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Strong core keeps Taranaki church’s home fires burning

By Paul Titus

Methodism has been a force among Taranaki Maori for more than 150 years.

The teachings of Te Hahi Weteriana were brought to Taranaki by Maori and Pakeha missionaries and local tribes people who converted to Christianity during their captivity in Northland and brought their faith with them when they were freed and returned home. The church established early missions at Moturoa (New Plymouth) and Waimate, South Taranaki.

Today Te Taha Maori’s Taranaki rohe has a dedicated group of lay people and minita-a-iwi (lay ministers) who are active in community work and provide services at churches and maraes in and around New Plymouth, Hawera and Patea.

The four minita-a-iwi in Taranaki are Jim Ngarewa and Syd Kershaw at Patea, Barry Whakaruru at Hawera, and Jim George at New Plymouth. They serve their local congregations and the wider district by leading services, blessing buildings, and conducting tangis, christenings, and weddings.

Liaison person for the Taranaki rohe Frances Kingi-Katene says services are held on the first Sunday of the month at Pariroa Marae, near Patea; on the second Sunday of the month at Tahu Potiki Centre at the Wesley Methodist Church in Hawera; on the third Sunday of the month at Aotearoa Marae outside Hawera; and on the fourth Sunday of the month at Mission House in New Plymouth.

Members of the rohe value their past but look to the future. They speak with affection about their Methodist ‘ancestors’ – ministers such as Tahu Potiki Haddon, Piripi Rakena, Thomas Hammond, Jerry Darville, Napi Waka, and Len Willing and deaconesses such as Sister Ann, Sister Betty, and Sister Lynn.

They remember a time when the church was very active at maraes in the district. During the 1950s and 1960s the church was the centre of a vibrant social life.

“At that time there were 37 dairy factories in an area of 17 square miles around Hawera so a lot of people were employed in the local area. The deaconesses would take us kids to Sunday school and Bible school on Thursdays.

“Choir competitions were really big because that was a way we could visit other marae. We took the standard hymns and jazzed them up a bit. Easter camps were also very strong. The marae was a very different world from the one we were exposed to at school. It was where we learned obedience and respect for our elders,” says Raima Kingi-Lovett.

The numbers who attend Methodist Sunday services are not large these days. Nevertheless Frances says, young people are getting involved, and interest in the work of the Te Hahi Weteriana is growing.

The Taranaki rohe now has a active youth worker Julianne Barney-Katene also actively involved with Ngaruahine Matua Whangai and the Wellington Youth Trust. Last month at the Taranaki circuit hui four people applied to enter training as minita-a-iwi.

Women (mana wahine) are an important element in the life of the Taranaki rohe. They lead karakia when called upon and have an active women’s fellowship.

For Maori the ‘ahi kaa’ are the people who keep the home fires burning. They are essential for the life of the community because as people travel away to pursue their lives in other parts of the country or even overseas, the ahi kaa ensure there is a link to the past and a place they can return to. The group of men and women who serve the Methodist Church in Taranaki are like the ahi kaa. They maintain and build on a rich tradition so those who seek it will have a home to return to.

This is illustrated by a new initiative the Taranaki Rohe has undertaken this year. On those months in which there is a fifth Sunday it travels to Wellington to hold services in an effort to revitalize the church there.

“Te Atiawa people in Wellington link back to Taranaki,” Frances says, “so it was natural for us to support them. We have gone there twice for services. We stayed overnight at Te Tatau o Tepou marae in Lower Hutt and Te Huinga in Petone had shared dinner with the local families and got to know them. The next day Jim Ngarewa and Sid Kershaw led services.

“We are keen to continue because a lot of those who attend the services are from the younger set who recreate the old Sunday School Bible Class days, with waiatas such as Running Over, Zachias was a Very Little Man, Climb Climb up Sunshine Mountain, and Hear the Pennies Dropping, Ideally one or two local people there will train as minita-a-iwi. Until then Sid and Jim will continue giving services there.

Recently the Taranaki rohe has had to mourn the loss of a very special person. Aunty Ruby Fenton passed away in July at age 87. Ruby was a kuia and matriarch who was active in the church until the very end of her life.

During her long life of service Ruby was part of the Te Roopu Wahine (the Maori Women’s Welfare League) and was on the board of the Grey Trust Institute and Rangiatea Girls Hostel. She did regular hospital visits, trained nurses in cultural awareness, and raised money for social causes.