Nelson’s Early Churches


The first settlers to Nelson brought with them a variety of religious beliefs and backgrounds. The system of hierarchy and emphasis on religion in immigrants' homelands were important, and even though some came to New Zealand to escape this, various congregations soon became present in Nelson. "The immigrants had come with their denominations established and they had needs that could be met by the established church".1

Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics were the main denominations of the time, and prior to the 1850's they cooperated, and even assisted with building each others' churches. There was little distinction between the protestant churches during this period.

Arthur Wakefield led Sunday services in Nelson and then turned this duty over to Reverend Charles Saxton, who led the Anglican congregation until the arrival of Bishop Selwyn on 20 August 1842. The first Anglican chapel was built at Waimea West in 1843, although the foundation stone of the first Cathedral was not laid until 1850. Two wooden buildings on Church Hill had been purchased by Selwyn from Wakefield and were converted into a school and church. In 1848 a further acre was purchased on the Church Hill site and the building of a new church began. It was dedicated by Bishop Selwyn on 14 December 1851. Its rapidly expanding congregation saw it enlarged in 1859 and again in 1866. The Cathedral on Church Hill today was not finished until 1972, although the first design was submitted in 1925 after an earthquake damaged the existing building.

Father GavinFather Antoine Garin, circa 1870. Photographer unidentified, Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/4016333F 
Click to enlarge

Membership of a church was not just a spiritual need, the church was also very important politically, they were "the moral guardians of society."2 "The Anglican ministry was primarily involved in the service of European citizens of the town"3 and Nelson would not have become a city at the time without the establishment of the Bishops' See. The consecration of Edmund Hobhouse as the Bishop of Nelson in 1858 resulted in a decree from Queen Victoria, stating that "And we do further, by these our letters patent, order and constitute the town of Nelson, in the province of Nelson, to be a Bishop's See and the seat of the said Bishop, and do ordain that the said Town of Nelson to be a city".4

Nelson's Catholic Community originated from the Society of Mary (Marists), who were appointed by the Pope to work in New Zealand as part of a new Pacific Mission. A dispute with Pompallier resulted in the Marists becoming head of the Wellington Diocese, which included Nelson, and Pompallier given control of the Auckland Diocese. Father Antoine Garin was sent to Nelson. Previously, Henry and Mary Redwood had been important in the establishment of the Catholic Church in Nelson. Among others, they gathered in Waimea West and recited the Mass prayers. The first Mass was said at the Redwoods' on 5 May 1844, although Father O'Reily could only visit from Wellington once a year. A meeting was held on 11 March 1845 to discuss the building of a chapel in Shelbourne Street; this was opened Easter Sunday 1847. When Father Garin arrived on  9 May 1850, the chapel in Shelbourne Street was rebuilt, and the first St. Mary's was built on land purchased in Manuka Street in 1856. After it was deemed too small and a fire accelerated plans for a new church, the second St. Mary's was built, and opened on 3 December 1882.

The early quaker meeting houseThe early quaker meeting housePurchased in 1853.
Source: Quakers in Aotearoa
Click to enlarge

Presbyterians and Quakers were two other denominations which established a congregation early in Nelson's settlement. Presbyterian settlers told Rev. John McFarland about their need for a resident clergyman when he came to baptise children and hold services in 1842. The Rev. Dickson Nicholson arrived in 1848 and the foundation stone of Trinity Church was laid in 1849. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) congregation was established in Nelson by Martha and Samuel Strong, who arrived in December 1842. John Cotterell selected Town Acre 667 from the New Zealand Company in 1842, to become the meeting house for local Quakers.

The Nelson Baptist Church was the first Baptist Church formed in New Zealand. It was founded in 1851. The Reverend Decimus Dolamore was the first minister arriving on March 15 1851. The first Church building opened in December, 1854.

Nelson's churches have evolved greatly since the first settlers established them. Denominations have experienced periods of co-operation and definite distinction and difference between each other. Denominations initially needed to co-operate  because Nelson was initially very underdeveloped. People needed a connection with the church because of its links to Europe. Between the 1850's and 1960's, churches stayed quite separate from each other. During this period, the way the churches were involved with their members' lives was quite different to current times. Churches instructed people about how to live their lives; they tended to voice opinions about particular behaviour in peoples' lives as well. For example, there was a lot of attention drawn to bad behaviour of teenagers in the 1980's. The church encouraged parents to teach their children about good morals and young men to join youth clubs. Attending church was a formal occasion, and services were formal and predictable. Prayers were planned for each service for the duration of the year, with heavy involvement by the minister. Within the Catholic Church during the 1930's, a similar home environment was encouraged. Families would recite the rosary, pray daily and children were taught "...humility, penance and daily goodness..."5

Nelson's view on religion has changed significantly over time; the Church of England is now seen as one of many denominations. "The church is not assumed to be as central as it was in the past, and attending church is less automatic than it once was."6 Religion in Nelson is now based more on individual beliefs and there is far less reliance on links to England and Europe as a whole. Despite this, churches in early Nelson were to serve the people who lived there, and this is still the same today.

Abigail Goodison, Nelson College for Girls, 2010 (Updated May 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. McCarthy, I., (2008) The Anglican Church in Nelson, Nelson Provincial Museum: Nelson
  2. Chamberlain, M., Personal Interview,24/6/2020
  3. McCarthy, I., Personal Interview, 26/5/2010, Nelson Provincial Museum
  4. McCarthy (2008)
  5. Harris, A., (1994) The Beauty of your House - The Nelson Catholic Parish 1844-1994, St. Mary's Parish: Blenheim
  6. Burgess, A., Email Interview, 24/6/2010


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  • The "Rev Charles Saxon" mentioned here was in fact the Rev. Charles Waring Saxton, who came to Nelson on the 'Clifford" in May 1842 with a family party including his brother John Waring Saxton, the prominent Stoke settler for whom Saxton Road and Saxton Field are named. The Rev. Saxton was the first recorded Anglican clergyman to officate in Nelson, holding services and performing marriages during 1842 and 1843. He only remained in Nelson for about 18 months - after his wife Mary died, he returned to England.

    Somewhere along the line his name has become written as "Saxon" and this error has unfortunately been perpetuated in Motueka. The Rev Charles Saxton being an close associate of Motueka pioneer, Captain Edward Fearon, a street off Motueka's Fearon Street was named for him, becoming known as, yes, Saxon Street.

    Posted by Anne McFadgen, 26/11/2016 8:37am (8 years ago)

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Further sources - Nelson’s Early Churches




  •  Synod reports. (1988,2008,2009) Nelson, NZ, Nelson Cathedral.

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