along the front of the section that is the most notable. There were several more trees of similar size and maturity along the churchyard boundary, but some had to be removed after a recent lightning strike.

The churchyard is entered through the memorial gates which consist of random rubble masonry pillars constructed from riverstone, each of which is capped in hipped concrete. The pillars support a set of steel sunburst design gates. A stone plaque inserted into the northwest side of each pillar explains that the gates were donated by William Hoult as a tribute to the church building committee, and each member of that committee is listed.

The churchyard cemetery contains the remains of several early New Zealand Company settlers, as well as those of successive generations through to the present. It is a well maintained cemetery with stone chip walkways. Entrance into the cemetery is through the steeply pitched gable lych gate. This type of roofed gate structure is a traditional British entrance to a cemetery, and at St Joseph's Church features open timber framing supporting the roof, some of which form arch shapes, that in turn are set into a low random rubble masonry wall on each side of the double picket gates. Benches have been set into each wall, above which are lists of the interred people in the cemetery that do not have headstones.

Church exterior:

A defining feature of the church is the lofty and steeply pitched gable of its nave, the angle of which is repeated on a smaller scale in the chancel and entrance porch, from which the opposing sets of double doors in lancet architraves are the main points of entry into the building. These aspects of the building, as well as the native timber framing, lining and rusticated weatherboard cladding, lancet windows, and external buttresses, are all typical of the Gothic Revival influenced churches around Nelson and New Zealand. Steep gables and spires provide the desired vertical emphasis that is characteristic of this vernacular style. However, even with the removal of its spire in 1967 this is successfully achieved at St Joseph's Church because of the repetition of elements which draw the eye upwards, such as the central line created by the triple light lancet window of the porch and then its gable converging at its apex, a sequence that is then repeated on the gable end. This upward movement is enhanced by the shape of the corner angle buttresses which, when viewing the front/northwest façade in one point perspective, make the building appear triangular or A-framed, the point of which draws the eye heavenward.

The double tiered external buttresses continue along each length of the nave, as do the lancet windows which contain two tracery lancets within each. On the northwest façade at the intersection of the nave and chancel is a small lean-to addition, a form which is repeated on a larger scale to form the vestry on the opposing side of the chancel. The vestry has a lancet shaped door, accessed by a small stair, on its southeast side. This addition incorporated the southeast façade's chancel buttress into it, and therefore the shape of the buttress can still be discerned.

Church interior:

Once the church is entered via the small timber lined entrance porch and then through another set of doors into the nave, the vertical emphasis of the nave's form has its full impact. Despite being a relatively modest sized church, the height of the painted timber lined walls, with a lower stained timber dado, and the gable create a deceptive feeling of vastness. This is enhanced by the stained timber, molded, lancet shaped gable bracings which are spaced along the length of the gable, and are supported by shaped brackets which jut out from the walls and form part of a string course on each side of the nave. The string course continues along the sides of the chancel, connecting the two spaces visually.

The lancet theme continues on the interior with the fixtures and fittings, such as on the bracing of the gallery supports which flank the entrance to the nave. This motif is also carved into the timber surround of the gallery which is accessed by a narrow and steep doglegged staircase.

The prevalence of the lancet motif is continued in the chancel opening. This area is raised above the level of the nave in two stages, at the end of which is the altar underneath an image of Jesus painted on board that has been inserted into the frames of the chancel's triple-light lancet window. The chancel also contains the communion table, other altar furniture and the internal entrance points to the lean-to additions, including the vestry. This section has been relined at some stage as it has a wood veneer dado and the upper section and ceiling are lined with white painted board.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1869 - 1870
Church constructed

Porch added

1967 -
Church spire removed

2000 -
Cemetery lynch gate is erected

Construction Details

Concrete, corrugated iron, glass, steel, stone, timber

Completion Date

10th August 2009

Report Written By

Karen Astwood

Information Sources

Lash, 1992

Lash, Max D., Nelson Notables 1840-1940: A Dictionary of Regional Biography, Nelson, 1992

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

Bowman, 1982

Ian Bowman, 'William Beatson, A Colonial Architect', Auckland 2005

Thornton, 2003

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

Fleming, 1999

J. Fleming, et. al., The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Harmondsworth, 1999

O'Connor, 1985 (2)

R O'Connor, History of the Richmond Parish: Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Richmond, 1985

King, 1997

Michael King, God's Farthest Outpost - A History of Catholics in New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland, 1997.

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.