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Parishes follow different paths to surmount challenge of aging buildings

To fulfil its mission and meet the needs and desires of the local community is not an easy tasks for any church parish. But when they become entangled in property issues finding a way forward can be even more difficult.

Several New Zealand communities have been struggling with the issue of what to do with their ageing churches for many years, with different ideas being offered and resolutions not easily found.

Mt Eden, Auckland Central Methodist Parish

The Mt Eden community in Auckland has been engaged in a battle over the future of its Methodist church for several years, with considerable anger and alienation resulting.

The 104-year-old timber church building is located in the middle of the Mt Eden village. The community considers it an important landmark and people have expressed strong views about their desire to retain the church on site.

Rev Gillian Watkin says the parish’s 1998 redevelopment plan proposed the wooden church be sold and removed from the site, to be replaced by a new building that would include shops on the street level and an auditorium above.

“The community was totally outraged. They thought it would destroy the fabric of the Mt Eden Village Centre,” she says.

The first application for the resource consent was denied on grounds of parking. The church appealed this decision.

“The appeal to the Environment Court set the church against the community and the community against the church,” Gillian says. “The church was granted resource consent with a number of conditions. It was all set to go, and lots of people wanted to buy the old building but all the time the people in the neighbourhood were saying ‘don’t take it away’.”

Just before the tender process began the Auckland City Council intervened. Mayor John Banks made a personal commitment to fund the restoration of the building after an enormous amount of lobbying from the community.

The church agreed to explore that option and the exploration is coming to fruition now. The proposal involves restoring the exterior of the church, which will be linked to the existing church hall, and altering the interior.

The interior is currently of a Victorian design, with a sloping floor, pews and an organ. The proposed new space will feature a flat floor and a stage for worship and performance. It will enable the faith community to pursue its mission and offer opportunities to foster gifts, talents and creativity.

When Gillian came to Mt Eden the church and community were alienated. She says the new proposal is visionary and in the spirit of what can be done with an historic building.

“We’re creating a space that is still sacred for people. Sacred space is very important to non-church goers. They say that having something like that in the middle of the village does make it a more substantial place.”

The community understands the church can’t fund the restoration itself and is prepared to contribute to the project. Gillian says the community is already becoming more involved with the church, which has been a positive spin-off to the disagreements.

Mt Albert Methodist

The Mt. Albert Church in Auckland was first established in 1866, and its buildings have been progressively altered and added to since then. Over the last several years, the parish has looked at changing the church plant to better serve the congregation and community.

Rev Liz Hopner says the parish developed plans to alter and add to the present buildings to meet anticipated needs. Proposals include lifting and rotating the historic wooden church building 180?. This would preserve the building and allow for the construction of a new entrance with a canopy and vehicular access.

It also provides a new presbyter's office, more versatile meeting space, junior church rooms, and a new hall building on land that is now vacant at the rear of the church.

Much of the church plant has heritage listing with the Historic Places Trust and Auckland City. Initial reaction to the proposals from both the city and the Trust was negative. After the parish considered other options it recently returned to the plan to rotate the church as the best way to adapt the buildings for the foreseeable future.

Parish council chairman Geoff Peak says the Church cannot and should not accept that its ability to alter its plant to suit its perceived needs is circumscribed by agencies that neither participate in planning for the future, nor contribute to the cost of alteration or upkeep.

"We've written recently to the Council and the Historic Places Trust advising them of this decision and the reasons for it," Liz says. "The congregation has many third generation families. We like the ambience of the historic buildings. We want to preserve their historic links and features, and where possible enhance them.

“We also want to make the Mt. Albert Church as versatile and user-friendly as possible to meet our future needs in the spirit of those earlier generations who built the church with amazing vision and foresight."

Mornington Presbyterian Parish

Another community that has faced a large decision regarding its Presbyterian church is the Mornington parish in Dunedin. The brick and plaster church was built in 1881 in Glenpark Avenue, a steep street with difficult parking for church-goers.

Parish treasurer Fergus Sime says the parish recognised in the 1940s the church needed to be more central within the Mornington suburb. It purchased a site in Maryhill Terrace that contains a brick hall and an older house and late last year the Glenpark Avenue church was sold to a private owner who plans to use it as his private library.

“Some people were not happy at the prospect of losing the church, but the vast majority of people have come to realise that the future of the church is going to be better served in something that’s more centralised in the suburb, warmer and more flexible. They realise it’s a good thing to be moving on,” Fergus says.

The parish is renting the Glenpark Avenue church from the new owner while it raises the funds needed to build a new facility in Maryhill Terrace.

It is understood the new owner is planning to eventually use the church as a library. The church is not registered with the Historic Places Trust but has a Dunedin City Council heritage listing.

“The trouble with the Glenpark Avenue church is the sloping floor, fixed pews and poles that hold up the roof. And it’s a T-shape. The position in Glenpark Ave is also difficult for parking,” says Fergus. “The new spaces we will have will be much more flexible and multi-use.”

The parish has raised about half the money needed to build its new premises, and hopes to start building next year. However, Fergus says the old church won’t be easy to part with when it is time to move out for good.

“Because it’s been over a longer period of time people have had quite a bit of time to adjust to the idea. The vast majority of people are onside with the project.”