Rumour turned into shocking reality when parishioners of a Kaikohe church found an Anglican bishop and officials in Auckland had given it to the church's Maori pastorate without consulting them.
Confirmation of the move at the annual meeting of the Waimate North Mission District management group on Friday was "hurtful" for parishioners, and they recorded their disapproval of the behaviour of Assistant Bishop Jim White and the Auckland Diocesan Council.
Management group chairman Roger Wyatt of Russell disclosed the gift had been made in his chairman's report to about 30 people at the meeting in the Sunday school hall next to St John's Church at Waimate North.
Comments in the minutes of the group's 2015 AGM had indicated St Stephen the Martyr's Church in Kaikohe would be a casualty of tight finances for maintenance of historic churches in the district. Mr Wyatt said it had been agreed for ownership of the church, the hall and the vicarage to be passed as a gift to the Maori pastorate, which intended to establish a central hub in Kaikohe for worship, education and training.
Mr Wyatt said he had been assured there would be no change in the welcome for those who now worship at St Stephen's and for all locals to be included in the pastorate's plans.
The bishop-appointed management group - he and Heather Stanley, Tony Scott and Don Jack - were grateful St Stephen's would continue as a vibrant Anglican worship community, Mr Wyatt said. But while he could see the gifting of St Stephen's easing the management group's administrative responsibilities in the mission district, most of the 25 parishioners were dismayed they had not been consulted.
Dwindling congregation numbers have been forcing churches around New Zealand to sell off land and buildings so they can remain economically viable. St Stephen's and St Catherine's at Okaihau have since last year appeared earmarked for disposal by Anglican leaders in Auckland who favour a financial focus on maintenance of the three major churches in the mission district - St John's at Waimate North, Holy Trinity at Pakaraka and possibly St Catherine's.
Some families in the district have generations of ancestors buried by the churches so their future has generated substantial local concern.
Heather Ayrton, of Kaikohe, said there had been plenty of time for people to have been told what was happening with St Stephen's. There had been rumours, and it had been very hurtful a decision was made without consultation.
She asked the meeting to record its disappointment over the lack of communication regarding the gifting of St Stephen's and the motion was passed with a resounding "Aye."
Mr Wyatt had earlier told the meeting a bequest from the Leslie family could made a difference to the group's church maintenance programme.
Asked what would happen if the family challenged the way the will was administered because money was left to four churches in the district and with St Stephen's gifted there would be only three, he said lawyers would have to check it.
Rex Faithful of Okaihau said people in the area had formed a trust to administer St Catherine's and would no longer contribute to the diocese. He asked if trust chairman Ken Rintoul could sit in on management group meetings, but My Wyatt said the group, appointed last year, was still evolving and members might not get their minds around the issues they were dealing with until next year.
"You say you want the community involved. How can we be involved when we don't know what's going on?" Mr Faithful asked.
The financial balance sheet for last year showed there was $616,706 in mission district bank accounts, total income of $64,415, staff expenses of $21,716, three 2015 bequests totalling $477,730 in Westpac term deposits and three 2014 trust investments totalling about $124,000.
No budget for the year was included in the finance report. Mr Wyatt said money would be available for urgent work.