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Community rallies to keep church

Despite significant backlash on the proposed selling of Kahutara’s St Francis of Assisi, the Anglican Church still wants to divest itself of the asset.

Wairarapa church sales have become routine in recent years, with many denominations grappling with ageing assets and lower priest and parishioner numbers.

But, the battle lines have been drawn in Kahutara, with the formation of the Stop The Sale of St Francis Church committee and an online fundraiser launched ‘to retain our church’.

The community has until the end of this month to signal its intention regarding buying St Francis.

However, ‘the selling process’ for the old church is in dispute.

More than 20 people attended an animated meeting in Kahutara’s community hall at the end of last year, with the single purpose of preventing the church from going to market.

“I believe we already own it.” One attendee said. “To me they are bloody crooks.”

Another person confirmed that the parish had offered the community the chance to buy St Francis, “but we don’t think we should buy it twice”.

Despite the Wellington Anglican Diocese holding the title to the property, committee members argued that because the Bidwill family donated the land in 1924 and the Ladies Guild funded the church’s relocation onto the site in 1966, St Francis should be returned to the community.

“Seeing as the locals have raised the money, if they do sell it, it should come back to the locals,” a committee member said.

Another maintained that while the Diocese might legally own the building,
they did not “morally” own it.

In September, following criticism over a lack of consultation, the South Wairarapa Parish Vestry cancelled a Special General Meeting and vote on St Francis’ future, noting it was clear a “process of further engagement” with the community was required.

The meeting agenda said the primary reasons to ‘begin the selling process’ of St Francis were; infrequent services, stretched priest resources, other places of worship available in South Wairarapa, and the financial burden.

The vestry subsequently confirmed that without rates, St Francis’ running costs came to less than $500 per year – $163.90 for insurance and $250-$300 for power – costs which the community said it would cover.

A report by Wairarapa Property Consultants [WPC] showed a valuation of St Francis was carried out on May 26, 2022, and indicated a market value range between $280-$300,000.

WPC suggested an offer of close to $250,000 might be considered, given the estimated $150,000 worth of work to convert the church into a residential property.

WPC said the report, requested by the Diocese, was to aid ‘a possible selling decision’.

In the minutes of a ‘St Francis Consultation meeting’ on November 3, the vestry said selling the church was first discussed at a vestry meeting in June, and from early July, several and various attempts were made to inform the community.

‘It was disappointing that further contact with vestry was not made by members of the Kahutara community, but instead, the media was contacted.’

Later that month, the vestry confirmed that it had ‘decided to continue the process of divesting the parish of its land and church at Kahutara’.

The vestry said it acknowledged the community’s strong feelings and sense of connection to the church but said its primary consideration was the Christian mission.

‘We considered whether it might be possible to gift the land and church to the Kahutara community.

“However, the Diocese has made clear that this path is not open to us and that the value of the asset must be realised.

‘We would like to offer the Kahutara community the option to purchase St Francis as a community church.’

It said any funds from the sale would be reapplied to ensure the Anglican Church had a presence in its two main centres in the parish – Featherston and Martinborough.

In response to questions about the selling process and ownership of St Francis, the Times-Age received a copy of the title and the following statement: “The Wellington Diocesan Board of Trustees confirms that it is the legal owner of the St Francis Church, Kahutara and the land at 991 Kahutara Rd. It has no further comment to make at this time.”

In response to a request on Friday for an update on the church, the board said it understood that South Wairarapa Parish Vestry had met with the Kahutara community and set a process in motion with community representatives.

“The board and parish are committed to seeing this process run its course and will review their options once the current process has concluded.”

A Stop The Sale of St Francis Church committee member confirmed yesterday that there would be a meeting later this week to discuss its options.

At the time of publication, the givealittlepage ‘Save St Francis church in Kahutara’ had received more than $3000 in donations.

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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