Helping People to Meet God • Make Friends • Grow in Faith

Reflections from a Churchyard

There are stories behind each of the names and inscriptions on the headstones in our graveyard. Some
are known to us; others are not. I have long wondered about those early parishioners who knelt and prayed in that little wooden building that was the first St Paul’s. I have thought, too, of those who sat in the pews that we now occupy, those whose voices echoed in song in the days gone by . . . Did they have he same worries and concerns that we have today? Did they find peace, and were they encouraged and inspired to keep walking in the footsteps of Christ? Did they give thanks for the strength He gave them to keep following Him, whatever their circumstances?

Here, then, are some of my ‘wonderings’:
Who were the very first men and women who worshipped at St Paul’s? Who cut the timber and laid the
foundations and built the first little church in Papanui?

How many of the pioneer families came to the first service? Did some of the Maori people of Otautahi come to hear about the Son of God who loved them? Were the thoughts and prayers of that early congregation for the families they had left behind in Britain, perhaps never to see again, and for the future in this strange land with its upside-down climate, its different vegetation, and its unknown dangers?

Whatever their anxieties and concerns, they put their trust in the One who had led them to this place and
promised to be with them always.

As the years unfolded, there were both joys and sorrows for those families and their descendants. The
19th century was a time of diseases with no cure, injuries with no rehabilitation, accidents with no compensation. The little church would have been the scene of joyous gatherings for weddings and baptisms, but it also witnessed many funerals, often of little children who succumbed to diseases for which now in the 21st century there are vaccines. Our cemetery bears witness to many of these, including children and adults who were drowned at sea or in the treacherous rivers and streams in Canterbury. Families were suddenly left destitute when the father died by disease or accident. Hopefully the
congregation of St Paul’s supported them and the many who came to pray for sick children and for comfort and support in their sadness and loneliness.

John and Mary Wild’s little two-year-old, Arthur, died at sea in 1863, perhaps on their journey out to New
Zealand. Less than ten years later their little girl Martha died.

In 1872 the parents of Robert, Sarah Jane, and James Reid mourned their three children who died within days of each other.

Who were the parents of “our dear little Bertie” who died in 1891?

The family of Thomas Shead who died aged 11 had travelled all the way from Pennsylvania. I wonder if they were ever able return to a loving family in their homeland?

Not all who died tragically were babies or children:-
In 1891 William Brown and his young son drowned, as did Herbert and Alfred Clark in 1896. In 1898 John Bell was accidentally killed, leaving a wife and son.

In 1900 Edith Ellen Searell was murdered in China where she served as a missionary.

Amidst the sadness of those early families there was surely happiness too. Maybe picnics were held in the
church grounds not yet filled with graves, children would have played among the trees: girls with their precious rag dolls, boys kicking balls and bowling hoops. Some of the children in the 1852 Church would have been men and women at the opening service of the new 1877 Church. A few learned to ring the bells given by Mr Matson in 1880, maybe others joined the choir. I wonder who was the first organist?

I think of the families in the new Church – the women in crinolines, and later in Edwardian dress and with large hats. Men would be seen in stovepipe trousers, little boys in knickerbockers and boots, little girls with long hair and dressed in starched pinafores.

I wonder who the youngsters were who scratched their initials on the backs of the pews? I see them crouched down, hidden by their mothers’ skirts. Was the sermon too long? Did the little boys grow up to marry their sweethearts and raise a family? Which of them came to St Paul’s in August 1914 to pray for courage before starting the journey which took them to the carnage of Gallipoli and the battlefields of France and Belgium?

During the two world wars many young men were killed in Gallipoli, France, Belgium, and in fields of war a long way from home. There are memorials to many of these in our graveyard.

During the years of war many parents, children and sweethearts must have come to St Paul’s to pray for the safety of their loved ones, and some to seek comfort when they were bereaved. The graveyard reminds us too of the losses due to the influenza epidemic after the war.

The 1920s seem to have been marked with a kind of relief and frivolity after the dark years of 1914 – 1918.
Then came the great depression of the 1930s with so many out of work, and families destitute – Did they then continue to hold on to Jesus, seeking comfort and strength in such difficult times?

There have, of course, been many generations since that first congregation, who have worshipped at St Paul’s. Their names live on in the headstones. Present worshippers see names of dear friends and families, on headstones and more recently on the memorial wall. And there are some “who have no memorial”, as the Apocrypha reminds us; their names are lost to us, but God knows who they are, and has loved and cared for them. Now, with all the faithful, they are “safe in the arms of Jesus” as we are reminded on a number of headstones.

Today, 170 years since our first little church, like those women and men of long ago, we face an uncertain future

  • the pandemic rages around the world, there are terrible wars, homelessness and famine in so many countries, crime in our own New Zealand – is the planet dying with global warming? Will St Paul’s still be here in another 170 years?
    May we pray, like so many have prayed before, to our Lord who loves and cares for us : –
    We rest in You, our Shield and our Defender,
    We trust in you, and in your name we go

With love, from Keren Pickering June 2022.