Elms Resources

Of Chapels, Belfry and Bell

The Elms First Chapel

The heart of any mission station must be its chapel, so we can be sure that soon after Alfred and Charlotte Brown arrived at Te Papa work began on a place of worship for the missionaries and the mission Maori. Like the other buildings on the mission station the first chapel was built from raupo (rushes) which grew in abundance. It was replaced by a weatherboard chapel with a shingle roof in August 1843, after the library had been completed but well before the permanent mission house was ready for occupation. Missionary William Williams described it as "a neat little building with Gothic windows and doors." Many of Brown's services were held in the open air, of course, but in many of the pa he visited he encouraged converts to put up special buildings for use as chapels. One such building was located within the Maungatapu pa. Another stood at the eastern end of the Otumoetai pa, on the boundary of the present Beach Road reserve and not far from the Catholic Chapel erected in 1840 on land gifted to Bishop Pompallier. No doubt the proximity of these chapels was a thorn in the flesh for both denominations.

The Elms Belfry and Bell

The Te Papa chapel was a simple structure, without spire or steeple, but with an unusual freestanding belfry at its southeastern corner. Brown had ordered a bell from London at his own expense, and not on behalf of the Church Missionary Society, while he was stationed at Matamata in 1834. Alice Maxwell, his niece by marriage, recalls that her uncle told her that he had been in the Waikato when the ship carrying the bell arrived in Auckland. It was, apparently, the first large church bell to come to New Zealand. Made of bronze, it measures about 55 centimeters in diameter.

Some of the local people tried to entice the captain to hand the bell over to them, so that the honour of possessing the first bell in New Zealand would go to that settlement. Luckily the ship¹s captain insisted that he must deliver the bell to Brown in person. As he was unable to do this, he took it all the way back to England with him, bringing it out again on the ship¹s next voyage, when it was safely handed over to its rightful owner. By this time Brown had been transferred to Tauranga, so it was from this belfry that the melodious tone first rang out, summoning the Christian Maori to worship.

By 1875 Holy Trinity Anglican Church had been erected in the town of Tauranga, with Canon Charles Jordan appointed as Vicar. No longer did Archdeacon Brown hold services in his chapel, and the voice of the bell was still. However, its useful days were not quite over. In 1887, after the death of Christina, Brown's second wife, her sister Euphemia Maxwell, the widow of a Presbyterian minister, took up residence at the mission station with her daughters, Alice and Edith. Euphemia lent the bell to St Peter's Presbyterian church where she worshipped. Unfortunately the Anglican bell was damaged while at the Presbyterian church, and was returned to The Elms to hang silent again on the belfry for over 30 years.

It was not until 1929 that Alice and Edith found a firm in New Zealand prepared to recast the bell, which bore the date 1835. When it was taken down from the belfry, it fell into three pieces, which were dispatched to the firm of A. and T. Burt in Auckland with the instructions that the bell should be recast with the original date and markings on it. While it was away the belfry, which had rotted where the untreated totara timber went into the ground, was repaired, ready to received the newly cast bell. By lucky coincidence, the year 1929 was the hundredth anniversary of Alfred and Charlotte's arrival in New Zealand. The bell was re-hung on the belfry and rededicated on 29th November, exactly one hundred years after the Browns arrived in the Bay of Islands. The bell was tolled 100 times to commemorate the occasion.

As for the chapel, it fell into disrepair after the death of Archdeacon Brown. Strangely enough neither Alice, nor her brother Ebenezer (Max) describe the exact fate of the chapel. Alice says that the old chapel "vanished", Max that it was dismantled. It is generally thought that the timber was given to the Maori at Matapihi, though opinion is divided about whether the planks were actually reused to build a chapel there.

The Present Chapel

What, then, is the origin of the present chapel? In 1962 a group was formed by the then owner, Duff Maxwell, Alice Maxwell's nephew, to help him look after The Elms. One of the first tasks undertaken by The Elms Trust was to construct a new chapel, which looked just like the photograph of the old chapel taken by John Kinder in the 1860s. It was put up on the original site next to the belfry, near the Chapel Street entrance to the property. Chapel Street was, of course, named because it runs past The Elms chapel. The replica was dedicated by Rev R.E.Marsden, great great grandson of the founder of the New Zealand mission, Samuel Marsden, believed to have been the first European to see the lands around the Tauranga harbour. By an irony of fate the interior was fitted out with pews from the old St Peter's church, in appropriate compensation for the use of the bell so many years before. The wall panels came from various sources, including the old Bank of New Zealand building in Wellington. The chapel is now an attractive location for small weddings.


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