The story of St Heliers Presbyterian Church begins with a newly married couple called Mr. and Mrs. Dickey. They used to travel by horse to West Tāmaki, where the closest Presbyterian service was. They asked the minister, Rev. Morgan Richards, whether services could be started at St. Heliers.
Rev. Richards took up the challenge. Alongside services at Howick and Tāmaki, he agreed to conduct regular services at St. Heliers.
The first service, consisting of 25 people, was held on 5 December 1915. The first church building wasn't a church at all, but an old furniture factory. Apparently, though the numbers were small, the congregation loved to sing hymns vigorously, led by organist Miss Pilkington. To this day, St Heliers maintains a fine tradition of music and singing.
The congregation grew and the need soon arose for a church to be built. The original site was where the St Heliers Public Library now stands. At the time it was a bit of a bog. However, the congregation made it work. In a remarkable act of industriousness, the community rallied to built the church in a day (see below)! The first service in the building was held the very next day on Sunday 10 December 1916.
A Church on the Move (1919-1927)
From 1919-1927, St Heliers became a home mission station, known as the "Somervell Memorial Outfield". It wasn't yet big enough to be sustainable, and so it was supported by Somervell Memorial Church on Remuera Rd.
In 1924, the church moved up the hill to its current site. Literally. The photo above shows the church building being transported by a sturdy steam traction engine. It was moved to make way for a Post Office, which was required for the site.
A Church Extension Charge (1927-1941)
While the congregation initially grew steadily, the years of the Great Depression hit the community hard. Attendance dropped to 40 in 1929 and the total membership was only 75. As people struggled with the cost of living, giving dropped so that the congregation couldn't pay the minister's support. Appeals were made to the wider community, who generously assisted. Notably, the ladies' Social Club gave sacrificially to enable the church to keep its doors open.
Often we imagine that the church is in much more difficult place than it used to be decades ago. However, that is not the case! Our forebears are a testament of hope and perseverance in difficult times.
As we came out of the depression years, the economic situation of the church improved. Growing attendance and an active Sunday School prompted conversations about a hall to assist with space. In 1939, after a successful fundraising effort, "Johnston Hall" was opened. Today Johnston Hall (downstairs) is part of the impressive community centre complex attached to the church.
St Heliers Becomes a Thriving Church (1942-)
In 1942, the St Heliers congregation applied to Auckland Presbytery to become a "fully sanctioned charge", which meant making St Heliers its own parish separate from Somervell. By now, the average attendance was over 100 people with a Sunday School of 103.
The congregation continued to grow. By the time Rev. E. Walsh arrived in 1951, the need for a new church building had become quite urgent. Architect Robert Spiers gifted his time to prepare a set of plans for a new building and, before long, building commenced under his supervision. The new church (which stands today) was opened on 2 September 1956.
The old wooden church was once again put on wheels and sent down the hill to Glendowie, where it continues to exist today.
Over the next few decades, the community continued to grow and thrive under a number of team ministries. The history is further recorded in our 50-year History and 75-year Celebration Record. Contact the minister for more information.
Sister Daisy Dempsey, Deaconess (1968-1973)
Sister Daisy Dempsey was a deaconess. The deaconess' were remarkable women. At a time when the Presbyterian Church didn't ordain women as ministers, these women often did many of the tasks of a minister for a fraction of the pay.
When Daisy Dempsey "retired" in 1968, she settled in St. Heliers, where she continued to exercise a remarkable ministry. These words were said about her legacy:
“[Sister Dempsey] was honorary deaconess for [St Heliers Church] – loved and respected and an example of Christian grace and dignity. It was her smile and handshake that welcomed the stranger to the Church door. It was her word of welcome to the wee children that made them love to come to Church to see that ‘Lady who knows me.’ She visited the old and shut in folk, and brought cheer and comfort to the frail and the dying.”
The church was “filled with so many of Daisy D’s Bible Class girls, her sporting colleagues and above all, so many folk who can say, ‘Thanks be to God for the life of Sister Daisy Dempsey.’”
When Daisy Dempsey died, the porch annexed to the church was named after her. Today the space is known as the Daisy Dempsey Chapel and is both a place for prayer and study as well as for children to gather during Sunday services - a fitting memory for a woman whose ministry among children was second to none.
After Sister Dempsey, Mrs. Jean West was appointed as "Church Sister" to assist the Minister with pastoral visiting and care. She was inducted in 1978 and served faithfully for over ten years.
St Heliers Today (1989-)
In 1989, the decision was made to move the church manse down the hill away from its site right next to the church building. The move enabled extensive renovations. Today, the 1956 church is attached to a wonderful community centre featuring halls and rooms as well as the Small Miracles Preschool. The centre is widely used by the community and offers programmes and activities for all-ages.
Many of the visionaries who worked hard to develop the current community centre continue to serve faithfully in the church today.
This short history was based off two more thorough histories: "Our First Fifty Years: St Heliers Presbyterian Church 1915-1965" and "Seventy-Five Years: A Celebration Record 1915-1990, St Heliers Presbyterian Church". Contact the Minister for more information.