In the popular sea side town of Russell in the Bay of Islands is one of the country’s most popular and historic landmarks. Nestled amongst its prominent graveyard is home to New Zealand’s oldest surviving building, Christ Church.
In the 19th century, Russell, then known as Kororareka was known as a rough sea port, popular with whalers. The land on which Christ Church sits was originally purchased in 1834 from the local chief, Rewa Wharerahi with the intention of becoming a church and an equal burial place for both Maori and Europeans. Fundraising for the church began immediately from missionaries, settlers, traders and ships’ captains including Captain Robert Fiztroy of the HMS Beagle and biologists, Charles Darwin.
The church was completed in 1835 in a simple design and a hipped roof. At first, missionaries performed services, having to row in across the harbour from Paihia but the first official service held in both Maori and English was conducted in 1836 by the first Angelican Bishop of Waiapu, William Williams.
On the 30th January, 1840, Captain William Hobson used the church to hold a meeting with Maori and Pakeha to proclaim New Zealand would be ruled through New South Wales and he would become lieutenant governor. A treaty was drafted and by the 6th February, it was signed.
On the 11th March 1845, a day forever etched in New Zealand’s history occurred. The battle of Kororareka (Russell)a hostile flagstaff cutting lead by chief, Hone Heke in retaliation to signing of the treaty that occurred five years earlier. The British were taken by surprise from Maori and their muskets and the battle continued long into the night and morning when the British garrison’s reserve ammunition exploded, setting fire to the surrounding buildings. As the church was the initial contact musket ball holes are still visible in the church’s exterior today with the museum housing some of the battle’s priceless artifacts including the original flagstaff and weapons.
While many perished in the battle, the surrounding graveyard is home to Tamati Waka Nene (a Ngapuhi chief largely responsible for the Maori’s acceptance of the Treaty of Waitangi and who fought for the settlers against Hone Heke), Hannah King Letheridge (now known to be the second European girl to be born in NZ), Dr Samuel Ford (the country''s first resident surgeon), members of the Clendon family (James R Clendon was the first honorary United States Consul), the men from HMS Hazard who fell in the battle, and a number of whalers whose headstones often tell of untimely deaths.
Having suffered some damage from weaponry, in 1871 the church was altered with a V shape roof, buttresses, gallery, porch and belfry. By the year 2000, the church was extensively restored and still draws a constant stream of visitors worldwide. While no longer used as a parish church, it remains consecrated and is still used for service on Sundays, weddings and other events.