by JUDITH DOYLE
The Catholic Church of St Werenfried in Waihi Village, southern Lake Taupo, is truly a taonga. Only a hop, skip and jump from the edge of Lake Taupo, its slim spire stands out against the dark green bush above the cluster of houses, a large wharenui and a mausoleum.
I’ve visited it many times by boat and by land, branching off from the SH41 just north of Tokaanu. This is a private village (designated so by Parliament) of about 20 households. So I always ask permission from a resident and it’s always happily given. When I visited in October, the old man who gave me permission wanted a hug before I left.
I looked back at the church as I was leaving. Above and behind it the bush was swirling with steam from the geothermal area that’s known as the Hipaua Steaming Cliffs. It looked, for all the world, as though the church was being wrapped in wispy clouds come down from heaven.
The church’s interior is small, intimate, friendly — strongly Maori with a touch of Rome.
Roof trusses and rafters are in ko-whaiwhai patterns with strong scrolling. Tukutuku covers the walls where the Stations of the Cross are depicted and two stained glass windows show a Maori Christ and a Maori Madonna and Child. Sun is needed to light up these windows but, on my last visit it was lacking. There was more mist than sun.
More traditionally Catholic is the high altar with its silver candelabra, embroidered cloth and holy statues.
The church was built about 1889 by the mission priest of the time, Fr J.W. Smiers, in honour of his patron saint, St Werenfried, a Germanic saint of the early Middle Ages.
The name became more famous than its medieval original after World War II. A Dutch priest, who took the religious name of Werenfried, adopted the cause of the 14 million German civilians (six million of them Catholic) who were displaced from the east after the war.
Fr Werenfried van Straaten was a founder of the international Catholic association “Aid to the Church in Need”. He became known as the “Bacon Priest” after he successfully appealed for contributions of food for the German refugees — and Flemish farmers gave considerable amounts of meat.
According to an account in the Mobil New Zealand Travel Guide, Catholicism came to Waihi in a bizarre way. Amused by the competing promises between Anglican, Wesleyan and Catholic missionaries, Chief Te Heuheu decided on a trial between the two main contenders.
“Each was to bare his posterior and sit on a bed of red hot coals. Whoever had the more powerful atua would last the longer. Prudently, the Anglican missionary, the Rev. Richard Taylor, declined to participate, leaving the way clear for his rival, Fr Lampila, merely to make the gesture of lowering his trousers to be declared the winner.”
I can’t vouch for that unlikely story, but historical records do confirm that the Catholic Church was indeed established in 1850 and carried on its association in the area for a long time, with Waihi as its headquarters. On the other hand, the Anglican Church tried during the 1840s to set up a permanent mission, but it didn’t take hold and was abandoned until later.
A wider Catholic parish was established in 1889, with Fr Smiers being its first priest. It was in 1903 that Fr Adrian Langerwerf came to Waihi. He dedicated himself to improving the social conditions of his parishioners as well as serving their spiritual needs.
Fr Langerwerf’s determination to improve local living conditions led him to encourage the building of a butter factory at Waihi — which lasted for eight years — and also a power plant to produce electricity from the water power of the Waihi Falls. The plant continued until 1960.
To improve the access for the factory, the energetic Fr Langerwerf and his parishioners built a road from Tokaanu to Waihi. Part of that road is now incorporated in the Tokaanu-Taumarunui Highway.
The village and its church have always lived dangerously, given those unstable steaming cliffs leaking thermal steam from crags and fissures. This region has unique scientific features — an earthquake fault, a volcanic zone and active geothermal features.
In 1910, a ridge behind the village collapsed and one person was killed. The village was moved further west along the foreshore to its present site.
Even in this tranquil peaceful spot, the village is not immune. Residents were evacuated on June 29, 2009, after a series of small earthquakes that led to fears of a landslide. They returned a month later.
The Te Heuheu Mausoleum, near the meeting house, commemorates Te Heuheu the Great, who was killed by a landslide in the village’s previous location in 1846. It was his son who gave the nucleus of Tongariro National Park — New Zealand’s first — to the nation.
So this village and its gorgeous little church have punched well above their weight in the history of the region and of New Zealand.