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Tuesday, 23 October 2018 09:08 pm

Reverend reflects on 72 years with Māori church

Rangiātea Church in Otaki. The church is a replica of the building that burnt down in 1995.

Reverend Georgia Aroha Hapeta sits in a pew at the back of Rangiātea Church and looks up at the historic building.

The roof is painted with Mangopare patterns and the deep red floor leads to an altar where a golden cross stands.

This cross is the meaning of Georgia’s life. She has spent the past 72 years of her life at Rangiātea Church in Otaki.

The church altar where visitors can kneel down and pray.

Since the age of five, Georgia has been attending the church which opened in 1851.

“What aren’t my roles?” Laughs the deacon from Ngāti Koroki.

She explains she can do everything in the church, except for marry couples or consecrate the Holy Communion.

But growing up, she never knew how important her role in the church would become.

“I never ever thought I would have a collar. That wasn’t even my aim, it was just to be part of looking after God’s people and the church,” says Georgia.

Part of her duties included moving to Wellington, where Georgia worked with the late Sir Kingi Ihaka from the Wellington Māori Pastorate.

“He was very well known down there,” she says.

She stayed in Wainuiomata for about a year until her first marriage broke up.

“When my marriage broke, I moved back home with my two daughters. And I wondered if I should move to Australia, so I did. I left my children and lived in Melbourne,” explains Georgia.

“The thing is, this is when the air strike happened and I suddenly felt so home sick because I knew there was no way of getting home. Kingi Ihaka was the one who put me on the first plane back to New Zealand.”

Georgia describes Kingi as one of the kindest people she’s met.

“He was a wonderful man. He expected excellence. He suffered no fools. He was a truly wonderful man. I’ve been so lucky to have time with so many wonderful ministers in my life.”

But Georgia isn’t the only one in her family who has had a go at running the church.

Georgia’s second husband, who has since passed away, was Catholic when the two met.

The bible rest is carved in Māori patterns.

They moved to Levin when they were married in 1972, but Georgia took him to the Otaki church every weekend.

“The way I was brought up, I was taught that if you weren’t confirmed into the church, you weren’t allowed to take Holy Communion,” explains Georgia.

“It troubled me. I thought it was wonderful he wanted to take communion, but I felt as if we were breaking the church law.”

So she decided to take him to their minister at the time.

“When the minister asked how he felt taking communion, he said ‘I feel wonderful. I feel at peace.’ And right then and there, he decided to be confirmed into Rangiātea.”

Georgia’s husband became more involved with the church, and by the 1990’s, he was a minister himself.

“Our lives have been really intertwined in the church for as long as I can remember,” Georgia smiles.


Hats and scarves no longer needed

She also recalls services from as early as the 1940s, where women had to wear hats or scarves inside the church.

“We hated them, all the different coloured berets our mother used to have,” laughs Georgia.

The rules were set out of Māoridom and total respect for the church.

“It was totally different to what it is now. We have a lot of freedom now.”

Nowadays, Georgia says she only expects around seven people in the church for a Sunday service.

Each kneeler is unique. They are made by individuals from the Rangiātea Embroidery Guild. The theme was “all things bright and beautiful.”

“The only time we ever really have a full church is when there’s a Tangi.

“People come and say goodbye to you, but they don’t come and say hello to you when you’re alive. It’s funny how the world works.”

But Georgia still values the word as much as she did 72 years ago.

“You want people to be real with you. I come to church to get a message to help me through the rest of the week.

“I could stay at home too, but it’s just so lovely to share with people with a like mind.”

She believes the people who visit the church each week turn up with something on their mind.

A wooden waka is displayed in a glass box. This is one of the only pieces that survived the 1995 fire. It was staying in a nearby marae, and nearly returned to the church the same night of the fire. It was only last minute they decided to keep it at the marae for one more night.

“A lot of them come because they’ve got something that’s troubling them, and they
come to try and share here. I think they go away feeling as if they’ve been fed.”

Rangiātea faced huge issues when it was destroyed by a fire in 1995 by three arsonists, two who have since died.

It took a good eight years and $3 million for it to be built back into the church Georgia and I sit in today.

“I love this church so much. I treat it like my home. If it burnt down again, I would never want it to be rebuilt,” Georgia says.

“When it was rebuilt, all the standards with it were still alive. But I think a lot of our standards to a great degree have slipped. I hope and pray that that doesn’t happen again.”

However the fire isn’t the only problem the church has faced.

Earlier in the year, Rangiātea had their donations box stolen as well as their surveillance cameras tampered with.

The cameras cost $6500 to fix, and they are still seeking help to fund the replacements.

“This church is just so precious. I don’t think the significance of what we have is appreciated. It’s not appreciated in the true sense that it was in the old days.”

This November will be the 15-year anniversary of the church being reopened since the fire.

Georgia feels she is at home in Otaki.

“I don’t want a big service when I die. I can still love Rangiātea without having a big service. My service has been to God my entire life.”

She has had a long time to reflect on what life has brought her these last 77 years.

“In the last week, I’ve realised that I am so lucky. My life is near perfect, because I’ve realised that kindness can do wonderful things.”

And her advice to the world?

“If you want to live a beautiful life, the answer is kindness. You have the ability to make someone feel that life is wonderful. And that is Georgia Aroha Hapeta for today.”


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