Have you ever stepped inside All Saints Church when there isn’t a service on? People naturally warm to old churches, but this is a modern church which has something very special about it. Maybe it’s the width of the church, the spacious front, the gentle light from the small windows that give the building the sense of reflective stillness, of a gentle and floating feeling, a restrained and yet warm feeling as a place where God can be found.

It is really a jewel in a street like Ponsonby Road, which is perhaps not the most outstanding street for architecture, even if it makes up for it in vitality.

But the sprawling Pohutakawa tree between the church and the street is a reminder of Ponsonby Road in very different times. It was under this old tree even before there was a Ponsonby Road that Bishop Selwyn met with the people of Ponsonby probably in 1865 to discuss building the church that became the first All Saints. Already there was a Sunday School, commenced by Mr Grainger and Miss Lampden in December 1864. Then the Synod in 1865 authorised building a church for what they then called Freeman’s Bay, and the appointment of a vicar. Freeman’s Bay had been the poor side of Auckland, where Irish and Catholics were rather thicker on the ground. So there had been a concentration of Catholic churches and convents in St Mary’s Bay since the first church was built there in 1854. But Anglicans retained a sense of responsibility for communities and since Ponsonby Road was being laid out at this time, it was time to build the church.

That first church, which cost some £800, is still remembered by older folk in our congregation. It was one of the last ‘Selwyn churches’ and it did not have the classic style of the early churches designed by Selwyn’s early architects. Designed by W. Pritchard, it was 80 feet long, 38 feet high and 38 feet wide, and was supposedly constructed from a single kauri tree. It was a rather high square wooden box with a small inset wooden altar. It also had a tower with a hundred foot spire, which could be seen from Queen Street. The church was opened on 21 December 1866 with elaborate services including a choir from St Matthew’s church in the city.

The first clergyman was Edward Nugent Bree, born in England in 1807, who had previously served as vicar of Whangarei. Bree also served as president of the Auckland YMCA. A window at the back of our church is dedicated to this first vicar. From July 1873 until 1876 the Education Board leased the schoolroom which had been built behind the church to provide for the Sunday School as a temporary location for the first public school in the district (called Dedwood School, for this was the first name of the district).

Bree’s successor was William Calder and he left a huge mark on the church and the neighbourhood. Calder, sometimes called ‘the little nugget’, was a young clergyman when he began, but he remained for 35 years, during which time he became a canon of St Mary’s Cathedral and, in 1901, Archdeacon of Auckland. When he retired in 1918 his parishioners gave him a house in Remuera. Calder was the father of Jasper, the remarkable man who founded the City Mission. Calder’s wife was known as ‘the boss’, so doubtless she was a dominant figure in the church, but many other members of the congregation were also dedicated to the parish. North and south transepts were added in the 1880s to increase the seating capacity of the church, but the tower had to be removed because it was unstable.  

The Choir was clearly a well-respected one. The choir master from 1905 was Kenneth Phillips, (later Dr Kenneth Seymour Philllips and chair of the Board of the Society of Registered Music Teachers and a founder of the Classic Club) and he remained in the position from 1905 until 1949! He died in 1961. Nellie Gallaher (wife of Dave Gallaher, captain of the famed 1905 All Blacks and a member of the key Ponsonby Rugby Club), who joined the choir in 1905, was still singing in the choir 61 years later at the time of the church’s centennial.

Frederick William Young and Walter Wootton Averill, son of the Bishop of Auckland, were the subsequent vicars. Lionel Beere became the next vicar in 1945. It was the post-war age, and even though Ponsonby was a poor district now, there was a vision of rebuilding the church to cope with the post-war baby boom. They had been raising money for the church since 1901, and by 1957 they had raised £28,282. So in 1955 discussions began with an architect.

The architect they chose was Richard Toy. Toy had been fascinated by church architecture since his time as a scholar in residence at St John’s College in the 1930s. The congregation were keen to explore new ideas in church architecture. The liturgical movement and the new Coventry Cathedral influenced a design for the first time in New Zealand of a large open sanctuary area and folded brick walls. The broad frontals and deep porch facing the grass space where the old church had been, have often been compared to a marae. Furnishings and carpeting were completed to a high standard by the contractor, N.J. Ellingham and the structural engineers, Gray, Watts and Beca; a remarkable achievement given the shortages of the post-war years. The complete building cost £45,352, and when it was consecrated on All Saints Day, 1 November 1958 it was widely praised as a masterpiece. And so it is, although successive vestries have worried about the leaky roof and the unstable tower.

Over the next few years charming stained glass windows were added by donors from within the parish, ending with the Ruatara window consecrated in 1963, which portrayed the Maori rangatira who had first welcomed pakeha missionaries to New Zealand.  The glorious screen was designed by a Dutch artist. The old organ was refurbished and placed in the new space above the entrance door, with the console down near the choir, but the location of the choir in the side aisle was surely not their preference! The carillon of bells, one of very few in New Zealand, has woken many a late sleeper as it has played out hymns before services over the years

The later history of the church requires a separate chapter. These were after all years of extraordinary change for Ponsonby, as it was transformed from an artisan suburb to a poor community, which became the home community for many Pacific Islanders seeking work in this country. It also became a community for students, for gay people and then was transformed yet again in recent years to a fashionable inner city address. Many of these trends seem to have passed the church by; it was more affected by the Charismatic Movement, the liturgical movement towards parish communion as the main service, and the aging of Anglicanism. Beere moved to St Aidan’s in 1960 and was succeeded by Rev F.O. Dawson, and then in 1965 by H.J. Boyd-Bell, who was succeeded in turn by Bruce Moore in 1972. The church hall burnt down on 2 December 1969 after the bowls club had finished an evening’s competition, and the present small hall was erected in its place. The musical tradition of the church continued while its style of worship swung from moderate to charismatic to high church and its theology from evangelical to liberal.

All Saints has been many things over the last 150 years. But all the way through it has been above all a presence of Christian community in Ponsonby, while many other churches have come and gone from the neighbourhood.