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Old St John's Church: A Brief History

By Jim Mandeno, QSM

Old St. John's Church
Old St. John's Church


In January 1841 Rev. John Morgan was appointed to the Otawhao Mission which occupied the present day Selwyn Park opposite St. John's. Here an earlier church was built in 1842. A commodious place of worship. By 1850, encouraged by his Maori parishioners who offered to donate timber and finance, Morgan appealed to the Church Missionary Society for funds. By 1852, still without money, he reports that the sawing of timber had commenced. He achieved his goal when on Easter Day 1854 the church was opened for Divine Worship, Archdeacon Abraham travelling from Auckland for the occasion.

It is of interest, that whilst erecting St. John's Morgan was also planning another of similar design at Rangiaowhia, now Hairini which was not completed until 1856.


The framing and weatherboards are of heart Matai, cut from Rangiaowhia and Kihikihi districts. The weatherboards are three hundred and five millimetres, rusticated construction with fillets at the corners. The lining is heart rimu, set vertically. All timber is pit sawn and the building erected by two European carpenters, Edwards and Chitham assisted by Maori helpers. The windows are of particular interest, constructed of timber frames with nullions of flat iron welded together. These were salvaged from the first mentioned church and were carried by the Maori people over the Wairere track from Tauranga, an ancient trail over mountain, bush and rivers.

The Interior

Stained Glass Windows
Stained Glass Windows

Gracing the sanctuary is a magnificent stained glass window, possibly one of the oldest Victorian figurative painted and fired stained glass windows in New Zealand. It comprises of three lights, the left showing St. Peter's ship, the centre, the emblem I.H.S., the Last Supper at Emanaus, and in the right light, a church. Contrary to legend that it was donated by Queen Victoria, it is correct to state that this window came from St. John's Auckland. It was possibly executed by William Wailes (1850 - 1853).

Early in 1864, during the Waikato Land Wars, St. John's became a garrison church for the men of General Cameron's Army. To a Maori Chieftainess, Te Paea Potatau, who placed her mana on the church, do we owe it's preservation. Many other European buildings were burnt at that time. A number of wooden tablets, memorials to those who died during the fighting in this district were erected around the interior walls - only those in the baptistry have survived. Here also is a tribute written in Maori and English. A tribute from a British Regiment of Foot the 65th, "The Royal Tigers" who arrived in New Zealand in 1847 and did not depart until 1865. A regiment who had come to respect and were respected by their Maori opponents.

Other memorials are to be seen in the main body of the building, also memorials to honour the men of the district who made the supreme sacrifice during two world wars.

Attention is also drawn to the footprints on the ceiling near the main door. Many are the legends told of their origin.

The Church Yard

The British casualties who dies at the battles of Rangiaowhia, Hairini and Orakau are interred to the north of the church. In 1888 the government erected a memorial to the rank and file, who are interred close by. Two officer's graves are to be seen directly outside the sanctuary, while nearby is the memorial to four of John Morgan's children, a reminder of the sacrifices that he and his wife made in bringing Christianity to the Maori people.

Directly in front of New St. John's can be seen another memorial to some of the Maori soldiers who dies during the hostilities in the Land Wars. These were interred here at the request of Bishop Selwyn, first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand.

A tour of the Church Yard will also reveal the names of many pioneers of this district and whose descendants still reside and help preserve our historical heritage.

New St John's Church
New St. John's Church