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God Defend New Zealand

During our holiday travels we also stopped briefly in Lawrence, Otago. As we were coming into the town
I told the children about the association of this town with New Zealand’s national anthem. For here in
Lawrence, John Joseph Woods wrote the tune for “God defend New Zealand”. As you will probably know, the poem was written by Dunedin poet and politician Thomas Bracken.  The Saturday Advertiser ran a competition to set the poem to music. John Joseph Woods read the poem, saw the competition and is said to have gone to work that very night to compose the tune. His composition was the clear winner.

At the time John Joseph Woods was the head teacher of St Patrick’s School in Lawrence. As I found out
during a stroll through Lawrence, while my children enjoyed the playground, that school still stands, though it is somewhat dilapidated now and in need of some care. John J. Woods also was the choirmaster of the Catholic Church in Lawrence at the time.  Catholic services were held in the large hall of St Patrick’s School until 1892, when a new church was opened across the road.

St Patrick’s Church in Lawrence unfortunately doesn’t appear in a much better state. It was deconsecrated in 2021. In that it follows the other once stately churches in Lawrence. The grand Presbyterian Church was deconsecrated and sold in 1994 and the Anglican Church followed suit in 2016. They are now used for holiday accommodation, while the more humble Methodist Church is now a second-hand shop. The Presbyterians retained property adjacent to the old church and built a modern multi-purpose facility with a worship space. As far as I could find out, this is now the only church in Lawrence.

In part the closure of churches in Lawrence is due to the population loss in this small town. There are other grand building that have fallen into disrepair, such as the court house, which could no longer be sustained by the small population. In part it is also a reflection of New Zealand society, even in small towns: most people are not interested in attending or supporting their local church. We are clearly a more secular society. We are probably also a less hopeful society than in the 1870s when John J. Woods and Thomas Bracken dreamt of a harmonious new country.

Still, some of the ultimate hope is still reflected in the music we sing, also that of our national anthem. For John J. Woods beautiful music was a reflection of heaven. He thought of heaven ‘as a beautiful garden of celestial flowers peopled by choirs of angels, whose songs of praise and adoration would replace their present-day earthly language.’ We are hopeful of joining in that chorus when even the least musical voices will be transformed to join in the harmonious chorus of unending praise.