Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, NZ

skyhorse

Melbourne, Australia

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NZ Historic Places, Registry #311

The Church of Good Shepherd on the shores of Lake Tekapo is arguably one of the most photographed of New Zealand’s buildings. A small stone church situated in a stunning landscape, it is one of a number of memorial churches built throughout South Canterbury to commemorate the original Pakeha settlers of the area.

Opened in 1935, the Church of the Good Shepherd was the first to be built in the Mackenzie Basin. The idea for a local church was first mooted by the then Vicar of Fairlie, Reverend W.E.D. Davies, and picked up by the local runholders, who saw it as an opportunity to commemorate their ancestors who braved the rigours of this harsh alpine environment to establish the runs.

Land for the church was donated by the Murrays of Braemar Station and the design was based on drawings and a model by local artist Esther Hope (1885-1975) of Grampians Station. Hope was a well-known painter, who exhibited regularly at the Canterbury Society of Arts. Her sketches and model were presumably passed onto the architect, Christchurch-based R.S.D. Harman (1896-1953). Although Harman had been involved in church design before, the commission for the Church of the Good Shepherd was his first solo full church design.

Harman’s design for the Church of the Good Shepherd evolved from a traditional Gothic form, suggested by Hope’s drawings, to a simple and more medieval building appropriate to the bleak landscape. The church was constructed from poured concrete and faced with local boulders, carefully chosen for their size, shape and colour. These were left in their original state complete with any existing lichen. In part this restraint is linked to the economic depression of the thirties, which left the community with little money for building.

Buttresses line the sides of the church and a small belfry rises from the roofline to the left of the main entrance. A concrete cross was placed on top of the north gable. Although the church was originally roofed with Australian oak shingles these proved unable to stand up to the extreme weather conditions of the site and were replaced with slate in 1957.

The interior of the church reflects Harman’s Arts and Crafts dedication to the simplicity and inherent beauty of materials, with the rough-plastered cream walls contrasting with the dark stained rimu roof timbers. Harman designed the pews, communion rail, vicar’s prayer-desk and seat, but the main carvings in the church were rendered by noted Christchurch carver, Frederick Gurnsey (1868-1953). Gurnsey had taught Harman at the Canterbury School of Art and they went on to form a close working relationship, collaborating on a number of other buildings.

At Tekapo, Gurnsey carved a representation of the Good Shepherd on the altar and alpine flora and fauna on the Oamaru stone font. He also carved the lecturn and the stand for the Book of Remembrance, which contains a complete list of the original Mackenzie runholders. These carvings are described by art historian Mark Stocker as ‘more primitive’ and ‘quirky’ than Gurnsey’s normal work. Oak was chosen as the wood for a number of fittings within the church in order to symbolise the links between the Mackenzie Basin runholders and their British forbearers.

The main feature of the interior, however, is the panorama of the lake and mountains, visible through the plate glass window above the altar. This idea, of making visible and framing the glory of God’s creation, had first been successfully incorporated into St James Church (1930) at Franz Josef, on the West Coast, also registered by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust Pouhere Taonga. There the window offered the congregation a view of the bush and glacier; at Tekapo the lake and Southern Alps take the place of both a reredos and stained glass window. (my own illustration of this view below)

As requested by the donors, the immediate surroundings of the church were left in their natural state covered with matagouri, tussock and rock. Adjoining land was also gifted to ensure the church remained in splendid isolation. Although owned by the Anglican Church, the Church of the Good Shepherd was also open to the local Methodist and Presbyterian congregations.

The Church of Good Shepherd is the most well known of Harman’s works and illustrates his commitment to Arts and Crafts principles. The way in which the church is built from local materials and surrounded by indigenous plants makes it very much part of the surrounding landscape and gives it a timeless quality. It was erected to provide the local community with a church and for runholders to celebrate their ancestors. It is therefore associated with the early Pakeha settlers of the Mackenzie Basin. The church contains a significant collection of Gurnsey’s carvings and features an unusual window, which offers visitors a magnificent view of the surrounding lake and mountains. Today it is a major tourist attraction.

Past/Current Use: Religion – Church

Notable Features: Register of original sheep runs, their owners and employees.

Construction Dates: Original Construction – Foundation stone laid January 1935. Dedicated August 1935: 1935 – 1935
Designed: 1933 – 1934
Modification – Original wooden shingles replaced with slate.: 1957
Construction Professionals: Harman, Richard Strachan De Renzy

Entry Written By: Melanie Lovell-Smith, 2002

  • from the NZ Historic Places site

NZ Historic Places Trust
The Register is divided into four parts:
1) Historic Places include bridges, memorials, pa, archaeological sites, buildings, mining sites, cemeteries, gardens, shipwrecks, and many other types of places.
2) Historic Areas are groups of related historic places such as a geographical area with a number of properties or sites, or a cultural landscape. Emphasis is on the significance of the group.
3) Wahi Tapu are places sacred to Maori in the traditional, spriritual, religious, ritual or mythological sense.
4) Wahi Tapu Areas are groups of wahi tapu.

Historic places are further divided into two categories: Category I status is given to places of ‘special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value’; Category II status to places of ‘historical or cultural heritage significance or value’.

Places may be significant because they possess aesthetic, archaeological, architectural, cultural, historical, scientific, social, spiritual, technological or traditional significance or value.

  • Further information of interest: The magnificent Mackenzie has a startlingly clear night sky and is about to become the worlds first “Night Sky National Park”.

Located 229km south of Christchurch, approx 3 hours drive.

Pentax Optio E20

  • Featured Historic Churches (June 2009)

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