A grave concern

St James Church, Kōwhai

St James Church, Kōwhai

In the new year, while heading home from a bit of a road trip around the lower South Island, I popped in on my relatives at Kōwhai, near Kaikōura, as I’m wont to do when able.

The last time I was able to pop in was in early 2007, so there was no surprise that things had changed in the intervening six years. However the extent of the change was surprising.

You see, my relatives can be found in the grounds of the old St James Church, and since my last visit the property had been sold by the Nelson Diocese to a private individual.

The church and its grounds are listed by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) as a Historic Place Category 2, meaning it has ‘historical or cultural heritage significance or value.’

The following is from the NZHPT register for the church:

Historical Significance

The building has historical significance as the first Anglican church at Kaikoura, and for the reminder it provides of the importance of Kaikoura’s hinterland in the early decades of settlement in the area. It also has historical significance for the interdenominational co-operation of the local Anglican and Presbyterian congregations that led to the church’s construction in 1873, and characterised its early use.

Physical Significance

St James Anglican Church has architectural significance as an example of a simple gothic revival building that has grown organically in order to accommodate a larger congregation. As a consequence of additions in 1882, the church’s plan is unorthodox. The ‘T’-shaped church has transepts but no chancel, with the altar situated at the intersection.

Cultural Significance

St James has social and spiritual significance for its early practical ecumenicalism, and as a focus of Anglican worship in the Kaikoura hinterland for more than a century (1873–1987). The former church also has social significance for its role since 1987 as the home of the Kaikoura Art Society. The graveyard has social, spiritual and historical significance as the resting place of a number of St James’ early parishioners.

I’m a fifth-generation New Zealander. My branch of the Palmer family arrived in Nelson in 1843 aboard the barque Phoebe, the first vessel sent out by the New Zealand Company at the reduced terms of passage (which basically means it was a bit cheaper). By the mid-1860s the family had relocated to Kaikōura, stock and all, and started exploring greater district … and discovering moa eggs.

The family plot

The family plot

Three generations of my family are connected to St James Church. My great-great-grandfather (and one of his brothers) and my great-grandfather are buried there, and my grandfather’s ashes were sprinkled there in 1985.

Alongside that, it is likely that my great-great-grandfather was involved in the building of the church, having rented out farm buildings for services prior to the church’s construction, and due to his involvement in local body affairs as a member of the North Canterbury Hospital Board and as a Kaikōura county councillor.

Clearly St James is not just another old church, but a regionally important old church, and obviously it has personal significance too, not just to me and my wider family but to the families of the other people buried there.

Gate, with family plot in background

Gate, with family plot in background

But, because of the sale of the church and lands, access to the graves is now difficult … unless you just march on as we did.

As the news article linked to above states, providing public access to the graves was a condition of sale. Here are the legal details from the encumbrance:

a.   All existing rights, if any, of those who have purchased burial rights in the Burial Ground are preserved for the duration of the term of this Encumbrance subject to those persons and their families being responsible for all regulatory requirements of burial;

b.   For the purpose of visiting the Burial Ground and/or exercising any existing burial rights, access -to the Burial Ground is granted on the following terms:

i.    By foot on the designated path along the northern boundary of the Land;

ii.   Between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday to Friday inclusive;

iii.   On other days or times with specific permission of the Encumbrancer,

And yet, as of our visit over two years after the lodging of the encumbrance, there was no ‘path along the northern boundary,’ and only signs saying no access. There was nothing explaining the right of access, or how to contact the ‘Encumbrancer’ in order to seek specific permission on other days.

This situation has upset me in ways which I wouldn’t have expected. The shock of finding that I was no longer freely able access to my ancestors’ graves left me dumbfounded. And the feelings and thoughts I have had since have demonstrated to me a greater connection to my ancestry than I expected.

Seeing what the current owner had done to the grounds nearly brought me to tears. She has, in my opinion, disrespected the graveyard and made changes to the grounds that are in no way in keeping with the heritage value of the site.

Obviously this is a personal issue, but I imagine I would be having some of the same thoughts and feelings regardless of those ancestral links. Selling a church is one thing, selling graves is a different matter entirely.

I believe that the destruction caused by the construction of the Wellington motorway would no longer be considered a reasonable action. I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in saying that there ought to be a sacredness to graveyards, whether Māori, colonial or contemporary.

Ancestral gravestone

Ancestral gravestone

This situation has caused me to ask a number of questions, some of the new owner, and some more generally.

The first, and trickiest, concerns the weight we give to preserving our heritage, not just the big and the famous but the lesser-known and regionally important.

The second concerns the power that individuals and authorities have in ensuring that, should sites like St James Church fall into private ownership, there are processes in place that ensure public access (preferably without the limitations of the St James encumbrance), and that any changes to the site, whether it’s the building or the grounds, are in keeping with the heritage values of the site itself.

Not everything can be saved and preserved, nor indeed should it be, and these are big questions with no easy answers, but they are issues that need to be addressed.

6 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Maggie || March 19th, 2013

    I can’t believe this situation has been allowed to happen – extremely upsetting indeed!

    One of the conditions of sale was that the owner was required to maintain public access to the graveyard. That she is not doing so because of insurance issues is ridiculous, and the Nelson Diocesan Trust Board should be doing something about it.

    It’s also ridiculous to restrict visiting times to weekdays. When do most people have time to travel and visit??

    That the graveyard was allowed to be sold in the first place – absolute travesty.

    Thank you for highlighting this issue.

  2. Comment made by Janet Du Fall || April 22nd, 2014

    The Christchurch office of the Historic Places Trust has recently been contacting person who are concerned about access to the grave yard to make contact them.
    I took am appalled that this historic site and graveyard has been allowed to pass into private ownership. Shame on the Kaikoura District Council and the Nelson Anglican Dio for failing in their duty of care of this historic site.

  3. Comment made by Rachel Hurd || October 29th, 2014

    I was very interested to read your post, as we are now facing the prospect that the church where my father and other family members are buried will be sold.My main concern is that we retain access in some form, and that it does not descend into a situation similar to the one you describe.As you say. it is an upsetting thing to feel that you can have this physical connection with your family and their past taken away. I wonder how many New Zealand families there are who face this situation in some form?

  4. Comment made by Lauren Woods || August 14th, 2015

    This is such rubbish & upsets me so much. What right has this woman got 2 deny access 4 loved 1s to visit these graves, or evn hav 2 make an apt btwn Mon-Fri. Come on lady most ppl lyk 2 visit on weekends . My Great Great Great Grandparents built this church in the early-mid 1800s so kinda holds alot of meaning 2 some of us. Also the fact she wants 2 renovate it & LIVE in it, UNBELIEVEABLE. Talk about disrupting the dead…………….i hav several pics tht show alot of spiritual activity in the church & im sure they must b unsettled with her presence. I wld def b keen if othas wanted 2 band 2gether & do a Civil Action Suit against her. So sad & maddening tht the Anglecan Church/Nelson Diocesan Trust Board evn sold the property 2 some1 tht wants 2 ruin it.

    Can some1 please contact me [email protected] with any updates on this matter

  5. Comment made by Jen Nepe Apatu || April 14th, 2016

    Has this issue been resolved? I am coming down to the south from the north specifically to visit my kuia’s resting place in a weeks time! On a weekend! So I won’t be able to visit?

  6. Comment made by Hamish McGregor || June 7th, 2016

    Hi, I would also like to know the current state of affairs regarding this site. I am a direct descendant of Charles and Emma, Edmund Oscar and Edmund Sutherland Palmer and am planning on doing a south island trip to visit the areas of Nelson and Kaikoura where they had lived and perished. Has this woman renovated the church and now residing in it as stated in 2012? Is the land surrounding the grave still in a state of disrepair? I just hope I don’t have to jump a fence when I visit.

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