Anglican Church of St Heliers Bay and Glendowie

t Heliers in the 1880s was a small seaside, holiday settlement with some twenty permanent residents on farmlets and orchards. The population grew over the summer as holiday crowds came out along the Remuera ridge and the dusty roads of Tamaki West. The Waterfront (Tamaki) Drive would not be completed for another forty years but a long wharf stretching out into the bay allowed a few boats a week to ply back and forth to Auckland, itself a small town of about 13,000. It was to the small chapel at St John’s College that people came to worship, for the nearby stone Church of St Thomas had collapsed in ruins in 1859. The Warden of St John’s, Rev.P.S.Smallwood, became the first Vicar of the Parish of Tamaki West in 1889 and it was he who saw the need for better provision for the people of St Heliers. He arranged for services to be conducted in a private house and for Sunday School to be held in a tent on the adjoining tennis court.

Canon Cecil Watson - First Vicar of St Philip’s 1897 – 1902 Canon Cecil Watson

One of his students, Cecil Watson, was given responsibility for this outpost and in 1897 he personally collected £60 from his growing congregation to buy a church site on the corner of St Heliers Bay Road (then Wharf Road) and Paunui Street. Cecil Watson’s fine architecturally designed church was to cost £600 so a more modest wooden structure 50ft by 20ft with an iron roof was put up by two local builders for £200. It had seating for eighty with the chancel able to be shut off by folding doors when the body of the church was used for social events. No dancing allowed! The church was more modest than people had hoped for and was not expected to serve for many years. Little did they know!

Our earliest photograph of the Church of St Philip - 1902
St Philip's - 1902 (click to enlarge)

The St Heliers Church of St Philip, decorated with arum lilies and ferns, was opened 9th October 1898. The Curate, Rev. C.A.B. Watson, became the first Vicar and served until 1902. The church had a small organ and three kerosene lamps were suspended from the timbered ceiling. Electricity was installed about 1910 made possible by an extension from a private generator nearby. There was no interior lining or heating though some lining and a small wood-burning stove were added forty years later!

As the parish grew, especially after the opening of the Tamaki Drive, an adjoining section was purchased and a vicarage built in 1928. Up to this time accommodation for the Vicar had been a problem. No less had been the difficulties of servicing such a large parish from Orakei through to Point England on horseback, foot or bicycle!

In 1931 a hall was moved onto the site. This had been the Purewa Camp YMCA Recreation Hut for workers building the railway and St Johns Tunnel. It was to be the social and community centre for the district over the next twenty years – scouts, guides, dances, farewells for men going off to war – there was no other hall.

From left – Church Hall, Church of St Philip and front of the Vicarage 1956 (Photo: Sparrow Industrial Pictures)
St Philip's - 1956 (click to enlarge)

But plans were underway for a new Church and hall. Designed by Mr C. Towle it was to be an imposing stone structure to seat six hundred as a centre of worship for the eastern suburbs –even a future Cathedral perhaps? Plans were completed in 1938 but it was to cost £66,000 well beyond the £1500 in hand. There was rapid residential expansion in the years after World War II. Churches had been built in Orakei (St James) and Kohimarama (St Andrews) with the Church of St Thomas rebuilt in the late 50s. So with the subdivision of the extensive and now populous Parish of Tamaki West, the Parish of St Heliers and Glendowie became centred on the tiny, overcrowded wooden church of St Philip. A 1945 addition provided seating for 112 but this fell far short of what was required within an active parish.

The growing suburb of Glendowie with farms and market gardens giving way to residential sections, repeated the St Heliers story. Sunday services were held in a private home and Sunday School was conducted for children of all denominations in a nearby garage. Later a boatshed was made available but after frequent flooding it was decided to move to higher ground. A section was purchased in Colchester Avenue for a hall and classroom block to be used both for the Sunday School and for church services. Sunday School was big business in those days with over 400 students and teams of teachers in three different locations. And fund raising was also very big business as the Reverend James Mee and a determined parish pressed on towards a new church.

At the Dedication Service, 19th June 1960, with 350 in the church and 200 seated in the hall, an ‘Overflow Congregation’ of over 200  followed the Service from outside. (Photo – Sparrow Industrial Pictures)
St Philip's - 1960 (click to enlarge)

The sloping corner section across the road was proving difficult for the new design especially in the light of revised City Council off-street parking requirements. The breakthrough came when for £10,000 the Parish was able to buy the present site, previously the home of Bishop Averill and family. A new design by Mr Reynolds of Kingston, Reynolds, Thom and Alladice for a church and hall was prepared and this complex was built in 1959 – 60 for £60,000. Sales of property plus pledges raised £40,000 and a £20,000 loan was secured. The new church was dedicated on 19th June 1960 by Bishop Caulton who preached to a congregation of seven hundred filling the church and the hall and spilling out into the street.

The original church building now in Glendowie as the Church of St James 1964
St James's - 1964 (click to enlarge)

Across the way, the original church was on the move to its new site alongside the church hall in Glendowie. There as the Church of St James it served local parishioners for many years and built a very supportive congregation who loved the old familiar building. But as the declining attendances of the seventies moved into the eighties, as inflation began to bite into weekly offerings, and as the original loan repayments became more pressing, the decision was made to consolidate the parish on St Philip’s. The original wooden church, such an important part of the life of St Heliers and Glendowie since 1898, was gifted to the Parish of Te Atatu where now as the Church of St Paul it continues to be loved and enjoyed by an appreciative congregation.

The hall and its site in Colchester Avenue was sold in 1982 and the adjacent clergy house a little later. And so St Philip’s became debt free and was consecrated 3rd November 1985. This encouraged parishioners to make further improvements replacing a courtyard garden with the present lounge and altering both the kitchen and the front entrance. At the time of the centennial celebrations in 1998 further improvements to the kitchen were made, a lift for the less able was installed, and the church ceiling was replaced and insulated.

We give thanks to those who with such generosity, foresight and faith built this church on strong foundations and to the thousands who, over more than one hundred years, have rejoiced in worship at St Philip’s. Now another generation looks to the future with confidence as the Church of St Philip serves St Heliers and Glendowie in its second hundred years.

History documented by Colin Percy.