A Tradition Begins
St Matthew’s Church, Hastings, a Serene Centre
by JANE HURTSHOUSE
In the town of Hastings it surprises a visitor that so little civic and artistic pride is shown in the structurally impressive edifice, St Matthew’s Church, for, in history and architecture it is undoubtedly Hawke’s Bay most interesting building. At this time jubilee celebrations are bringing together old parishioners with memories of the earliest days of Hastings history, and being one, I turned off the busy street into the church’s shaded lych-gateway and sat awhile in the dim recess of the very beautiful Lady-chapel.
Dedications Of the Past
The Lady-chapel is the gem of St Matthew’s for this tiny sanctuary is lighted by windows of exquisitely coloured and designed stained glass, largest among them the east window over the chancel. This window is well worth a visit by all who come to the town and is the work of an artist, E. Parsons, of London, in memory of that great pioneer, William Russell Russell and his sons. The east window depicts the first Christmas, with the somber green-blue of a fir tree lit all over by candles illuminating the Mother and Christ-child as they receive their gifts from royal kings. Stars shine in the night sky, tiny wild-flowers surrounding the figures and the exquisite faces painted by the artist shine forth from a deeply-coloured background of blues and purples with brighter reds and greens lightening the whole.
One notes the beginnings of its history as one moves about the church. There are the bronze and brass plaques to the memory of Sir William Russell’s family who bequeath a fine heritage of war and pioneer service. From the roof within droop tattered flags which belonged to the old Hawke’s Bay Mounted Regiment. The carved pulpit is a copy of that in Eton College Chapel and was made by J. Linley Ellis, Wellington.
Above the chancel is the central Te Deum window, given by Miss Elsie Williams of Frimley, in memory of her parents. Just below the window is an oak reredos carved in replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. It is in memory of the pioneer parents of the late George Beamish, both he and his forebears grand old pioneers worthy to be recorded in New Zealand historical annals. The organ, too, is a gift from men whose name stands out in early history. William Nelson founder of the meat industry in Hawke’s Bay, and J. N. Williams who left many bequests.
I went outside in the grounds where trees lend age and dignity, and there, on a stone seat, I saw a modest figure, one of the most faithful church attendants through the past half century, Mrs E. Marchant. Her face lit with a very sweet smile as she spoke of the first service in the original wooden of this stone church in 1886 when Rev. Samuel Williams (noted Maori missioner) was there. “I remember too, the church we attended before this was built, where Thompson, the butchers now are. I went there in 1880 when Canon St Hill used to come from Havelock North to take the service…” This was going far back, but Mrs Marchant’s memory is reliable. She came from England in 1875 and was married in New Zealand. “I well remember those days, when old residents would come in their buggies and Mr Fitzroy read the lessons.” she said.
Mrs Marchant is typical of the many fine women who made Hastings the serene town is now is and it was delightful to linger there, under the old trees, to hear her speak of other church workers: “Nelson’s big meat works was called the ‘gelatine factory’ in those days. I remember a big pah where I lived at Pakowhai, in those days called Papakura but my husband urged the post office to change the name to Pakowhai. The Maori chief Karatiana [Karaitiana] was there then and a big school house was important. Then, we used to call the present site of Mt. Matthew’s Church, ‘Harry Rawdon’s rubbish dump’.
When they Were Young
“MR REYNOLDS had a small house where the vicarage now is and taught Maoris and white children at a small boarding school. The oldest trees at St. Matthew’s were already there in 1886” … Mrs Marchant laughed as she told that the Tarawera eruption took place in the same year as the church was opened. “I said to my baby, ‘Go to sleep. It is only the wind shaking old bottles.’”
Talking over old days with Mrs Marchant was fascinating, but I felt I must record the fun and life enjoyed by the younger generation as they attended service in those days so I visited a farm home and asked the owner to imagine herself back in church some 50 years ago. She could picture it all and she said:- “It was a weekly event to see what the other little girls wore and we children all noticed everything. How one person in the choir raised her arms to get her top note; how Sir William Russell always stood for prayers and said them into his hat which he held over his face.
Bound by Tradition
“One day Miss Beamish was married and became Mrs Jameson. The carriages came to the church and Mr Hobbs rushed out in his surplice to welcome the bride, and frightened the horses and greatly agitated the bride.
“Old Mr Beilby used to sit in his morning coat and sideboards in the front row. He was a well-known merchant and lay reader. Opposite him sat the Fitzroy family and by the left door the J. N. Williams, with the Hobbs family just inside the door. How we children loved it when Mrs Newbigen [Newbigin]’s silks rustled up the aisle – she was always rather late. Mrs Barton Hobbs sang in the choir for years. I remember the two Miss Kellys, one of whom was the original organist before the big organ was given. Miss Kelly gave the beautiful Italian reredos which is in the Lady Chapel. It is amusing to look back …” Thus reminisced this countrywoman who held such clear memories of “going to church.”
We hear about churches and missionary chapels with their early wartime baptism of fire, but peaceful history is also important and much enterprise is bound up in this beautiful Gothic church. Here, too,emotional stress has torn the hearts of many who have come for comfort and here mothers and war widows have wept and received strength. A church of tradition is this, typifying the words by Browning:
“Though He is so bright and we so dim,
We are made in His image to witness Him.”