“He was the right man in the right place.” – Charles Orbin Torlesse, Canterbury Association Surveyor.
Bishop Henry James Chitty Harper would have been very delighted to have seen the face of his old friend, Bishop George Augustus Selwyn, upon his arrival in Lyttelton in 1856. Selwyn didn’t wait for the Harper family to come ashore – he was rowed over to the ‘Egmont’ and welcomed Canterbury’s first Anglican Bishop to New Zealand right there on the deck.
Selwyn had been a great influence on Harper’s life. It was he that caused Harper to look away from a career in law and pursue a role in the church instead. The Anglican Bishop of Canterbury position was also offered to Harper by Selwyn who was the Anglican Bishop of New Zealand. Harper had a big decision to make as he was already into his 50’s at that time. When Harper accepted the role as our first Bishop, it was the Canterbury Association’s President, the Archbishop of Canterbury (England), Dr. John Bird Sumner that consecrated him.
After a hard trudge over the Bridle Path with two carts filled with the family’s belongings, Harper was enthroned at Christ’s Church (St Michael and All Angels) on Christmas Day 1856. While the family waited for ‘Bishopscourt’ to be built on Park Terrace, they first settled on Cambridge Terrace, between Worchester Blvd and Hereford Street, facing toward the Avon. Behind the house were large sand dunes and the Harper children were constantly returning indoors with human bones in hand after playing outside. Just three years earlier, Maori remains had still been visible on this site as the bodies had not been buried and were just covered lightly by dirt.
Harper did not wait long to visit the rest of his rather large diocese. He walked from one length of Canterbury to the other many times – visiting isolated homesteads and preaching to those of his flock who couldn’t attend church. He performed baptisms, took marriage services, consecrated churches and preached to groups numbering from just a few persons to crowds of hundreds. One day he was caught by a sheep inspector crossing a muddy river whilst naked with his clothes being held over his head. Enjoy the humour of the situation – the inspector informed the Bishop that he wished he had paper and pencil so he could capture the moment.
His most favourite place to preach and work was in the goldfields of the West Coast. His first churches services there were usually held in the back room of saloons, his voice competing with the clunking of drinking glasses coming from the rowdy bar next door. He reached out to all who crossed his path and he soon became well respected, loved and a friend to all; no matter of person’s situation, lifestyle or age.
This didn’t mean Harper had an easy time of things. One night while alone in his tent, he was held up by a gang of men at gunpoint. They demanded his food and valuables. The next morning, he encountered the gang again, as they were trapped by a flooded river with no means to cross. Unbelievably, Harper helped them as he had a horse, taking the men two at a time across the river, with them humbly hanging onto his legs and saddle.
By the time of his death on 28th December 1893, he had consecrated 90 churches just in Canterbury alone, fathered 22 children and had 60 grandchildren.
*image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library – Barker, Alfred Charles (Dr), 1819-1873. Bishop Henry John Chitty Harper, Warden of Christ’s College, Christchurch – Photograph taken by Dr Alfred Charles Barker. Webb, Steffano, 1880-1967 : Collection of negatives. Ref: 1/1-008981-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22906103