Monday, December 1, 2008

The Presbyterian Church in Avondale

The following is taken from "The Presbytery of Auckland", by W J Comrie,
A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1939. (It covers the history of the church down to 1885 only.)

Among the early settlers in the Whau district were several members of St. Andrew's congregation, but the distance was so great and the roads and the means of transport so poor that regular attendance at the central Church was not possible, and services were desired in their own neighbourhood.

The first of these of which there is a record were held in the dwelling house of Mr. James Comrie (later of Pukekohe), and were conducted by his brother, Rev. Wm. Comrie, of Auckland, who preached on 16th January and 6th February, 1859, from the texts John 3 :7 and Phil. 3 :13, 14. From that time a weekly service was aimed at, and, subject to a good many breaks owing to weather and other conditions, services were held there until the Church was built. Mr. McCall and other laymen from Auckland gave valuable assistance.

The Rev. D. Bruce, who had previously visited the district on week-days, preached on Sabbath afternoon, 3rd April, 1859, from the text Jeremiah 10 :23, and thereafter gave a monthly afternoon service until the settlement of the Rev. G Brown, as recorded under the heading of Onehunga.

Rev. Brown was born in Monyeux, Aberdeenshire, on 11th November 1830. He graduated M.A. in King’s College, Aberdeen, and studied Theology in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In August 1859 he married a sister of the noted scientist, Dr. Ferrier, and shortly after they sailed by the Jura and reached Auckland Harbour on Sunday, 15th January, 1860 …

For some months he lived in Auckland and conducted services each Sabbath in Onehunga in the forenoon, in Whau in the afternoon, and in Hobson Street schoolroom in the evening. He travelled the whole round from place to place on foot, and there were then neither formed streets nor footpaths as in after years. It is said that he never missed a service and was seldom late for a meeting.

The little band of worshipers faced the question of a building and bravely set to work. There was at first difference of opinion as to the best position, but ere long, with general approval, the site on which the Church still stands was secured. Plans were prepared, a contract was let, and the erection of the building was begun on Monday, 14th November, 1859, without ceremony of any kind.

An entry in Mr. Comrie's diary may interest present-day students of the weather :-"Friday, 2nd December: Had a terrible wind and rain last night which drove the carpenters who were working at the church here for refuge." Mr. Brown conducted his first service in Whau on 26th February, 1860, and the Church building, while still unfinished, was used for worship by him on 11th March.

It was formally opened on 8th April, 1860, by Rev. John Macky, who preached from Psalm 45:11 to a congregation of over sixty hearers. It was opened free of debt. The quality of the timber used and the soundness of construction are evidenced by the building as it stands to-day. This was the first church building in that locality, and members of other churches assisted both in raising the building fund and by attendance, their preachers also taking a share in conducting the services.

There were in those days no metalled roads and no footpaths in the district, and one may sympathise with the minister, without sorely blaming the people, as he reads another entry in the diary before referred to :-"Very much thunder and rain for some days. Mr. Brown came out to preach but the people did not meet." Services were, however, conducted with a fair degree of regularity, and the attendance on the whole was good. For nearly five years Mr. Brown continued to give faithful service in the Whau and its outlying stations, in which the population was steadily increasing.

In November, 1864, the Rev. Andrew Anderson, a Cameronian minister from Scotland, applied to the Presbytery for admission, and on the favourable report of a committee, he was admitted on 4th January, 1865, and having received the right hand of fellowship he took his seat as a member of Presbytery. A Committee appointed to consider his sphere of labour reported on 22nd February, 1865 :-"That making Whau his headquarters he might arrange to hold divine service more or less regularly in the Manakau, Lamb’s Mill, and Helensville, in addition to Titirangi and Henderson and Macfarlane's Mill. That having communicated with parties in these districts, the Committee are of opinion that £200 might be raised without difficulty. But in the event of the sum falling short of that amount, they recommended that the deficit be made up from the Home Mission Fund."

The Presbytery adopted the report, and though there is no record either of a call from the district nor of any induction service, Mr. Anderson's name appears on the Presbytery records as Minister of Whau, and he was accepted by the people as such. He took up the work with vigour and visited and held services in and beyond the places named. More than once he called the attention of the Presbytery to the needs of the Kaipara districts. Mr Anderson was not strong physically, and on 24th October, 1866, he gave notice to the Presbytery of his intention to resign present arrangements, with a view to a new arrangement much more limited. A month later he presented a certificate from Dr. Aickin to the effect that he was unable, in consequence of ill-health, to overtake his work, and that entire rest for a few weeks was indispensable. The Revs. J. Hill and J. Wallis were appointed to arrange supply. To anticipate a little it may be stated that on 13th February, 1867, Mr. Anderson resigned his charge, and after giving temporary supply for a few months he left for the Homeland.

Whau had its full share of the difficulties and changes experienced by outlying and thinly populated districts. The Rev. A. Anderson, who was on sick leave at the end of 1866, resigned his charge on 13th February, 1867, but continued to supply until July , when he left for Scotland. A long vacancy followed during which services were supplied chiefly by laymen, Mr. R Sommerville taking a large share. When the Rev. D. Bruce returned from the Homeland there came with him the Rev. D. Sidey, who settled in Napier, and the Rev. D. Hamilton from Ireland, and they were welcomed by the Presbytery on 7th February, 1872.

After preaching in several vacant charges, Mr. Hamilton received a unanimous call from Whau, which he accepted, and he was inducted there on 21st May, 1872. Though the conditions were new and strange to him, he set himself strenuously to supply services from Whau to Riverhead and Manukau Heads. His ministry was proving very acceptable, but it was short.

On Wednesday, 9th July, 1873, he conducted a service at Huia and left the next day for Manukau Heads, which he did not reach. He was not missed until Sunday, and search was then made by large parties of men. The horse was soon found, but not the man until the 2Oth, when the body was found in a stream not far from the beach. It is supposed that having lost his way in the bush he left his horse and tried to follow the stream, into which he either fell and was drowned, or, as the Session minute states, died "from privation and exposure." The body was taken to St. Andrew's Church and an inquest held. A service was held in the church on the 23rd July , and in the presence of a very large gathering of people the body was laid to rest alongside the Whau Church. The Presbytery, in a lengthy resolution, expressed its esteem for their departed brother, and its sympathy with the sorrowing congregation and the relatives in Ireland.

Funds for a memorial were raised, and the tombstone, which still stands near the Whau Church, was erected commemorating "his goodness as a man and his devotedness as a minister." The last text from which he preached was Phil. 1, 21, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain."

The Rev. N. McCallum was appointed to give temporary supply, and as in the previous vacancy, services were given chiefly by laymen, Mr. Sommerville, who was then an elder of the congregation, taking a large share. In October, 1875, a call was given to Mr. Robert Sommerville, who, a few months previously, had been licensed by the Presbytery. It was signed by 109 persons and was supported by Messrs. John Lamb and John Buchanan.

On 12th January, 1876, it was accepted, and on 9th February the Presbytery met in Whau Church, when the Moderator , the Rev. R. F. Macnicol, preached from the text 2 Cor. 5, 14, and Mr. Sommerville was duly ordained and inducted. The Rev. G. Brown addressed the minister, and the Rev. D. Bruce the people. The Revs. J. Macky and T. Norrie were also present, and the Rev G. Morice was associated. The occasion is noteworthy because it was the first when a man from the local business circles had been trained and was ordained to the ministry , and because of the prominent place which Mr. Sommerville took in the life and work of the Church as the minister of two charges, Clerk of Presbytery, one of the Church Property Trustees, and as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1883.

After more than nine years' service, during part of which Mr. Sommerville's health was not good and riding became painful, a call to St. Peter's Church was accepted and the Whau Charge became vacant on 16th July, 1885.

The following comes from "Our First Century", the centenary booklet for the Avondale Presbyterian Church, 1960.)

1885-1887 Rev. Alexander McKenzie, M.A., B.D.: When Rev. Sommerville left Avondale, the Rev A. MacKenzie was appointed. His ministry seems to have been a stormy one, and at one stage the congregation even took the extreme measure of meeting for worship in the public school at the same hour as the minister officiated in the Church. The newspaper of the day commented that "If the trouble is not settled, the Presbyterian Church will lose one of its most flourishing suburban congregations." However, the difficulties were overcome and services resumed in the Church.

In 1887 Rev. MacKenzie left for Australia but returned some years later to live at Blockhouse Bay. He died in 1920 and is buried in the Church cemetery.

From "Heart of the Whau", 2003:

In April, 1887, Jessie Eva Hort Huxham MacKenzie died, and was buried in the small Presbyterian Church cemetary on St Georges Road, opposite the Public Hall. She was the wife of Reverend Alexander MacKenzie of the parish. This should have been all of the story – except that Rev. MacKenzie had inscribed on Jessie’s headstone, these days perched hard up against the back wall of the old church hall’s toilet/kitchen area (added later in the church’s history) the words as shown to the left.

With this, Rev. MacKenzie gave birth to a persistent Avondale legend that that featured in countless books and articles since, spawned part of an episode of a national television programme in 2001, Epitaph by Greenstone Pictures, and involved international enquiries between New Zealand and Denmark.

Enough has been written about the “Avondale Princess” for me not to go into detail here. I would recommend reading the chapter on Jessie and Alexander MacKenzie in Epitaph II. But it is worthy of note that Jessie’s headstone is still visited by the curious, drawn to the legend woven out of whole cloth by her husband from 19th century pseudo-genealogy. The mystique of the “Avondale Princess” will be with us for some time yet, hoax or no hoax.

From "Our First Century", 1960.)

1888-1893: Rev. C. Warboys. Little is recorded of his ministry except that after fulfilling the duties of his arduous parish for five years he left to become minister at Opotiki, and for three years the parish was again dependent on layman for supply.

1896-1910: Rev. Alexander McLean, B.D. Rev. McLean's ministry lasted 15 years, the longest of all. During that time his earnest preaching and faithful pastoral work resulted in a great increase in growth and spiritual power. His horse and trap were constantly on the road, carrying him to attend to the duties of his wide-spread preaching places, and on the Sabbath the church was crowded with earnest worshipers.

1910-1911: Mr J.D.C. Madill (Student): For a few months, while Knox College was in recess, a student (later Rev. J.D.C. Madill, M.A.) gave extremely acceptable supply and church members regretted that he could not remain longer.

Other ministries (including lay) at the Presbyterian Church:

1911-1912 Mr D. J Albert
1912-1916 Rev. W Marshall
1916-1920 Mr J Charteris
1920-1922 Rev. Angus McDonald, O.B.E.
1922-1924 Rev. George Paterson Campbell
1924 Mr R Ashton
1925-1929 Rev. F. A. Thompson
1930-1936 Rev. John Combes
1936-1941 Rev. C.H. Lowden, Rev. J. W. Smyth,
Mr. O Baragwanath, Mr J. M. Christie
1941-1949 Rev. L. J. Hodson
1949-1950 Rev. F. L. Smart
1950-1955 Rev. S. W. Campbell, M.A., B.D.
1955 Rev. W. Anderson
1955-1963 Rev. Stan. T Nicholls, B.A.
1964-1971 Rev. Keith Sellar

On 8 October 1972, the churches at St Ninians (the name for the church on St George's Rd from the 1930s), Victoria Hall on the corner of Orchard Street and Rosebank Road, Avondale Methodist Church on upper Rosebank Road, and Waterview Methodist on Great North Road agreed to become one parish after several years planning.

On Sunday, 18 August 1984, St Ninians Church was officially closed. The Great North Road frontage was sold to Mobil Oil, and the remainder on which the church and cemetary stands today was sold to Auckland City Council by 1989.


  1. Oh you have just made my night!!! My favourite little church up in lights on the coolest blog out. Great post Ice!!!

  2. Glad you like it. This is part of my quest to put up summaries for Avondale's main churches. Got the Baptist, Methodist and Anglican to do, yet. Stay tuned.

  3. My Great great grand-father and mother W. Forsyth buried in the cemetery.

    1. Have you seen the website I have up for the cemetery? I'd love to know more about your ancestors, please.