Bishop Henry James Chitty Harper (1804 – 1893)

Christchurch Cemeteries: Filling You In On Our Buried Past – Bishop Henry James Chitty Harper

Date and Place of Birth: 9th January 1804 at Hampshire, England

Date and Place of Death: 28th December 1893 at Bishopscourt, Christchurch.

Roles in Early Canterbury and New Zealand:
* 1st Anglican Bishop of Canterbury – 1856 to 1890
* Primate of New Zealand – 1868 to 1890
* Christ’s College Warden

Harper’s Influence Today:  Harper’s Lawn (Christchurch Botanical Gardens), Bishop Harper’s Chair (St Michael and All Angels), Bishop Harper’s Sarcophagus (Christchurch Cathedral), Mount Harper (Canterbury) and Harper Pass (Canterbury).

Interesting Facts:

“He was the right man in the right place.” – Charles Orbin Torlesse, Canterbury Association Surveyor and nephew of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the owner of the New Zealand Company.

Bishop Henry Harper would have been very delighted to have seen the face of his old friend, Bishop George Augustus Selwyn, upon his arrival in Lyttelton.  The two old friends shook hands right there on the jetty or so one of the celebratory stone panels of the Christchurch Cathedral’s pulpit would have you believe.  In truth, 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 Terrace Ave, 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 in 1893, he had consecrated 90 churches just in Canterbury alone, fathered 22 children and had 60 grandchildren.

Buried:  Barbadoes Street Cemetery, Christchurch

The story of Bishop Harper:

Photo taken by Annette Bulovic

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