Sunday, April 28, 2013

The First Church of Otago

One of the places I had to visit while in Dunedin this month was First Church -- more properly First Church of Otago Presbyterian.

Its site on Bell Hill had been surveyed in 1844-1846 by Frederick Tucker as one of a number of reserves for public amenities in his town plan, completed before the settlers arrived in 1848 on the John Wickliffe and Phillip Laing. Captain William Cargill, as resident agent for the New Zealand Company confirmed the reserves, setting aside three for the use of the Presbyterian church: the Bell Hill site, a school reserve, and manse reserve. The first simple church and school, wooden construction, were ready on the school reserve by late 1848. Bell Hill, known then as Church Hill, remained a steep rocky impediment to linkages between north and south Dunedin, used for grazing, and a simple cottage belong to W H Monson, builder and son of the first gaoler in the city.

The Presbyterian Deacon's Court did call for tenders for building a church to Monson's design in 1857-1858, but this was carried out at that time. A new manse was built in 1862, and in that year the church put out an advertisement for architectural designs for the new place of worship.

Melbourne architect Robert Arthur Lawson responded, under the pseudonym "Presbyter", and came to New Zealand. Apart from the design for First Church as it stands today, he became known in Dunedin for a number of other long-lasting statements of architectural heritage in the city and surrounds.

Erection of the church was held up by the Otago Provincial Council's decision to demolish Bell Hill. An interim wooden building was provided in Dowling Street for the church while the long process of blasting and levelling proceeded. Finally, in 1867, the project could proceed. The foundation stone was laid 15 May 1868, and the completed building opened 13 November 1873.

Memorial to Rev. Thomas Burns, who campaigned to have First Church become reality, but died two years before completion.

There is a peaceful, welcoming feeling to this church.

Aside from that -- it is, quite simply, beautiful. I hope we don't lose this gem to our country's earthquakes.

The story of First Church and Dunedin, a tapestry woven by 19 women of the church, between 1983 and 1990.

Model of Rev. Burns in the church's heritage centre -- a brilliant place to visit for both general heritage and genealogy.

Burns Hall, just beside First Church on the grounds.

The second bell of Bell Hill ...

"Time is Short", is inscribed on the now broken bell, forever retired as a monument beside the First Church.


  1. So much for Presbyterians being dour, conservative and restrained.

  2. What a stunning piece of architecture. Thanks Lisa for the trouble you took to photograph such a beautiful heritage building. Exquisite is an understatement. So pleased it's being conserved for future generations.