Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church & Cemetery

Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church & Cemetery

The article on this page was researched, developed and created by John C Waugh, for use on the MERRA website. It presents the author’s findings based on that research. Some of his conclusions are different from that presented in some historical texts, but unless otherwise stated, are supported by contemporary evidence sighted. Many of the photographs and documents presented in or accessible via this website version of the article were made available for this purpose by current or past residents of our community, and the public at large. Other images and media excerpts are taken from public data bases. In the final analysis, the article provides the author’s take on our past history.

From reviewing newspaper clippings from times gone by, and discussions with members of our community, MERRA has gathered the following information relative to the old church.

In the publication ‘Open Windows’, published by the Warkworth Business and Professional Women’s Club, Joyce Anderson (in an interview with Mona Townson) noted that:

“Land was given to the Presbyterian Church by the Grants, long before the Andersons owned the farm. The church and the cemetery overlook the Mahurangi River and the road going to Scotts Landing. Graeme [Anderson] used to put the sheep around it so that it was kept well-groomed. At Christmas time, so many people came to the services that they put the speakers outside so everyone could hear the service while sitting on the grass.”

Sources differ as to which member of the Grant family gifted the land upon which the church was built (and the cemetery still stands). It appears most likely that the person gifting the land was ‘Mr William Grant’ snr. This seems to be confirmed by an article we found at the Warkworth Museum, which records that it was William Grant snr himself who erected the church building, in 1864.

In the 2 March 1864 issue of the Daily Southern Cross newspaper, an entry date-lined ‘February’ records that:

‘The new Presbyterian Church at the heads is nearly finished, and will be opened on Sunday fortnight, when sermons will be preached by the Rev Mr Hill, a minister recently arrived from Scotland.’

This clipping serves to confirm that the construction of the church was completed in early 1864. It seems likely that construction commenced sometime in the latter part of 1863.

Texts we have read record that the church timbers were kauri

Over time the exterior of the building, at least, was ‘revamped’, as evidenced by the image below (which still shows the side of the building having three windows … and a timbered back wall that has been photographically blitzed by sunlight reflection):

The bell that was installed in the belfry is reported as having been acquired from a shipyard that ‘used to operate at Scotts Landing’, having ‘originally been cast for use on a sailing ship’. It reputedly weighed over 40kgs.

Over the years, the wooden belfry became ‘too rotten to support the large bell’. A newspaper report comments that it was taken down and ‘set in a small brick bell tower and the structure dedicated as a monument to the early settlers’.

Jack Algie recalls this new bell tower as having been built about 1948, by George Blackstaff, a bricklayer from Kaiwaka. Noelle Lipinski recalls that it was paid for by Maria May Lawrie, the wife of James Falconer Lawrie, using monies forming part of a bequest that had been made to her by a deceased relative.

In the 1950s, extensions were made to the church building. These involved adding about 3 metres to the length of the church, and constructing a bigger porch. The extra length allowed the insertion of an extra window along the side walls. This building activity was completed by September 1956. The work was undertaken by local, volunteer labour.

We’re told that Rod Miller built the pulpit.

Jack Algie recalls that not all services at the church were conducted by a Presbyterian minister; some were conducted by Methodist ministers. They would come from Warkworth to take the services.

Newly extended Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church, with the brick bell-tower to the side. Used with permission of Mrs J Anderson

We have a solitary colour photo of the church as it was in the latter part of its 123 year life:

Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church, with bell tower and part of graveyard

A media report found in the Warkworth Museum archives notes that subsequently:

… large trees near the church were felled’ and ‘with the trees gone, the bell was clearly visible from the road and it was decided to transfer it to the [Warkworth] museum.

In 1987, through the course of a stormy winter season, the church building was heavily battered by the elements. The previously mentioned unsourced media report records that “during one violent storm it, was dislodged from its foundations.

Then in March 1988, ‘the building was among those which suffered in the maelstrom of cyclone Bola.

The following four photographs were all taken in 1988, not long after the cyclone passed by: 

Above: Photos featuring members of the Kasper family taken

All in all, the passing years and the impact of adverse weather conditions took its toll on the structure.

Jack Algie, himself a builder by trade, remembers the damaged church as having been made from good timber. But he also recalls that some of the timber was riddled with borer, and the timber in some of the window frames was rotten. So, quite aside from storm-damaged timber, there would have been a fair bit of other timber which would have required replacement.

It seemed clear that a considerable amount of restoration work (involving both labour and materials) would have been needed for the church to be rebuilt.

A committee of local residents organised a church restoration campaign, forming The Mahurangi Heads East Historical Society Incorporated. The Committee included stalwarts such as Don Lipinski, John Male, Warren Young and Graeme Anderson. The initiative is reported to have had the support of pioneer families.

Don Lipinski recalls that John Male was a key member of the group … somebody who was well versed as to the structural issues associated with the restoration of a building such as the church.

The group obtained confirmation from professionals that the structure could be successfully repaired. The local building inspector had inspected the building and told them there were ‘no worries’ about restoring the building … it was made of good timber, and was of itself worth restoring.

The group identified suitably skilled persons to undertake the repair work. They had been ready to contact grave-holders to get their support in funding the restoration initiative. They had mapped out a basis for the regular cleaning and maintenance of a restored church and graveyard, with a view to formally contracting with the Presbyterian Church in this matter.

In the course of negotiations, the Presbyterian authorities insisted that, were they to give the go ahead, they would have to shift the building offsite to undertake the repair … and lodge a $2000 bond to cover the cost of any damage that the two-way removal process might cause to gravestones and the like.

A written plea to the then Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand includes the following statements:

“Following a recent decision of the Board of Managers of the Warkworth Presbyterian Church not to restore the historic old Presbyterian Church building at Mahurangi Heads East, damaged in a 1987 storm, a large number of people have expressed their deep concern that a building of such significance for this general area should be allowed to disappear.”

“Persons competent to make a judgement in such matters are confident that the building can be restored, and plans are being worked out to this end. Further, a group of local residents hopes to meet shortly with representatives of the Board of Management of the Warkworth Presbyterian Church to discuss salvage possibilities.”


“As pointed out in the preamble to the [accompanying] petition, this Church is part of the history of the Mahurangi and has played a role since the 1860s in the community life of the area.”

In February 1988, in a letter to the Board of Managers of the Warkworth Presbyterian Church, the Society stated:

“We wish to convey our hope that the restoration project will result in an amicable collaboration between all interested parties, including ourselves, your Board of managers, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, and the Auckland Civic Trust, and also including individual members of your congregation who, as reported, originally pledged contributions toward the restoration.”

But the community’s effort proved to be in vain. The Presbyterian authorities insisted that the church ‘had to go’.

Jack Algie recalls that at about that time, the Church was looking at consolidating its regional church services in Warkworth. It would have been mindful of the relatively small numbers of the congregation who attended services at the damaged church building. They had been appraised of the likely cost of restoring the church, which, Jack recalls, was an amount that, at the time, would have been considered to be quite a considerable sum.

So, it perhaps is not surprising that the Church was not prepared to countenance the restoration project.

Apparently, the Church did not make public (or to the Society) any meaningful insight into the economics of the restoration exercise. Nor, unfortunately, was there any meaningful discussion with the Society with respect to their (and the community’s) funding-related initiatives, or the ‘homework’ the Society had undertaken with a view to finding a way forward to have the church restored.

From discussions the Society had with the Presbyterian Church’s Warkworth Management Board, Don Lipinski got the impression that the Church did not give any real weight to several important matters. For example, the Mahurangi Heads community had a longstanding association with the historic church. The church and graveyard were of historic importance to the community, and could and would play an important role in their future. The community was willing to contribute time and effort to the project. It already had pledges of financial support, and was focused on securing financial support from leading public agencies involved in the preservation of historic structures.

Newspaper reports note that:

‘after eight months trying to save the building, restoration campaigner Warren Young would only say that the extent of the damage was now too great to contemplate resurrecting the building.’

One is left to wonder whether Warren Young’s comment was in fact a tactical statement intended to bring the whole issue to a close in a manner that would not create rifts within the church membership.

Was the ‘extent of the damage’ really the issue? Was the net economic cost of restoration properly evaluated (taking into account expected financial contributions from other parties)? Did the Presbyterian church see the damage situation as one that gave them an opportunity and excuse to discontinue holding church services there? Or were there other factors which prompted the Church’s seeming intransigence and eagerness to bring to an end an important element of our community’s history?

At this stage, it matters not … the Church had the right to make the decision it did, and the outcome became a case of fait accompli.

It is worth reading the article ‘Time takes heavy toll of 123-year-old Mahurangi Church’ published in the Rodney Times on 17 December 1987. It contains a remarkable image showing part of the interior of the severely damaged church building.

More poignant still were the words of Sally Collins in a short newspaper article she wrote:

‘Let it not be thought that it was only the storm, the state of its old fabric, or the lack of generous giving for its restoration to cause it to be dismantled and burned. The … church would still be there if the local committee for restoration had been allowed control of its destiny’.

Over the years that the church served the community, the Algie family, residents of Algies Bay, were among its most staunch supporters. To attend the periodic services, they undertook the journey to and from Algies Bay to the church … in the early years, when there were no proper roads in the area, such journeys were quite some undertaking. As noted in the Mahurangi Matters article referred to earlier, Mrs Joy Algie comments that with the demolition of the church, she acquired one of the pews … a reminder to her of the era of when the church existed.

Jack Algie tells us that the bell which tolled at the Mahurangi Heads church was transferred to, and installed at, the Warkworth Presbyterian church. It does have a crack in the bell rim, but nonetheless, it still is in working order.

The Graveyard

In writing about the church, we mustn’t forget the graveyard, which remains there to this day. It is a little difficult to move around the cemetery area, as the graves and their surrounds are not well maintained. With the passage of time, some of the inscriptions on the headstones have become too weathered to read. But there are a number which are sufficiently readable, and are inscribed with the names of early settlers in the Mahurangi Heads area, and of their descendants. Among the parishioners thus remembered are: William Grant (and members of his family); descendants of Thomas Scott; some members of the Darrach family; and James Lawrie (as well as members of his immediate family, and the families of several of his descendants and relatives).

The photographs below (taken in November 2013) depict some of the present-day scenes at, and a selection of the tombstones within, the cemetery.

Scott family burial plot in the graveyard of the yesteryear Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church
Tombstone of Mr John Parker, father-in-law to early settler James Lawrie, in the graveyard of the yesteryear Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church
Tombstone of Mr James Falconer Lawrie, a son of early settler James Lawrie, in the graveyard of the yesteryear Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church
Tombstone of Mr William Grant, early settler, in the graveyard of the yesteryear Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church. The inscription records he was 98 years old when he died.
Tombstone of William John Grant, in the graveyard of the yesteryear Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church. The inscription records that he died in 1880, at the age of 22.
Three of the five headstones that have been placed on the Kasper family burial plot in the graveyard of the yesteryear Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church.
Scene within the graveyard of the yesteryear Mahurangi Heads Presbyterian Church
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In October 2015, courtesy members of the Kasper family, we accessed a yesteryear site map of the cemetery, and a listing of the inscriptions which had appeared on the various headstones at that time. These cemetery records are most interesting to view.

The property on which the church was, and the graveyard is, sited remains in the ownership of the Presbyterian Church. It is sad that the Church doesn’t involve itself more fully in the maintenance of the graveyard, the last resting place of a number of its deceased former parishioners and their family members.

To bring this vignette to a close, it seems appropriate to record another portion of that article written by Sally Collins:

‘A notice in the Times on Thursday, March 16 told of a service to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, to be held at the site of the old church at Mahurangi Heads’.

Holding that service in that location seems to have been a fitting mark of respect.

Some unanswered questions... and some related observations

When one delves into the history of something or somewhere, it is very likely will be questions left unanswered. That certainly is true in this case.

When we first posted this vignette on the website (in December 2013), we noted that some of the unanswered (or not fully answered) questions upon which we still would like to follow through were those set out below:

The role Rev Robert McKinney played in the life of this church. He reportedly remained associated with the Presbyterian Church in the Warkworth area for some 50 years, starting at ‘the first church’ (and related manse) in the general proximity of what is now 55 Ridge Road. But, we wondered for how long he lived at that manse, and when (as seems likely, to us, based on indicia in R H Locker’s book, ‘Jade River’) McKinney moved his base to the Warkworth area. We also failed to unearth any photographs of McKinney.

We learned that during the summer months, in the latter part of the church’s life, the congregation often overflowed onto the surrounding lawn. A loudspeaker system relayed the service from within to those who settled-in on the lawn. We should have liked to learn more about the services conducted at the church, over the years.

For much of its existence, there were no navigable roads on the peninsula, so we pondered how people got themselves to and from the church. Jack Algie kindly gave us insights into how members of his family would arrive on horseback at, or on occasion walk to, the church, from Algies Bay. In the summer months, a person might arrive in a gig. We should have liked information to be able to have explored more widely this matter of ‘transportation’ to the church.

In our vignette focused on early settler James Lawrie, we noted that James Lawrie’s wife, Elizabeth, had an elder sister named Margaret Ann (named after her mother who had the same forenames). In 1862 this sister had married a German-born mariner, Charles Ludwig Kasper (born 1832). The Kasper family have had a long and close association with our community. In April 2014, we were contacted by Neil Scotts, whose mother was Leticia Kasper, a yesteryear resident of the area. Neil very kindly provided us with the following comments with respect to several of the unresolved matters we have listed above.

‘My mother, Letty Kasper, was brought up on the river and had many stories about the Heads area. … [The article] speculates on how people got to the church given the state of the roads in the early days – well many (maybe most) of them came by boat, rowing to the bottom of the hill on which the church sat, and then clambering up what must have been a very steep track. That worked for the Kaspers, Lawries and others on the river, but of course the folk, like the Algies, on the coast side would have had to come by horse or gig or walked. The article also mentions services at which folk spilled out onto the grounds, with a speaker system rigged up. I well remember attending those services, which were in the early 1960s (possibly even the late 50s) in summer, when the local population swelled with folk camping at Martins Bay or staying at Algies Bay, Snells Beach and elsewhere. At other times of the year the congregation was quite small and dwindled with time. In the 50’s-60’s and beyond Steve Algie and Merv Algie (Jack’s dad) were elders of the church and would hand out the hymn books. Alma Algie, Steve’s wife, was always on duty on the foot-pumped organ which stood to the right (inland side) of the pulpit, facing the congregation. The interior of the church was very plain – just broad planks painted a neutral off-white or pale blue. Very peaceful and one of the few churches I have ever felt comfortable in.’

Of course, with respect to matters about which we were left to draw inferences or conclusions, we’d welcome any additional ‘documentary or other evidence’ that may be known to members of the family of any present or former residents of the Scotts Landing area.

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