As I prepare to leave the Hurunui after six years I am aware of the great needs of Christian communities in rural New Zealand.
If one of our large Christchurch churches were to close then a few hundred people have a choice of a dozen Masses every Sunday within a ten minute drive. If a small rural church closes then not only is the central unifying symbol in a small town lost, but the little community who worship in the church on a Sunday have to drive more than half an hour and often more to find another Mass.
Here in the Good Shepherd Hurunui parish we have six of the most beautiful churches in the country. Five of them were built before 1905 with one was opened in 1866. Every one of them was built with faith and love using the best materials and time-tested designs to ensure that the dwelling place of God in the town was the most beautiful of all dwellings.
These churches were built by people who understood that beauty is the fruit of holiness.
Our smallest Hurunui Sunday congregation is at Waiau where once a month parishioners from two Waiau households gather along with a dozen Culverden people since there is no Culverden Mass on the Sunday of the Waiau Mass. (The Culverden & Waiau churches are 20 minutes apart.)
A couple of years ago it became clear that the Waiau church needed considerable maintenance work. However the parish could not justify the required expenditure for a very small church congregation with an uncertain future.
The Waiau township suffered greatly in the November 2016 earthquake with the loss of many buildings, and leaving the Catholic church as the only useable church in the small town.
Last night people from all over the Good Shepherd parish met to consider options and possibilities for the future of the Waiau church since it is clear that we can’t simply continue as we are. A decision needs to be made. Each weekend a priest travels over 300km to celebrate 5 Masses for a total of less than 100 people.
The meeting (which began with most of us sharing a lively meal at the local pub) was one of the most hopeful gatherings I have been a part of for a while.
This kind of meeting can easily become a debate with two sides fighting to bring the other around to their point of view.
However last night’s gathering, while beginning in debate mode, very quickly became a healthy and robust dialogue with everyone present seeking to listen, understand and to find a hope-filled way forward.
The Waiau church is ideally sited on the main road between the tourist towns of Kaikoura and Hanmer Springs. The suggestion was made that the parish carry out a feasibility study on the possibility of re-establishing the church as a wayside chapel, a place of prayer, open every day and a visible and lasting sign of the presence of God for both locals and travellers.
The meeting finished with a new enthusiasm for this “wayside chapel” possibility. It will take considerable commitment, work and money, but our conviction is that the Holy Spirit has planted this seed of an dream, and (if we co-operate) the Holy Spirit will bring the dream to fulfilment.
Please keep us in your prayer, and we are happy to hear any advice that you might want to offer.