13 October 2013

Four Ponsonby churches

Modified from: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3926
Last Saturday I enjoyed another guided walk, from amongst the huge selection offered as part of the 2013 Auckland Heritage Festival, a walk around four churches in the inner-city suburb of Ponsonby.

We started at St John’s Methodist Church (working from the bottom right red blob in this image to the top left), then continued along Ponsonby Road to the All Saints Anglican, before turning left into Jervois Road and walking along, firstly, to the Ponsonby Baptist Church and finishing further along still at the St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church.

So, starting with the Methodists … This wonderful old church, dating from 1882 and built of kauri in the Gothic Revival style, still retains its original colour scheme. Paint colours were very limited back in the late 1800s, so most buildings were painted cream, with decorative details and roofs either painted a barn red or Lincoln green.

Prussian immigrant and master craftsman, Anton Teutenberg (he of the High Court heads and gargoyles), carved the wonderful pulpit and corbels on the windows, whose stained glass offers beautiful examples of Art Deco design.

The congregation of this church reflects the changing population of Ponsonby itself. Originally home to Auckland’s middle class, whose women would have been active in the early suffrage movement, Ponsonby saw, in the 1960s, both a reduction in the numbers of Europeans attending church and an influx of Pacific Islanders who did, so the church became the centre for the Auckland District Samoan Fellowship. Though most Pacific Island families cannot now afford the million-dollar price-tags of the heritage houses in Ponsonby and other inner-city suburbs, the church remains their much-loved and much-used centre of worship.

Teutenberg's magnificent pulpit
Outside the modern All Saints Anglican Church is a wonderful old pohutukawa tree which the church’s brochure romantically suggests was where ‘Bishop Selwyn met with the people of Ponsonby, probably in 1865, to discuss building the church that became the first All Saints’. It’s a good story but, as this 1879 image clearly shows, the tree is not that old.

All Saints Ponsonby, 1879, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-308

The image depicts the original All Saints, first opened in December 1866. Sadly, that wonderful old wooden structure was demolished in the 1950s to make way for the present church. The church’s brochure also waxes lyrical about how special this modern church is but the 1950s Richard Toy design, though its large open interior and concertina-shaped brick walls are modelled on Coventry Cathedral in England, didn’t particularly impress me. Modernism simply isn’t my thing.

The church does have a beautiful wooden ceiling – apparently containing 6 and a half miles of timber! – and there are some lovely stained glass windows set into the lower parts of the chevron brick walls, images of such saints as Augustine of Hippo, Margaret of Scotland and the Venerable Bede.


We moved on to the most austere of these four churches, the Ponsonby Baptist Church, founded in 1880. I love the simplicity of this wooden building. It has no stained glass windows because the Baptists prefer the pure light of God streaming through their windows and its Classical Greek style was felt appropriate, as Jesus and his disciples, being of diverse nationalities, would have spoken Greek to one another. It would not originally have contained a cross either – the current cross is a relatively recent addition, added about 20 years previously and made of old telephone poles.


The most ornate thing in the church is the organ, originally brought to New Zealand by Samuel Marsden for the old St Paul’s Church in the central city (since demolished) and one of only 10 John Avery organs remaining in the entire world. It dates from 1779 but was sent to England for restoration six years ago so its sound is as sweet today as when it was first built. We were very lucky to be treated to a chat about the history and workings of this magnificent musical instrument, and a short recital.


The final church, St Stephen’s Presbyterian, is currently closed for services due to worries about the risk of earthquakes, part of the government and local authorities’ knee-jerk reaction to the devastation of the Christchurch earthquake. Auckland, as most people know, does not have a high earthquake risk and it is generally stone, not wooden buildings which are most at risk of collapse when earthquakes do occur. Luckily, the closure is being challenged by the church authorities, with the support of experts from the University of Auckland’s Schools of Architecture and Engineering, as it is a huge shame that people cannot more readily visit this magnificent structure.

Built of kauri in 1875 in Gothic Revival design with a standard rectangular shape, the church was expanded thirty years later into its present cross shape. It has a tin external roof and holes in its ceilings and wall panels, which were originally intended to let out the fumes from the gas lighting and kerosene heaters. The interior hammerbeam roof is magnificent, and has the additional and apparently quite unusual feature of metal rods connecting the spans. Another unusual feature is the sloping floor, intended to give parishioners seated in the back pews a better view.


Rather than a cross or a fixed altar, the central focus of the church is the large organ, which was originally powered by a hydraulic pump but is now motorised. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hear this one in action.

In front of the organ sit five chairs, the central ‘God’ chair, reserved for the minister, and two chairs on either side for the church elders. This is, I have now learnt, a common feature in Presbyterian churches. Before these chairs, on a table, lay an open bible, another common feature. In fact, some of our group recalled the bible being processed in and out of their churches, a means of emphasising the Presbyterians’ belief in the importance of the bible as the word of God.


Not being a religious person, I learnt a great deal during this guided walk, but what I enjoyed most was the magnificent architecture of the three older buildings. Long may they survive the evils of developers … and earthquakes!