by Doreen Keogh
1800’s / 1900’s
On 28 February 1858 Father Euloge Reignier, a French missionary priest came to live at the Meeanee property he had purchased for the Society of Mary in 1856. He was accompanied by two brothers of the Society of Mary who shared his missionary work, Brothers Basil and John. They brought their house with them from Pakowhai and quickly assembled it on the property. This house became their accommodation and was used as the first church.
As their congregation grew, they needed a church so in November 1862 tenders were called for the erection of a church adjoining the residence of Rev E. Reignier at Meeanee. In December 1863, Bishop Philip Viard from Wellington blessed and opened the church of St Mary of the Assumption at Meeanee. A large number of people attended the opening of the pseudo-Gothic style wooden church, with a tall sloping iron roof and a shapely tower. The cost was 348 pounds and it measured 36ft by 15ft. In spite of the frequent flooding of the nearby Tutaekuri River the Mission prospered as the Brothers managed their farm of 326 acres as well as assisting Friar Reignier with their missionary duties.
Suzanne Aubert, a Frenchwoman who wanted to do missionary work with the Maori people, arrived at Meeanee in 1871. She played the church harmonium, trained the choir, decorated the church and became well known in the area for her nursing skills and later was the founder of the Order of the Sisters of Our Lady of compassion. She worked at Meeanee until 1883.
A large boarding and day school was built on the Taradale side of the church in 1872 and this flourished for many years. It was intended to be a boys equivalent of St Joseph's Maori Girls' College but gradually became a co-educational primary day school which was later staffed by the Sisters of St Joseph and the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions.
Settler numbers were growing in Meeanee so in October 1874 a contract was let to enlarge the church. The existing church was cut in two and a transept placed between the two parts. The entrance was moved around to the east of the new section. The additions cost 626 pounds. Mass was held each Sunday at 11am with Vespers on Sunday evenings at 7pm.
A large new residence for the priests and brothers was built in 1880 on the Meeanee side of the church. This building was later converted to become a seminary for the training of priests and because of repeated floods was moved to the Greenmeadows hill in 1910 where it still functions today as the Mission Estate Winery.
With the arrival of more priests and students at the Scholasticate, or seminary, the church needed to be enlarged once again in 1892. Robert Lamb was the architect and Mr Chegwidden was the contractor. The building was lengthened to 75 ft and widened to 46 ft. The old sanctuary became the vestry and the nave was enlarged to 50ft by 37ft and was 30ft high. It was divided from the aisles by pillars of rimu with arches filled with ornamental traceries. The gallery for the choir was completely new. The building was over six times larger than the former church. There was a grand opening by Archbishop Redwood in December 1892 which was reported extensively in the local newspaper.
The whole complex presented a very pleasing prosperous appearance. There were attractive gardens, grape vines, crops, fruit trees and farm land. The seminary, known as The College by the locals, had twenty-three students. There was a swimming pool, an observatory, a flourishing school, a new brothers' house and an attractive church which was raised by 21 inches and given new piles to escape the ever present flood waters.
However by 1910 the decision had been made by the leaders of the Society of Mary to shift the entire complex to Greenmeadows. Only the church and school were left on the Meeanee property and many of the locals and the priests were unhappy about the decision.
The church continued as a much loved parish church for many years, with a new villa style 10 roomed presbytery being added as accommodation for the priests in 1913. The school, ruined by years of floodwaters, was demolished, and a new school opened in Guppy Road in 1926.
By the 1970s St Mary's Church was becoming too small for the growing population of Taradale and was also some distance from Taradale and Greenmeadows. Land was purchased in Osier Road and a new church, designed by architect John Scott, was opened in 1972.
St Mary's Church was deconsecrated in 1972 and leased to the Taradale Pottery Club who used it for many years. The Society of Mary eventually sold the property to a group of Napier businessmen who in turn sold it to its present owner, Karen Sandler, who has converted it to a restaurant and wedding venue. The former presbytery will be converted to boutique accommodation. Many people have lived, worshipped, celebrated and worked on this unique property but no doubt they would all be pleased to see the church renovated and used again for celebratory purposes.