South Island’s First Maori Mission Church Gives Canterbury Its First Spire – 1867

When the Rev. James West Stack took up his post as the leading missionary of Canterbury’s ‘Maori Mission’ in 1859, he came across a very fragmented and weary Ngai Tahu.  The memories of the deadly raids of the North Island’s Ngati Toa Chief, Te Rauparaha, during the late 1820’s weren’t even close to being forgotten.  And it certainly didn’t help when the Canterbury Association hired Ngati Toa tribe members to be part of our earliest road making gangs during the late 1840’s.

By the time Stack stepped foot in Canterbury, the once great Ngai Tahu fortress of Kaiapohia (today’s Kaiapoi) lay deserted and he was astonished at the number of human bones and weapons that remained throughout the grounds of the old Pa.  It’s no wonder that the survivors chose to live around Banks Peninsula after this – preferring the safety of the hills and its trees rather than the open plains.
After learning the local Maori history from witnesses, Stack later wrote a full account of the raid in 1893:

“Rauparaha and his men were on the alert…and before the inhabitants of the Pah could fully realize what had happened, the northern warriors were amongst them.  The wildest confusion and disorder ensued.  Many of the inhabitants made for the Huirapa gate, because it have [sic]access to the swamps covered with flax, niggerheads, and raupo, under the cover of which lay their only hope of escape.  Shrieks and cries of despair rose within the Pah as the northern men struck down their aged victims, or seized and bound some trembling youth or maiden to be dispatched later on, or be carried far away into captivity.”

I’m sure it didn’t escape the good Reverend – as he looked over those sad remains – how it had been Te Rauparaha’s Christian missionary son, Tamihana Te Rauparaha who had prepared him for his Canterbury post while back in London.  It wasn’t that Stack didn’t know anything about the Maori, after all, his parents had been Christian missionaries and he had been born in a tent at Puriri in the Thames District on 27th March 1835. He had just needed a brush up on current events and the politics now involved since he had left New Zealand to further his education years earlier.

Being instructed to choose a 20 acre Maori Reserve, Stack selected a piece of land known as Tuahiwi (close to Kaiapoi) in the hopes that this would cause some of the iwi to return to the area.
In the middle he built his mission house and, slowly, a small Maori settlement built up around him.   He soon became well loved; he travelled around for weeks on end, preaching and tending to the needs of the iwi around Canterbury.  He gave public lectures, wrote papers, collected artefacts [now housed at the Canterbury Museum], helped preserve Maori place names and served as an interpreter for the Government over the course of his very colourful life.  He never stopped fighting for the rights of those in his parish, showing at times a great impatience at the process of things and used the word ‘…ridiculous…’ to describe some his fellow Europeans and their attitudes.

One of the proudest achievements of his life’s work was the erection of St Stephen’s Anglican Church in October 1867 at Tuahiwi.  The foundation stone was laid on 9th February 1867 by Governor Sir George Grey and officially opened by Bishop Harper roughly seven months later.  A great crowd had gathered for the event: 18 Maori Chiefs, Canterbury’s Superintendent William Sefton Moorhouse, the Dean of Christchurch, the Rev. Henry Jacobs who preached.   At the height of 55 feet, St Stephen’s was the first Canterbury church to have a spire.

Tragically, in 1870, the mission house, as well as the school Stack had had built, was burned to the ground and, due to lack of funds, was never rebuilt.  Stack and his wife moved to Kaiapoi for the next four years, before moving to Christchurch where he later retired from the Maori Mission in 1888. He never stopped doing God’s work though, becoming an honorary Cannon of the Christchurch Cathedral in 1894 – in acknowledgement of his devoted work.

Kaiapoi, Canterbury and its iwi were never far from his thoughts; he was still writing about their history and plight right into the 20th century.  Rev. James West Stack died on 13th October 1919 at Worthing, England.

*Photos taken by Annette Bulovic*
*Book extract taken from ‘Kaiapohia’ written by Cannon James West Stack*

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