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The Home Missionary’s wife and the church organ

By Hazel Simpkin

The home missionaries of the Methodist Church of NZ may not have attended theological college or been ordained ministers, and the title ‘Reverend’ was usually just honorary but these men had a mission and desire to spread the Christian word. They did much good work in sometimes quite difficult circumstances.

George Richard Rotherham was one of this band. In 1925 he served at Opotiki, and in 1927 he commenced a term at Ruawai and Arapohue when these preaching places were still part of the Northern Wairoa Circuit.

Family members remember George used a somewhat temperamental horse and a sulky in Ruawai but times were changing. The minutes of the April 1928 Quarterly Meeting show that Rev Rotherham had recently been promoted to the use of a car as an offer of ?12 for the horse, saddle and bridle was to be accepted. It was also noted he was to be paid running expenses for the car.

In October of the same year and again in January 1929 it was recorded that Rev Rotherham preferred there should be no charge to the Circuit for running expenses. This was a very generous gesture from a man whose stipend was not large, and who had a growing family to support. One of his daughters told that he never accepted the usual gift for performing a marriage but always handed the envelope to the bride as his wedding gift. There were few enough ‘perks’ to come the way of a home missioner, and doubtless the money could have been well used by his wife in managing the finances of the family.

George had married Elsie Bennett, who became a busy mother and also played an active part in the life of the church, as did so many unrecognised wives of home missionaries. Elsie played the organ at church services and led the women’s meetings.

Elsie’s daughter Millie Downs of Hamilton told the story of the presentation of the church organ, an occasion when Elsie’s work was publicly acknowledged. About 1930, shortly after the Rotherhams left full-time work for the church to take up a small farm just out of Kawakawa, the Ruawai Church decided to replace their organ and the old one was gifted to the Rotherhams in appreciation of their Christian witness in the area.

What great excitement there was when it arrived. As soon as it was unpacked Elsie was seated at it playing. It brought great joy to her and her family on the little country farm with no transport. She used the Sankey-Moodie and Alexander hymn books and played every Sunday evening with the children choosing their favourite hymns.

George and Elsie had served as Salvation Army officers for six years in the 1920s and George continued as a lay preacher for the Methodist Church, Salvation Army folk as well as Methodists visited him. On these occasions Elsie played a hymn or two, followed by prayer.

The organ was moved to Russell with the family in 1938 while George was ‘supply’ for the Methodist Church during the war years and until 1950. Elsie took up Sunday school teaching in her 50s, and continued to play her organ well into her 90s.

The organ hadn’t finished its travels though. About 1950 it was taken to Whangarei when George and Elsie retired there, and after George’s death in 1975 it went with Elsie to Onehunga, Te Atatu and Port Wells when she was living with her daughter Elsie Smith.

After her death her youngest child James had the organ completely restored, and gave it to his daughter Joanne Fleet who had it in her home in Rotorua.

We wonder if it is still in use.