I had just finished reading William Leonard William's melancholy account of revisiting his parent's pillaged station in 1866.
The one-time 'bishop's palace' was not far from present-day Gisborne. The Williams family had abandoned the station after twenty-five years of work as the Pai Marire troops came closer and closer. They had just killed the Reverend Carl Sylvus Volkner and the rumour was they were now coming for the head of Bishop Williams.
Magically Bishop Williams' Christian followers faded away, leaving only a few Maori defenders. The family, nervous and baffled, decided to vacate.
The unoccupied house - still full of furniture and objects - was ransacked by Pai Marire troops or Hauhaus as they were popularly known. They tried to strip the wooden shingles off the roof to get to the lead lining. But then government troops arrived.
The sacked house then became occupied by government forces and kupapa (friendlies as they were also called). This is a tale of multiple identities.
The army and friendlies used the house's two storey height to shoot down into the pa which was right next door to it. And Pai Marire shot back into the house, shooting a gentleman who stood in the drawing room, his hand in his pocket as he languidly leafed through an antique volume. This was war.
There can be few things as devastating as visiting a family home after it has been occupied by military forces.
I was racing to read documents before the Alexander Turnbull Library closed for two months. But my mind had become saturated with facts, impressions, thoughts. I had an image in my mind: a soaked carpet which can no longer absorb anything more. Rain just runs off. I decided to take a break.
Without really thinking about it I went up to old St Pauls Cathdral, which is really only a few buildings away. Initially I saw it was being repaired. I thought it might be closed.
As I got closer, I saw some workmen and women lounging about: there was a beautiful shepherd type dog with the snowy white long coat of fable.
Inside the porch of the church was that beautiful black of old wood. I pulled the door back, registering with pleasure its old handle. (Is anything truly legitimately old in NZ?)
Inside I plunged, or fell, like Alice down the hole, into the magnificently wooden funnel, ship's casket, ark-like structure of the interior.
A mondaine woman guarded the desk. Her hair was immaculate as her Anglo-vowels.
She was settling into the canter of a pre-prepared speech. I spied the afternoon light coming in the side windows - lovely as walking behind a waterfall. Rather deceitfully, if delightfully, there was a cd of an ancient chant playing. I explained I had only come…to have a look. A wander. A wonder, I might have added to myself, as I explored the loveliness of its confined space.
Somehow with that miraculous simultaneity which seems to whisper that there is no such thing as chance, I had ended up within the very thought-structure of the world I had been exploring or searching for in word after word for day after day. If Waerenga-a-hika was a missionary village, all of its aims were expressed in the simple grandeur, the solidity of this wooden building (St Pauls).
I saw a Cross of St George on an old banner, a military banner perhaps. (…marching off to war..)
Two lovely little French young men entered, funnelling their accents towards the mondaine lady's precision. 'Yes…an English church…but NZ wood…Gothic…matai..kauri, 'I heard her intoning.
Yes, an English church. Its loveliness cast a spell over me and quietened my soul, even while I questioned and reproved (and knew) the hauteur of its snobbery, its implied ancientness and the power of its authority. Hadn't I sat in a parallel if much more modest wooden ark Sunday after Sunday all through my childhood. It wasn't God which kept me there, it was some more worldly authority - my mother, her desire for order, acceptance, a broader family.
I watched the French boy walk shamelessly right up to the altar, turning round to get the best perspective for a photo. I winced inwardly. Was the magic still potent? Did God really hide behind the skirts of the altar as I persisted in residually believing, even as an adult? The darkness of the church spoke to me and I thought of those now misunderstood, now maligned creatures called missionaries.*
This was the treasure box of their mystery.
I asked the cicerone what was the age of the original church. She said 1866. This was later than I had thought (I was thinking early Selwyn, the 1840s and 50s). I immediately placed it in the context of The War, as I had begun to call the NZ land wars in my own mind. So it was in the middle of The War. This changed my perspective somewhat.
Even though St Pauls arose out of a mindset the Williamses might comprehend it was also a statement from a more problematic world. Even here, it was not pure. Like those flags from military nations, it had another story. Hidden within architecture, there is always - another story.
*In a conference called Iwi-Christianity-Rauiwi - 'Re-evaluating Christianity's Influence in Shaping Aotearoa New Zealand c 1800-c.1860' to be held in November 2012 I noted this discouraging para in the brochure: 'Tour of early mission station sites: A one-day tour after the conference will be arranged if there is sufficient interest.'