A Brief History of Durham Street Methodist Church

Puari Pā was the name of an early Waitaha settlement that included this area. In the years between 1000 and 1500, it stretched from what became the Supreme Court site up what is now Chester Street West, extending from the banks of Ōtokaro (Avon River) at Victoria Square out to Bealey Avenue. 

The loop in the river that encompassed the site was an important mahinga kai – food gathering place. At its height the pā would have been home to about 800 Waitaha people. Later, during the Ngāi Tahu period, a large variety of food was gathered in the Puari pā area.

In the early days of Pakeha settlement, the site was used as a resting place by Māori coming to Market Square (today known as Victoria Square), and became an important market and meeting place for Ngāi Tahu from all over the region.

The land on which Aldersgate Centre is located was part of a large area purchased from Ngai Tahu in an 1848 transaction commonly referred to as Kemp’s Deed.

The section on which the first Durham Street Methodist Church was built was purchased by Charles Christopher Bowen (later Sir Charles Bowen KCMG) who arrived with his family on the Charlotte Jane in 1850. He sold half an acre of land in Durham Street to the Methodist Church in January 1864 for £1,031.

The following brief history of the church is predominantly taken from A House Not Made With Hands compiled by W.T. Blight.

1864 On 28 January the Superintendent of Canterbury, Mr. Samuel Bealey, laid the foundation stone for the church. James Buller was largely responsible for the building of the new church. The winning design for the new church came from Messrs Crouch and Wilson of Melbourne but was modified by S.C. Farr of Christchurch. The church was built from local stone, in a mixture of Halswell and Port Hills basalt. The lighter facings were Charteris Bay sandstone.The original tender of £8,000 was deemed to be beyond the resources of the congregation and a lower tender of £7,200 was accepted. However, the final cost was £8,150 because of additions to the building.

It was the first stone church built on the Canterbury Plains, and 500 people attended the opening on Christmas morning 1864, nine days after the foundation stone of the Christchurch Cathedral had been laid.

The first minister of Durham Street was Rev. Samuel Buller who referred to the building as the “Cathedral of Methodism”. The first organ was a large harmonium, and as many people could not read, the hymns were read out by the minister.

A list of all the ministers and organists of the church from 1864 to the present day can be found here.

1871 The Sunday School roll was 355 scholars with 35 teachers.

1872 New galleries were built, and at the Annual Musical festival held in the church, at least 1600 packed into the building.  The orchestra numbered 30 and the choir 150.

Sketch of Durham Street Methodist Church ca. 1885
Interior of first Durham Street Methodist Church from the gallery

1880s The church collectively rallied around the temperance cause – discouraging the drinking of alcohol – which gained strength from the early 1880s. The church urged its members to avoid the dangers of alcohol, starting with children in the Band of Hope and rallying for local and national prohibition. Methodists were mainstays of the prohibition movement from the 1890s to the 1930s, and provided many of its leaders. Durham Street Church also held several meetings on Women’s Suffrage from 1885 to 1893.

1888 On 1 September there was a significant earthquake in Christchurch.   Considering the intensity of the shock, it is surprising that in Christchurch itself so little damage was done.  The top of the Anglican Cathedral spire fell down, and the Durham Street Church lost the finial and a portion of the parapet immediately above the main entrance.

1912 Permission was granted to Rev. C.H. Garland for two weeks’ vacation.  Until then, no provision existed for ministers to have any free Sundays or vacations.

1919 Owing to the influenza epidemic, theatres, hotel bars and churches were closed for several weeks. The Great War had dealt a heavy blow to New Zealand Methodism and it took many years to recover.  Hundreds of its young men were killed overseas, and hundreds more had their connection with the Church broken.

1939 With the outbreak of World War II, the Church faced many difficulties.  The younger men left for the front; the older men faced Home Guard duties; the women had to shoulder many additional duties; while a heavy pall of anxiety weighed on every heart.  There was no release from this until the end of the war in 1945.

1944  The Pew Rents were finally abolished.  All seats were free.

1945 A VE Thanksgiving service had been arranged for Sunday the 13th May. Early in the morning a disastrous fire broke out in the Church and the organ was severely damaged, the choir stalls burned, and the ceiling, seats and floor damaged. The Fire Brigade, by its prompt action, saved the building from being completely gutted. The minister, Dr. Dudley, at once rang up a number of men and as a result of their work with the blackened and burnt timbers, it was possible for the 11 a.m. service to be held.  Dr. Dudley led the Trustees in a restoration programme, and by December sufficient money had been raised.  Not one service had been missed.  A new organ console was installed, the seating remodelled and increased, the sanctuary was covered with carpet, a Memorial Chapel in memory of the men who fell in the two World Wars was arranged in the north-west corner of the Church, a new minister’s vestry was provided and furnished, the vestibule, towers and entrances were improved, the Sunday School was redecorated and the kitchen reconstructed. It was realized that an apparent tragedy had become an asset of considerable worth.

1952 House-Church Groups were formed and up to 60 to 80 people met weekly in different homes for fellowship in Bible Study and prayer.

1964 This year marked the Centenary of the Durham Street Methodist Church. By now the parish had 476 members, with 448 families under pastoral care.  Twenty teachers cared for the 130 children in the Sunday School. A plan for a Centenary project resulted in the building of the first Aldersgate Centre in Christchurch. It was intended to be a place where the church could live out what it means to be a ‘servant church’ in the city.

1967 Opening of the first Aldersgate Centre.

First Aldersgate Centre, opened 1967

1973 The Cambridge Terrace Church and the Central Mission combined with the Durham Street Church.

2010 On 4 September the 7.1 magnitude earthquake severely damaged the church building. The congregation continued meeting in other venues.

2011 The earthquake of 22 February led to the collapse of the already-weakened church building, with the loss of three lives. Neil Stocker and Scott Lucy, employees of the South Island Organ Company, were in the process of removing the organ for storage, and were being assisted by Paul Dunlop, an organist who played at Durham Street when Wallace Woodley was absent.

Durham Street Methodist Church after the September 2010 earthquake. Photo: Dean Kozanic/Stuff
Durham Street Methodist Church after the February 2011 earthquake

2018 After years of discussion and preparation, construction of the new Aldersgate Centre began in February. It had been decided by the congregation and with the eventual support of the Connexion, to redevelop the site, not to restore the past but to meet the changing needs for ministry in a re-energised and changing city. The Methodist Mission and Christian World Service committed to becoming tenants in the new building.

2019 The first service in the new chapel was held on Christmas Day – exactly 155 years since the old stone church was opened on Christmas Day 1864.

2020 An official Opening Celebration was held at the end of February. The stained glass window was not installed until June, in part due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

Christmas Day 2019
Pride Service 2021
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