St Patrick’s Church is the oldest union church still in use in New Zealand. It stands on its original site, with Burkes Pass village to one side and the original cemetery to the other. It’s the perfect example of a local co-operating church in a small isolated community.
According to the information plaque provided, the early pioneers of the MacKenzie basin area met at Stansell’s Accommodation House on August 26th 1871, to plan a church which might serve the huge area from Geraldine to Mt Cook. It would be built for several denominations to use, including Anglican, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic.
Burkes Pass must have been considered the last outpost of civilisation in those days. It’s hard for us to imagine the isolation of these areas in times when transport is so taken for granted but 150 years ago the churches of our high country regions played a major part in providing, not only the opportunity to congregate for religious devotion but also some much needed social contact. It was no mean feat to get to a service with attendees often travelling through snow and flooded rivers to be there.
At the end of the fortnightly service the Postie, who had arrived from Timaru via horseback, would hand out the mail to the congregation as they left the church. Attending church must have been a most exciting expedition, not only fulfilling religious duties but a chance to wear your best clothes, see friends and acquaintances and quite possibly receive news and information from distant shores.
It is a Heritage NZ category 1 listed building and was designed by W.Williamson. It was built in 1872 by Ogilvie and Jones of Timaru. A simple wooden construction with a Gothic style porch, lancet windows and the interior is still in original condition. It has simple buttresses and these, along with the old pines nearby, protect it from being buffeted too much by high winds and gales.
What a tough, enduring little building it is. It’s withstood years of rugged alpine weather.
Happily, in 2000 The Burkes Pass Heritage Trust was formed to protect, retain and preserve this building for future generations. Along with the church the trust have created a Heritage walk that takes in a small Musterers hut, the Mt Cook Road Board Office which was built in 1876, the former Hotel, School and several of the sturdy cob cottages built of clay and tussock. Follow on to the cemetery for more exploring.
These days it is still in use as a church, community meeting place, wedding venue and heritage centre. It is open to visitors, a delightful stop along the way and a chance to reflect on what life was like all that time ago.