One of the highlights of our weekend rally in Otaki was the visit arranged for our group to the beautiful Rangiatea Church. It was originally built in 1851 under the leadership of Chief Te Rauparaha and the Anglican Missionary Octavius Hadfield. When it was destroyed by fire in 1995, it was the oldest surviving Maori church in New Zealand. The church was rebuilt, using traditional methods and materials so both interior and exterior are true to their original designers, and it was completed in 2003.
At the gathering of Maori chiefs in 1848, Te Rauparaha orchestrated the construction of the church. He had recently returned from Australia where he had seen large churches being erected. He thrust his American sword into the ground in front of Te Pohotiraha, and challenged the chief to support the building of the church. Te Pohotiraha was the guardian of soil brought to New Zealand by Maori in the great migration from Polynesia about 1350. The challenge was taken up and the soil was buried under the altar of Rangiatea. Construction began with huge totara logs that were floated down the rivers at Ohau and Waikawa, just north of Otaki. One formed the ridgepole (signifying one true God), and three others were used as central pillars (signifying the Holy Trinity). Other totara were used for the rafters, pillars and slabs, and flax, reed and supple-jack were used for the intricate panels.
From the outside the church looks little different from the many early churches dotted around the country. But once inside the doors, it is quite a different look with painted panels on the ceiling, and woven panels on the walls. The lovely rimu church pews just ask to be stroked as we walked around the church.
The intricate carved altar rail is the work of a single Master Carver and took several years to complete. Some of the original rimu timber was able to be used after the fire, although extra rimu had to be sourced. Each post has a different carved design. Colourful kneelers in front of the rail have all been individually stitched by members of the parish.
I asked our guide about the waka (canoe) in the display case. This is a model of one of the original nine waka which were part of the great migration to New Zealand. On the day of the fire the waka was removed from the church to be displayed at a meeting, and for some reason was not returned that evening. Therefore this taonga (treasure) was saved from destruction.
We had long wished to visit this church, and were devastated to hear that an arsonist had burnt it to the ground back in 1995. The church and parish took quite some time to decide whether to rebuild, and if so, in what form. The decision was finally made to reconstruct to the original plans although sprinklers have been added for protection.