Volume 1

The Church of St John the Evangelist, Tararu, Thames

Geraldine Dunwoodie

Mr. Henry Charles LAWLOR, his wife Anne Caroline (n้e THOMAS) and baby daughter Annie arrived in New Zealand in 1841. They landed at Karangahape (now Cornwallis) on the Manakau, in 1841 after a momentous 10-month journey to New Zealand when they had been given up as lost at sea. Henry had trained in Scotland as a lawyer, but did not enjoy this profession. He was not an ordained minister, but he had a very strong faith. He held services on the boat coming out to New Zealand, and at Karangahape. In 1861 he received his first license as a lay reader in the Church of St. Peter in Onehunga, and he served in his capacity as lay reader for the rest of his life, eventually becoming the longest serving lay reader.

In 1867, just a few months after the opening of the Thames Goldfield, Henry Lawlor moved to Thames. He had spent the previous three years in Coromandel where he was the Resident Magistrate and Warden. Because of the Maori Wars and the children's education, his wife and family had remained in Onehunga for that time, but they joined him in Thames, where Henry and Anne were to remain for the rest of their lives, both dying there in 1894. In Thames he helped the Rev. Lush at St. George's Church. Reverend Lush's dairies mention Henry helping him in his parish work in Thames.

On the 20 February 1870 Henry organised a congregation at Tararu, Thames, and held services there every week. These services were held on the beach or in settlers' homes Henry walked from Thames to Tararu to hold services. The 'St. George's Church Diamond Jubilee 1872-1932' book says: “Later on the Presbyterian people erected a Sunday School at Tararu and in this building Mr. H. C. LAWLOR conducted a Sunday school for the Anglican children.”

In May 1872 Reverend Lush's diary mentions he spent the day at Tararu selecting a site for the proposed church:

“ ... I do think it is the best we could have secured: on a high piece of ground commanding an extensive view on all sides. The Church when built will be a beacon on a hill - not only for those inland but especially for vessels coming up the gulf. ..”. Henry persuaded Mr. Robert Graham to donate the land to the Church.

The parishioners were turned down in their request to Auckland that a church be built for them, so they raised the money privately, thereby giving this little church a unique position. It wasn't until about 1913 that it came under the umbrella of the diocese.

In March 1874 the Church Gazette say:

“ ... The retiring Committee desired to gratefully acknowledge the services of Mr. LAWLOR, who had gratuitously discharged the duties of Lay Reader in this district for the last three years. The want of a church is much felt in the District. ...”.

The church was eventually built under Henry's direction and on the 19th December 1880 St. John's was opened by Reverend Lush and services conducted by Henry thereafter. A letter from Henry's son George says:

" .... on the 19th Dec. 1880 that being father's birthday and as the Bishop could not attend on that date, the people were desirous that the church should be opened on his birthday."

Henry was already 68 when the church was built.

An undated newspaper report (probably about 1886) says:

“The neat little church of St. John's, Tararu, was filled to overflowing yesterday afternoon on the occasion of the thanksgiving service to signalise the liquidation of the debt on the building. The congregation included large numbers of visitors from town .... Mr. LAWLOR, lay-reader, to whose long-continued and earnest endeavours the erection and maintenance of the church have been mainly due, conducted the service, and the sermon was preached by Rev. F. G. Evans .......” Archdeacon F.C. Evans was later to say: "Mr H.C. LAWLOR was the lay reader during my stay at the Thames, and even after so many years my heart swells at the recollection of his loving and loyal friendship."
St John's Church, Tararu, Thames (from 'Racing for Gold' - J. Williams).

An undated report of about 1887/88 of the A.G.M. of St John's Church says:

“..... Mr. LAWLOR secured the services of Mr. Donkin as Superintendent of the Sunday School. ....... In October last our respected Lay Reader much to our regret, notified his intention of discontinuing his services at the end of the then current year, and the incumbent of St. George's thought it would be opportune to obtain a curate .... The matter remains in abeyance, and Mr. LAWLOR is still continuing his good work in your church. ..... He (the Chairman) dwelt upon the fact that the church was now in the hands of the General Trust Board, and referred to the great indebtedness they felt to Mr. LAWLOR for his gratuitous services, and concluded by moving a hearty vote of thanks to Mr. LAWLOR .... At this stage Mr. Poulgrain read a requisition, which it was proposed to present at the meeting to Mr. LAWLOR expressing the great debt the congregations owed him for attending, and holding service every Sunday, and hoped that he would consent to continue to conduct the services. It was signed by 110 members of the congregation. In the absence of Mr. LAWLOR, the Chairman undertook to present the requisition to him. ...”

A newspaper report of 28 April 1892 says:

“We are pleased to learn that the vestry of St. John's Church, Tararu, at the unanimous request of the congregation, have written to Mr. LAWLOR earnestly soliciting him to resume his duties at the Church, in which he had previously laboured indefatigably for so many years, and that he has cheerfully consented, provided that health and strength be permitted him to do so. We understand that Mr. LAWLOR has resigned his position of lay reader in St. George's Church.” Henry was aged 77 at this time, and was still walking the distance to Tararu.
St John's Church, Tararu, Thames

Henry died two years later in 1894, and the Church Gazette obituary spoke of him as being the senior lay reader in the Church in New Zealand after thirty-three years service.

In 1952 Henry's grandson Jim Lawlor, living in Sth. Africa wrote to his cousin Henry in Hastings:

“ ..... Talking about churches, when I was in N.Z. in 1936, “Bob” took me to see the church that our Grandpa built near Tapu, in the vestry on a stand was the bible turned to the chapter the last chapter read by him, and on the wall overlooking the bible was a large photo of him. The oil lamps in the church were from shipwrecks which makes it very historic. I wonder if the Government will be taking the church over as I understand it was the first or one of the first churches to be built in N.Z. .....”

2005 was the 125th year since the building of St. John's Church. To commemorate this, as well as to celebrate the lives of the Lawlor family, a reunion was held on the 8th and 9th October 2005. About 90 family members attended, from as far afield as South Africa and Australia. On the Saturday afternoon a commemorative service, with a baptism, was held in this lovely church.

An Information Sheet on display at the rear of the Church said:

“The building of St. John's was due to the devoted work of a retired Magistrate Mr. H. C. LAWLOR Lay Reader of the Church. Mr. Lawlor had been ministering to the Congregation for the past 11 years and had persuaded Mr. Robert Graham to donate the land to the Church.”

There was also a photo of Henry on the wall of St. John's Church at Tararu, with an inscription reading:

"In Memory of H.C. LAWLOR 1814 1894. Presented by: His Great Granddaughters Olive BOLES and Florence PAPESCH. The late Mr. H. C. LAWLOR died December 5th 1894. Warden and Lay Reader at St. George's Church Thames. This church was built under his direction in 1880 and the services thereafter conducted by him.”

By 2006 monthly services were still being held at St. John's, for a very small congregation, but the little church faced an uncertain future. A decision was made to secularise the building late in 2006 and the building was put up for sale. It has been bought by an Auckland family with a love for heritage buildings and the stories they tell. They intend to restore this historic little church for community use.


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