'St Mary's is not for sale'

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HANDS OFF: St Mary's Community Church at Pukenui, put on the market as a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home.
HANDS OFF: St Mary's Community Church at Pukenui, put on the market as a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home.

More than two hours of sometimes acrimonious discussion over the future of St Mary's Community Church at Pukenui last week was summed up by meeting chairman Russell Wagener in six words.

"St Mary's is not for sale," he said.

Others questioned why the community had been invited to buy something it already owned, but the deepest anger was generated by the fact that the process of putting the church on the market had been under way for nine months, unbeknown to all but a handful of people in the community.

Discussions between then pastor Owen Wagener and the Anglican Church's Kaitaia Parochial Trust Board had begun in May last year, according to claims made at Thursday's public meeting at the Araiawa Hall. They continued later in the year between the trust and Helen Pirini, widow of former pastor John Pirini.

A proposal had reportedly been made by Mr Wagener to form a trust to purchase the property, but that came to nought. (It was claimed that an offer of $100,000 had been rejected, but Mr Wagener has disputed that.

As of last week it was reportedly about to sell for $165,000).

The first most people knew about what was happening, however, was when a For Sale sign appeared outside the church on Friday, January 8. A buyer was reportedly found the next day.

Thursday night's meeting unanimously resolved that the church was not available for sale without consultation with the wider community, and that any sale be delayed for three months to give the community time to discuss the church's future.

Certainly the parish, represented by St Saviour's (Kaitaia) vicar Dino Houtas and vicar's warden Robyn Reeves, was left in doubt that those present wished to retain the church. Construction, on a site donated by a local resident, had begun in 1966, using voluntary labour, donated materials and furnishings. What was not donated was covered by fundraising. There had been no cost to the parish or diocese, while the community continued to meet all maintenance and running costs.

Rev Houtas told the meeting that the church was unsustainable, later qualifying that by referring to spiritual and leadership sustainability. He conceded that the church was not costing the parish or the diocese anything at all.

The consensus was that questions regarding church leadership could and should be addressed by the community, those issues presumably including the claim that local Anglicans did not have access to the church, and gathered in private homes to worship.

It was repeatedly claimed that the church had been built as inter-denominational, and that it meant more to the community than simply a place of worship. It was well used for weddings and funerals, and by young people. It was also Pukenui's only church.

Grant Kokich, who chairs the church administration, conceded that he had been at fault for not advising the community of the proposal to sell it (which he had become aware of in August), while one speaker said she understood that the buyer, believed to be local, had told the real estate agent that the sale would not proceed if there was significant community concern.

Rev Houtas repeatedly stated that he had been dealing with the church leadership since April or May last year, and that he had assumed that those leaders would communicate with the community. He could not be held responsible for their failure to do that.

A former member of the church said he had considered buying it and returning it to the community, but had not done so. He had resigned, in response to what he described as dishonesty behind the scenes.

Meanwhile Rev Houtas told the meeting that the diocese had recommended that the church be sold, but according to the minutes of a meeting of the the Anglican Diocesan Council in Auckland on May 28 last year the proposal originated in Kaitaia.

The minutes stated that the Kaitaia parish had sought permission to sell St Mary's, and that permission was granted.

- Northland Age

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