Newspaper Article 2016 – The Old Church Restaurant

The Old Church

Is there something slightly sacrilegious about putting a pearly, mosaic torso in the niche above a church altar where a statue of the Madonna once stood? Something decadent about suspending a three-metre-wide chandelier above the nave? Or decorating a loo with shiny black tiles and a crystal-drop light?

Karen Sandler’s answer would probably be ‘no, it’s just fun’. In transforming the 109-year-old former St Mary’s Church at Meeanee into a glamorous restaurant and function centre, The Old Church Restaurant and Bar, she’s done all that and more.

“Come and look at this,” she says, swinging open doors to the confessional. The twin cubicles are intact, penitential wooden seats, and grille between.

‘‘I don’t know who’ll use them, but and up here ” Narrow wooden stairs to the tiny choir gallery where a single, romantic table overlooks the candle-lit restaurant below.

‘‘I wanted to create a fun, exciting experience for people and I think it’s the unexpected details that matter. I want people to say ‘oooh, look at that’.”

Her excitement is catchy; Karen says everyone involved in the two-year project, builders to plumbers, entered the ‘only-the-best-will-do’ spirit and pushed the boundaries, companies like Gran Marbelo who created an illuminated top for the altar-replica bar. And the architect whose gothic- look windows blend the new dining conservatory perfectly with the original building.

Karen combines avant-garde decor tastes with an appreciation of historic buildings.

‘‘I like real. I’m not a chrome and glass person,” she says. “Everyone in Hawke’s Bay loves the church. I just wanted to bring it into the here and now.” So, to preserve the nave unspoilt, the kitchen was added behind rather than inside; the altar, one of the few fittings remaining after the church’s several different uses since deconsecration in 1972, has been restored; stained glass window surrounds shine anew and the antique-crazed, modern-colour paintwork is sympathetic with original colours.

Karen describes herself as an “eternal renovator”. Church complete, the 1913 villa presbytery next door, is now being revamped as upmarket self-contained accommodation,

Photo caption – New life has been breathed into the Old Church on Meeanne [Meeanee] Road, Napier.

and in her native America (she was born in hurricane-heartland Florida), she owned several old homes, a pre-Civil War Georgia farmhouse included, before moving to the Philippines with her first husband.

That ended her career as a maths teacher. With Filipino manufacturing skills giving her the opportunity to design her own furnishings, Karen discovered her element. Frequent trips to Hong Kong revealed its manufacturing potential and in 1980 she moved there and began a décor accessory business. Self-confessedly unable to draw, she provides the ideas and her 10 designers translate them into working drawings for Hong Kong and Chinese manufacturers.

Her design house, which otherwise supplies only America, was responsible for many of the contents of the 12 containers – full of furnishings and fittings imported for The Old Church.

It wasn’t her first restaurant venture. Connected to New Zealand through her mother-in-law who went to America as a kiwi war bride, Karen and her second husband

Photo captions –

Left: Karen Sandler and Paul Hill toast to the success of their venture.

Right: Grand interiors framed by splendid exterior views.

established themselves on the Coromandel and designed and built The Fire Place. They also bought a property at Te Awanga and after her husband died, Hawke’s Bay, Karen’s first love, became home.

Former Tikokino farmer Paul Hill, whom she met in Whitianga, joined her and they were considering a Fire Place II when that now well-known story, the drive past the for-sale St Mary’s, distracted them.

Last month, three days before The Old Church’s extravaganza opening cocktail party, when the restaurant was still strewn with ladders, wires, partially-installed fittings and newly-unpacked furniture, Karen swore “never again”. Then in the next breath decided her son was probably right with his disbelieving, “Go on Mum, you can’t stop”.

Photo captions –

Left: The secluded balcony is ideal for a romantic evening.

Right: A new class of restaurant in Hawke’s Bay.

Original digital file


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Business / Organisation

The Old Church Restaurant


Meeanee, Napier

Format of the original

Newspaper article

Date published



  • Paul Hill
  • Karen Sandler

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