St Mary’s Anglican Church in Ūpokongaro makes an impression on most people passing through that small settlement, 12 km north of Whanganui. Its distinctive steeple seems a bit wonky. But it’s not – apparently it’s due to the effect of a three sided spire set on top of a four-sided tower.
The church was designed by Whanganui architect Edward Morgan and built in 1877 by local builder John Randal. The building and the section cost £344, local residents raising their share of the money through subscriptions and a successful concert at John Kennedy’s store. The Bishop of Wellington, Octavius Hadfield, consecrated St Mary’s on 20 July 1879.
Four stained glass panels link to the Montgomerie Family, stalwart St Mary’s parishioners. Depicting the evangelists, they were designed by Francis Philip Barraud and manufactured by Barraud, Lavers and Westlake of London in 1892. Two were installed to commemorate Captain Alexander Montgomerie, a founding member of St Mary’s and a lay reader during its early years, who died in 1890. The other two commemorate his brother Archibald W Montgomerie, who died at Mākirikiri in 1877. The Montgomerie Family is commemorated in other memorials in St Mary’s.
Young Archibald Montgomery also died in 1877. Aged only 23 and on his way home to Whanganui from a trip abroad, he was drowned in the Avalanche disaster off Portland Bill in the English Channel. The Avalanche collided with the Forest, a Nova Scotian clipper, and sank immediately. Of the 94 people who lost their lives, 21 were Whanganui residents.
Henry and Frances Montgomery, young Archibald’s parents, commissioned stained glass windows from an unidentified English firm in 1879 as a memorial to their son. The centre panel depicts the Ascension and the left panel features the storm on the Sea of Galilee with Christ walking to the rescue over the waves. The right panel illustrates St Peter trying, unsuccessfully, to walk on the waves.
The church was extended in 1892 when the chancel and the vestry were built. The bell, cast in London in 1896, still rings out today. The church has been re-roofed several times and the steeple repaired in 1953, requiring another major fundraising effort by local residents and a successful Wanganui Savage Club concert. Otherwise the building today is much the same as it was in 1901 when the interior was first lined.
The Owen family also made an important contribution to St Mary’s during its 25 years. Hayward Arthur Owen was appointed churchwarden in 1876 and kept his accounts in this book, including those for the building of the church in 1877 and the chancel extension in 1892. The book shows, in the 1881/1882 year, when Thomas Stephens was paid for the temporary vestry and Robert Hughes for painting the church and the fence. A contribution was made to the purchase of the first parish register and the church benefitted from the proceeds of two entertainments, one in the new “Court House Theatre” in Ūpokongaro. The overdraft, however, was still more than £92.
Philip Macdonald, St Mary’s treasurer from 1950 to 1969, was a local farmer with a love of architecture. His design for the church lychgate was later used by Whanganui architect Don Wilson to prepare plans for a memorial to Annie Eliza Cowper, formerly of Kukuta. Her son, Charles Robert Cowper, left a generous bequest to St Mary’s that enabled the lychgate to be built in 1958.
St Mary’s Sunday School was held in a room behind the church from 1904 to the early 1970s. 1938 was an important year in the history of St Mary’s. A local committee was formed in September to “inspire greater interest in church matters throughout the district”. Jessie Woon was appointed honorary secretary. Her report for that year noted that the committee had encouraged 20 local families to subscribe, had a successful shop day at McGruer’s in town and a dance in the Ūpokongaro Hall. The Church and schoolroom were both re-piled. Jessie, however, was worried about the birds having access to the church roof. The original leadlight windows in the nave were replaced in 1968.
St Mary’s is registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a Category 1 historic place. In Whanganui, it is the oldest church still on its original site.
In its collection, the Museum has a remarkable matchstick model of St Mary’s made by Jack Higgins, who lived in Ūpokongaro for over 70 years. As a hobby in his later life, he made matchstick models of local buildings in the area. His model of St Mary’s is very accurate, down to the precise alignment of the spire.
Fiona Hall was Acting Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum from 2002 to 2003. She curated an exhibition titled The Church by the River, and this article is based on her text.