The Church on the Hill, St. James Presbyterian Church, Newtown & Robert Hopkirk

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We have only included the early years of the church here.
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The Church on the Hill


The Story of St James Presbyterian Church Newtown

                                                                            Published by St James Presbyterian Church 1982  

Foreword "We are pygmies, standing on the shoulders of giants." Perhaps our predecessors at St. James would not have called themselves giants. Yet many of the people mentioned in this history were gigantic. Mr Davidson deserved the name of Hercules. Few ministries in New Zealand have been so long or so fruitful as Mr Shirer's. They, and the countless others not mentioned, didn't see themselves as anyone special. But we - the whole present generation of St. James - have entered into the inheritance of their labours. It is good that they have had a chronicler so discerning, painstaking and at times eloquent, as Helen Wilson. This history is essentially the result of her research, although she'd be the first to acknowledge, and to exaggerate, the help others have given her. It is a less than complete history, for two reasons that have nothing to do with Helen. The first reason is the limitation of space. The Session asked her to produce a history of only 70 or 80 pages. It would have been entirely possible to have produced a history of several hundred pages. The second reason is the shortage of material. We cast our net as widely as we could, but the harvest of material, of hard evidence, has not been as great as we had hoped. Many people haven't realised the importance of their memories. Nonetheless, no effort has been spared to make the record as accurate and as interesting as possible, within these limitations. The present people of St. James, ourselves included, realise our debt to the past; we use our heritage weekly, daily. Yet our faces are turned to the future, not to the past. We believe that, as we enter upon the second century of St. James, the same Lord who guided and sustained those who passed this way will enable us all to work together for His glory, and to bear a continuing witness here to His good news. Let us all so work, so believe, and so live, that His work may be done through us and by us. Langi Sipeli, Ian Ramsden. 13 September 1982.

Beginnings (1879-1888)

St. James Church, Newtown, dates its foundation from 1882 because that is when the first Sabbath School building was established. However our true anniversary might be dated some three years earlier. On 28 January 1879, Mr James Smith, congregational treasurer and founder of James Smith's Department Store, brought before the St. John's Session the desirability of establishing a congregational mission he had already obtained subscriptions amounting to nearly £100 towards a missioner's salary. It was agreed that 'in a city so large and so rapidly expanding there is need for some special effort being made in addition to the ordinary church agencies to maintain the influences of religion'. A month later Mr Robert Hopkirk was appointed City Missionary, to work especially in the Te Aro and Newtown districts. He was instructed to visit house to house, hold cottage prayer meetings, establish a district Sunday School, and (if a suitable place could be found) hold Sunday services, visit the hospital, and 'in other ways seek to bring the blessings of the Gospel to those who might otherwise be neglected'. The people of St. John's felt justifiably pleased that amongst their own Session could be found someone so suitably qualified to carry out this work - Mr Hopkirk had been actively employed in Home Mission work in his native Scotland.


The outreach which followed showed considerable foresight and not a little bravery. Although Newtown had been divided into 'town acre' lots in 1839 when 100,000 acres of Wellington land was drawn in London, 40 years later there was still little to support the view that 'the city must eventually more and more extend itself' in this direction. 'From Newtown Park to Clyde Quay a deep boggy stream wound its sluggish way through a morass of flax, raupo and tussock grass'. Thick scrub, farmland and market gardens surrounded the suburb. Distinguishing landmarks were the Newtown Hotel and Messrs. Kitchen and Son's soapworks, with the straggling road leading to the 'Park' being the principal and almost only street. As well, records of St. John's Church tell of the unparalleled depression which had been experienced by all classes of the community during 1879. The next ten years were difficult ones and 'by 1888 the country was experiencing rnass unemployment'.

It seems that Mr Hopkirk found a ready response amongst the Presbyterians of the district. As early as March 1879 the St. John's Managers had been asked to secure a place in which services could be held, and a Sabbath School established. The Odd-fellows Hall in Adelaide Road, which was found to be available for ten shillings a day, had the advantage of being close to the (steam) tram terminus. It was decided 'not to open a school there during the present winter, but to try and secure teachers, that when the weather and roads were better, a commencement might be made'. It appears that the hall was not, in fact, hired until mid-1880 - a sign of the times being an effort to reduce the rental. The first record of a service there is a note of a collection taken early in September. Representations had already been made to Presbytery on the need to establish a separate congregation in the Newtown area. Although the records for this period, until the first St. James Minute Book opens in mid-1881, are incomplete, we know that four trustees were appointed. Under the guidance of James Smith, James Wilson (builder of the third St. John's), James Barry and John MeLean, the 'town acre' on Adelaide Road was purchased in 1881 for £350. £175 had been collected towards this sum and the remainder was left on mortgage at 8 percent.

On 21 June 1881 a meeting was held at the Hanson Street house of Mr John MeLean Snr (an elder of St. John's) to appoint a committee for the purpose of establishing a Presbyterian Church in the Newtown district. The following committee was elected: D Campbell, W Lyttlejohn, J J MeLean Snr, - Shaw, A Wilson, J MeLean Jnr (Secretary) and Joseph Hopkirk (Treasurer). It was decided that building funds should be raised by means of a subscription - members of the Committee were issued with passbooks, each to give as much as their means would permit and also to make a vigorous canvass amongst their friends. Fortyseven pounds ten shillings was subscribed in the room, a sum probably close to a week's income for the members collectively and a good indication of the earnestness of the men involved. The method proved enormously successful, 136 friends subscribing a total of £190.


With fund-raising well in hand, and consent for building obtained from the site trustees,, Mr Alex Wilson was instructed to call for tenders to close at noon on Tuesday 11 October. This rapid progress was fortunate, as a month or two later a large increase took place in the price of building material. For the reasonable price of £175 a Mr Charlton erected a comfortable schoolroom with two classrooms capable of seating 180 worshippers. Mr Alex Wilson, a local dairy farmer and the eponym of Wilson Street, brought many practical skills to the congregation's building projects. To prevent all unnecessary expenses, he had also prepared the plans and with the aid of Mr John McLean and Mr Reid superintended the erection of the schoolroom. Other Committee members too, took time off from fund-raising to carry out extra work. Modest arrangements were made for furnishings; seats were purchased at auction for £4.10s, and the schoolroom was ready for occupation, free of debt, a mere eight months from the Committee's first meeting. The cost of insuring the building in the first year was £1.


Appropriately, the Rev. James Paterson from St. John's conducted the first service in the schoolroom, on the morning of 5 February 1882. The evening service was conducted by Mr Grant from Lower Hutt. The women of the congregation were responsible for the organisation of the public tea meeting held to mark the opening on the following Tuesday: Mr Godber of Cuba Street provided the 'teas' and it was decided to hold the meeting in the Oddfellows Hall. The activity of the Presbyterians of the district had been paralleled by the Anglicans and the Wesleyans. The first service of St. Thomas's Anglican Church was also held on 5 February 1882, and Mr Joseph Hopkirk of the St. James Committee was deputed to write to the Adelaide Road Wesleyan Chapel Committee regretting that we had decided to hold our opening tea meeting on the same night as theirs.


It must have been with no little sense of achievement then, that the Committee called the first congregational meeting a few weeks later, to report that its brief was near complete, and to express the hope that our numbers will gradually increase and with God's blessing upon our little church it will yet become a power in the neighbourhood for much spiritual good'. An important further move was taken in this direction when advice was sought from the Rev. James Paterson regarding the achievement of the status of a 'preaching station'. He provided the following encouragement: 'It is quite clear you cannot remain in your present undefined position. You must go forward to be formed into a regular church and in time to have a regular pastorate. By all working earnestly and unitedly together with God's blessing on your efforts a good strong congregation may soon be formed.' The congregation's formal application proved most acceptable to Presbytery who naturally found it reason for satisfaction that 'a step so decided' should be taken 'toward the formation of a third charge in Wellington'. A letter of 23 May 1882 from the Rev. James Doull, Presbytery Clerk, informed that our friend and mentor, the Rev. James Paterson, had been appointed Moderator. Messrs. John McLean (Hanson Street), James Smith and Robert Hopkirk were to form a Provisional Session responsible for the spiritual oversight of the congregation.


There had earlier been discussion on a suitable name for the Newtown congregation and it was a simple matter of domestic organisation that brought an end to this debate. With a communion roll formed and the first communion set down for early August, attention was centred on the printing of the communion cards. The Committee Chairman (Mr John McLean Snr) proposed that the cards should be headed St. James Presbyterian Church as this was the original name given by the Trustees - three of the four Trustees were themselves called 'James'. To this name, however, several of the members objected, and the alternative 'Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church' was discussed at length before our present name was endorsed.


6 August 1882 was something of a red-letter day in the life of the new little congregation. Thirty-six members partook of communion from a cup lent for the occasion by St. John's. As well, the sacrament of baptism was administered to the child of Mr Hercules Davidson, Committee member. We are told that this occasion brought forth a very earnest' sermon from the Moderator,, the Rev. James Paterson, based on John XII: 32 'And 1, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.' Another first was the 'Entertainment' put on by the newly-formed singing and music class under the direction of Mr H Podmore. The charge was a modest shilling a head and the sum raised exceeded the £8 needed to buy a secondhand harmonium. The obstacle presented by the muddy winter roads that ran between Newtown and the city might have contributed as much to this success as did the reputation of the fledgling singing class!


With their first anniversary behind them, the Annual Congregational Meeting in February 1883 undertook to examine future prospects of the congregation., especially relative to obtaining a qualified minister. For some reason, however. The Church Extension Committee :chose to overlook the congregation's expressed wish to hear as many students as the committee could provide, before any appointment was made. Without consultation, Mr James McNeil was appointed student evangelist. Mr Robert Hopkirk was dismissed in what was considered to be 'unseemly haste' - an unwarranted recompense for one who had rendered the congregation such sterling service. Messrs MeLean Jnr, Davidson, and Campbell resigned in protest. Happily, their withdrawal was only temporary, and this trio later formed the first Session under the pastorate of the Rev. W Shirer.


Student he may have been, but impecunious he was determined not to be. Mr McNeil in June 1883 found himself put to the 'painful necessity' of informing the Committee of Managers 'that unless you see your way to grant me such a salary as I can live comfortably among you, I cannot remain much longer at Newtown'. The Church Extension Cornrnittee had been paying Mr MeNeil a salary of £8.6.8d. monthly, and he required £12.10.0 to live 'comfortably'. Mr McNeil remained at St. James until mid-September when he resigned to seek a charge as a fullyordained minister. Having again set about the business of obtaining subscriptions, the congregation decided that a stipend of £200 could be managed. However, Mr MeNeil declined the offer of a call.


Text Box:  
The Rev J Kennedy Elliot
      The Rev. James Kennedy Elliott had but recently arrived in this country, having left his native Ireland on account of the health of his wife, who was suffering from haemorrhage of the lungs. He was a forceful character, with the Irish 'gift of the gab'. When the congregation approached him to ascertain whether the stipend offered would prohibit his acceptance of a call, he,replied that 'while . . . the sum is small taking into consideration the cost of house rent and the expense of living in this country, yet as other considerations weigh with me, than those of a pecuniary character, the stipend offered, would not of itself be an insuperable objection Encouraged, the congregation cabled a call to Mr Elliott, temporarily domiciled in Sydney. While Mr Elliott's response was not immediate, because of his wife's health, accept he did, and St. James prepared to receive its first full-charge minister.


On 16 March 1885, the Reverend James Elliott was solemnly inducted into the pastoral charge of the congregation. The sermon, described as 'suitable', was delivered by the Reverend Fulton from 1 Peter 5:2-4. Assuredly the Annual Congregational Meeting held two days later was a time for 'acknowledging with devout gratitude the goodness of God towards us during the year'. A bell donated by Mr David, or perhaps Daniel, (the records are inconsistent) Robertson of the Phoenix Foundry now pealed out a welcome to the Sabbath morning service and the well attended Wednesday evening prayer meeting. The organ, purchased from America, had arrived and was expected to enhance greatly the contributions of Mr Hazlewood and the choir. The Sabbath School had continued to prosper and under the superintendency of Mr Hercules Davidson, was able to declare itself independent of St. John's. In optimistic mood then, Mr Hazlewood's tent was borrowed for the traditional tea meeting to welcome Mr Elliott, 'in the event of more being present than could conveniently sit down to tea.'


With a settled minister, the little congregation moved confidently forward. At the end of May, John McLean, Hanson Street, and Hercules Davidson were admitted and ordained respectively as the first Elders elected from the congregation. The St. James Presbyterian Ladies Association was formed on 22 June 1885 with the following object: 'To co-operate with the Minister and Elders and under the guidance of the Kirk Session to engage in works of usefulness, visiting the sick and those who attend no place of worship, raising money for missionary and charitable purposes and distributing tracts.' A Young Men's Christian Association was formed, its meetings conducted initially by Mr Elliott, who also prepared a syllabus of the subjects to be studied.


Missionary contact was established through the Rev. Mr Watt, a missionary in the New Hebrides, who was invited to write a letter 'at least once a year' to be read in the Sabbath School or Prayer Meeting.


Our predecessors showed a liberality in their approach to other denominations somewhat surprising for their time. Perhaps this was a true reflection of the 'pioneering spirit'. Mr Elliott was, in August 1885, appointed convenor of a Presbytery committee to consider 'what steps should be taken to stir tip and quicken the spiritual life of the members of the churches and to bring the careless and indifferent under the influence and power of the gospel'. Their work resulted in a series of evangelistic services which were held at St. James from March 1886. Pastors who assisted Mr Elliott were drawn from the Congregational, Baptist, and Wesleyan Churches. Preparatory services for communion were also at times conducted by ministers of other denominations. The evangelical meetings were apparently fairly well attended and 'though they failed to bring in the class of people for whom they were principally intended, those who took part in them undoubtedly received much spiritual benefit'!


The congregation's membership had doubled and thoughts began to turn to plans for extending the schoolroom. However in September 1885 a problem arose. Mr Elliott informed his office bearers that many representations had been made to him suggesting the removal of the church to a more central position near town. He himself thought that if it were possible to obtain a site about the Basin Reserve, a considerable increase in the congregation would follow. After examination by a sub-committee, which found against the proposal, the matter lay dormant until the Annual Congregational Meeting at the end of 1886. Mr Alex Wilson's presentation of three alternative plans for enlarging the schoolroom (with costs) prompted discussion on the merits of a shift closer to the town 'for the convenience of those residing in that direction'. It was decided to leave the matter for examination by the incoming Managers.


Mr Elliott's style of leadership was not always acceptable to some of our democratically inclined forebears. To resolve the question of where St. James should be sited, Mr John MeLean (Daniell Street) submitted a form of paper which he proposed should be sent to each member and adherent of the congregation who was entitled to vote. When, as chairman, 'Mr Elliott refused to allow the matter to be discussed, a clamour of voices was raised in protest. Our recorder states that the meeting closed with the benediction -, heavily underlined! Happily, at the congregational meeting held a few days later, 'long and full discussion' of the matter was apparently characterised by the 'utmost good feeling'. It was resolved that St. James should continue in Adelaide Road. On the following Sunday, April 15, Mr Elliott intimated from the pulpit that he intended to resign. About half of the congregation followed Mr Elliott, as well as half the office bearers, including the senior elder, Mr John McLean (Hanson Street).


Both parties to this debate were to be proved right. The future was to show the clear need for St. James in its Adelaide Road position, as well as for the Kent Terrace Church where Mr Elliott was to conduct an outstanding ministry spanning the next thirty-four years. However the period which followed was to be one of doubt and struggle for those who remained at St. James - for the first, but not the only, time in our history, the Newtown Presbyterians considered 'putting up the shutters'. Under the moderatorship of the Rev. David Rodger, Lower Hutt, the little congregation persevered. The names of those who undertook pulpit supply over the next six months are many, including our early friend, Mr Robert Hopkirk. Towards the end of 1886 Mr John Cowie, M.A., a divinity student from the Free Church of Scotland, was appointed by the Church Extension Committee and remained until the end of May, when he was at his own request appointed to the charge of the Halkett and Kimberley districts in Canterbury. He was followed by the Rev. Jas. B. Smellie, also on a 'temporary charge' basis.


When an informal congregational meeting decided in September 1887 'that the people should unite and keep the church open', Presbytery was asked to provide an Interim Session. Messrs J G W Aitken, James Wilson, and Robert Hopkirk proved a wise choice; all three had strong ties with St. James and each took a personal and individual interest in the little congregation. With the prospect of the arrival of a further 'temporary charge' at the end of October, the bold step was taken of advertising the church service in the evening papers - a method of attracting members of which Mr Elliott had strongly disapproved. Mr J B Finlay.was apparently highly regarded and his labours seem to have been greatly successful. Under his leadership St. James was in sufficient heart by early 1888 to plan a future. Subscription cards were distributed to raise funds for additions to the Sabbath School and agreement was reached on the need to obtain a permanent minister. A misunderstanding prevented the calling of Mr Finlay, and when the Rev. Wm Grant declined their call, the congregation promptly and unanimously decided to call the Rev. Wm Shirer, recently arrived from Scotland, who had been helping out with pulpit supply. On 18 September 1888, at a service conducted by the Revs. Paterson, Ogg, and Fulton, the Rev. Wm Shirer was ordained and inducted to the pastorate, thus commencing a ministry which was to earn him the affectionate title of the 'Grand Old Man of St. James'. Some forty years later John MeLean of Daniel Street was to write that while some of his memories of the early days were pleasant, many were otherwise, but 'with the first appearance of Mr Shirer, our troubles ceased'.

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