Nelson’s Early Churches
The first settlers to Nelson brought with them a variety of religious beliefs and backgrounds. The system of hierarchy and emphasis on religion in immigrants' homelands were important, and even though some came to New Zealand to escape this, various congregations soon became present in Nelson. "The immigrants had come with their denominations established and they had needs that could be met by the established church".1
Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics were the main denominations of the time, and prior to the 1850s they cooperated, and even assisted with building each others' churches. There was little distinction between the protestant churches during this period.
Arthur Wakefield led Sunday services in Nelson and then turned this duty over to Reverend Charles Saxton, who led the Anglican congregation until the arrival of Bishop Selwyn on the 20th of August 1842. The first Anglican chapel was built at Waimea West in 1843, although the foundation stone of the first Cathedral was not laid until 1850. Two wooden buildings on Church Hill had been purchased by Selwyn from Wakefield and were converted into a school and church. In 1848 a further acre was purchased on the Church Hill site and the building of a new church began. It was dedicated by Bishop Selwyn on the 14th of December 1851. Its rapidly expanding congregation saw it enlarged in 1859 and again in 1866. The cathedral on Church Hill today was not finished until 1972, although the first design was submitted in 1925 after an earthquake damaged the existing building.
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Membership of a church was not just a spiritual need, the church was also very important politically, they were "the moral guardians of society."2 "The Anglican ministry was primarily involved in the service of European citizens of the town"3 and Nelson would not have become a city at the time without the establishment of the Bishops' See. The consecration of Edmund Hobhouse as the Bishop of Nelson in 1858 resulted in a decree from Queen Victoria, stating that "And we do further, by these our letters patent, order and constitute the town of Nelson, in the province of Nelson, to be a Bishop's See and the seat of the said Bishop, and do ordain that the said Town of Nelson to be a city".4
Nelson's Catholic Community originated from the Society of Mary (Marists), who were appointed by the Pope to work in New Zealand as part of a new Pacific Mission. A dispute with Pompallier resulted in the Marists becoming head of the Wellington Diocese, which included Nelson, and Pompallier given control of the Auckland Diocese. Father Antoine Garin was sent to Nelson. Previously, Henry and Mary Redwood had been important in the establishment of the Catholic Church in Nelson. Among others, they gathered in Waimea West and recited the Mass prayers. The first Mass was said at the Redwoods' on the 5th of May 1844, although Father O'Reily could only visit from Wellington once a year. A meeting was held on the 11th of March 1845 to discuss the building of a chapel in Shelbourne Street; this was opened Easter Sunday 1847. When Father Garin arrived on the 9th of May 1850, the chapel in Shelbourne Street was rebuilt, and the first St. Mary's was built on land purchased in Manuka Street in 1856. After it was deemed too small and a fire accelerated plans for a new church, the second St. Mary's was built, and opened on the 3rd of December 1882.
Source: Quakers in Aotearoa http://www.quaker.org.nz/about/quaker-history-in-nelson
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Presbyterians and Quakers were two other denominations which established a congregation early in Nelson's settlement. Presbyterian settlers told Rev. John McFarland about their need for a resident clergyman when he came to baptise children and hold services in 1842. The Rev. Dickson Nicholson arrived in 1848 and the foundation stone of Trinity Church was laid in 1849. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) congregation was established in Nelson by Martha and Samuel Strong, who arrived in December 1842. John Cotterell selected Town Acre 667 from the New Zealand Company in 1842, to become the meeting house for local Quakers.
Nelson's churches have evolved greatly since the first settlers established them. Denominations have experienced periods of co-operation and definite distinction and difference between each other. Denominations initially needed to co-operate because Nelson was initially very underdeveloped. People needed a connection with the church because of its links to Europe. Between the 1850s and 1960s, churches stayed quite separate from each other. During this period, the way the churches were involved with their members' lives was quite different to current times. Churches tended to be more instructing to people and tell them how to live their lives; they tended to voice opinions about particular behaviour in peoples' lives as well. For example, there was a lot of attention drawn to bad behaviour of teenagers in the 1980s. The church encouraged parents to teach their children about good morals and young men to join youth clubs. Attending church was a formal occasion, and services were formal and predictable. Prayers were planned for each service for the duration of the year, with heavy involvement by the minister. Within the Catholic Church during the 1930s, a similar home environment was encouraged. Families would recite the rosary, pray daily and children were taught "...humility, penance and daily goodness..."5
Nelson's view on religion has changed significantly over time; the Church of England is now seen as one of many denominations. "The church is not assumed to be as central as it was in the past, and attending church is less automatic than it once was."6 Religion in Nelson is now based more on individual beliefs and as a developed country has far less reliance on its links to England and Europe as a whole. Despite this, churches in early Nelson were to serve the people who lived there, and this is still the same today.
Abigail Goodison, Nelson College for Girls, 2010
The Nelson Baptist Church was the first Baptist Church formed in New Zealand. It was founded in 1851. The Reverend Decimus Dolamore was the first minister arriving on March 15th, 1851. The first Church building opened in december, 1854. Ed.
Sources used in this story
McCarthy, I., (2008) The Anglican Church in Nelson, Nelson Provincial Museum: Nelson
Chamberlain, M., Personal Interview,24/6/2020
McCarthy, I., Personal Interview, 26/5/2010, Nelson Provincial Museum
Harris, A., (1994) The Beauty of your House - The Nelson Catholic Parish 1844-1994, St. Mary's Parish: Blenheim
Burgess, A., Email Interview, 24/6/2010
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Further sources - Nelson’s Early Churches
Ault, H.F., (1962) The Centennial History of the All Saints' Parish, Nelson. 1862-1962. Nelson, NZ: Vestry of All Saints' Parish
Harris, A., (1994) The Beauty of your House - The Nelson Catholic Parish 1844-1994. Nelson, NZ :St. Mary's Parish
King, M., (2003) The Penguin History of New Zealand. Auckland, NZ. : Penguin Books
Lash, M., (1992) Nelson notables, 1840-1940 : a dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, NZ: Nelson Historical Society
McCarthy, I., (2008) The Anglican Church in Nelson Nelson: Nelson Provincial Museum
Wells, A., (2003) Nelson's Historic Country Churches. Nikau Press: New Zealand
Young, F.J.L., (2000) Nelson Cathedral : the story of the church on the hill. Nelson, NZ :The Dean and Vestry of Nelson Cathedral
Annual Meeting. (30/4/1904) Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XXXVIII, Issue 83, Page 4 . Retrieved from
Catholics commemorate 100 years. (5/10/1999). Nelson's Century Souvenir Issue (Nelson Evening Mail).
Diocesan Synod. (16/11/1910) Colonist, Volume LIII, Issue 12951, Page 1. Retrieved from
Gothic Cathedral too costly. (5/10/1999). Nelson's Century Souvenir Issue (Nelson Evening Mail).
Opening of Christ Church. (20/12/1851) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, Volume X, Issue 577, 20 December 1851, Page 170. Retrieved from
Presbyterian Church. (28/1/1899) Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XXXIII, Issue 24,Page 2. Retrieved from
The Re-opening Services. (4/12/1901) Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XXXV, Issue 280, Page 4. Retrieved from
- Synod reports. (1988,2008,2009) Nelson, NZ, Nelson Cathedral.
Quaker History in Nelson, Quakers in Aotearoa. Retrieved from
Statistics New Zealand. QuickStats About Culture and Identity. Retrieved from