It’s astonishing, amazing, overwhelmingly, and deeply moving. But the truth is – there are simply not enough superlatives to describe the beauty and wonder you will experience when you visit Tikitiki’s Saint Mary’s Church on the remote East Coast of the North Island.
If I hadn’t been advised by a friend to call into Saint Mary’s while holidaying in the vicinity, I might well have completely overlooked the church, so insignificant is its outward appearance. But when I nonchalantly walked up the path and turned the handle on the door, I knew immediately that I was entering a place of great mana.
Saint Mary’s in Tikitiki, 2 hours north of Gisborne on State Highway 35, was built in 1924. Later on, in 1926, it became a war memorial to the Ngāti Porou soldiers who who died in World War I. Extravagantly adorned with carvings, kowhaiwhai (painted panels) and tukutuku (woven panels), the interior of the church reflects the dreams of Sir Apirana Ngata, perhaps the greatest Māori politician to have served our country.
It was this revered leader who encouraged Ngāti Porou carvers and weavers, and those from further afield, to rise to the challenge of decorating the interior of the church using traditional arts and crafts, many of which were revived for just this purpose. The result has to be seen to be believed.
Carvings adorn the ends of pews, door surrounds, the alter rail and the pulpit. They frame the harmonium and stained glass windows bearing Māori motifs, and jostle with painted ceiling rafters, and tapestries in sympathetic colours. Behind the alter, a bright stained glass window pays tribute to the fallen, as two Māori soldiers, Second Lieutenant Henare Kohere and Captain Pekema Kaa, gaze Heavenward and also east toward the vast Pacific Ocean and waters of the sacred Waiapu River which run to meet it.
Look more closely and you will see that the church’s interior reflects a mingling of both Māori and Pakeha worlds such as the woven crosses alongside traditional Māori designs. The mingling of elements from both cultures is deliberate, and supports Sir Apirana Ngata’s belief that both Māori and Pakeha were equal.
Several pieces of work pay testament to significant Māori leaders from the past. The font, at the back of the church, is one of these. It is borne on the head of Paramount Chief Piripi Taumata-a-kura from the settlement of Whakawhitira, a short distance from Tiritiri. And it honours him for the part he played in introducing the gospel to Ngāti Porou.
Be sure to spend time looking around the outside of the church when you visit. The carved gateway is a memorial to Sir Apirana Ngata’s wife, Lady Arihia Ngata, the externally housed bell is supported by strong carved pillars, and at the rear of the church is a fine memorial to Apirana Ngata himself.
Saint Mary’s is not a site to be hurried. Allow at least an hour for your visit, respect other visitors, and be sure to leave a generous donation to support the ongoing conservation of this most memorable church and its irreplaceable works of art and craft.