On a ridge overlooking the Oruawharo River, Minniesdale is the oldest surviving church in Albertland.
Edwin Stanley Brookes Senior was a Nottingham lace and hosiery manufacturer, who also trained as a Baptist Minister. Three of his sons Edwin, 22, Hovey, 20, and Charles, 15, were among the first Albertlanders who arrived in Auckland aboard Matilda Wattenbach in 1862. Though city boys, they thrived, breaking in their land with great enthusiasm. The settlers were staunch Christians and every Sunday, met at one or others’ homes for worship, walking miles over rough tracks. Edwin wrote to his parents ‘I shall be very glad when we get a chapel, for the Sabbath here is very different to a Sabbath in England. We miss the beautiful peals of the chiming bells’.
Encouraged by his sons, Brookes senior sold the business and brought the rest of his family to New Zealand, arriving in 1865 aboard Caduceus. Included in his luggage were the framework and stained glass windows for a Baptist Chapel. These were transported from Auckland to Takapau Creek, Wharehine aboard a small schooner via North Cape and across the Kaipara Bar.
Local man George Wilcockson was contracted to erect the Chapel on land donated by Hovey Brookes and nineteen painstaking months later, it was complete. The total cost of construction was met by Rev E S Brookes Senior. Meantime, Wilcockson’s own house wasn’t finished and his wife Sarah carried bricks for their chimney and fireplace from the riverbanks to their home, a distance of some three miles, mostly uphill.
Minniesdale Chapel opened on December 29th, 1867, with two days of celebrations, services, speeches, teas and a cricket match, well reported in newspapers of the time. Nine weeks later Henry Marsh and Elizabeth (Bessie) Jerome were the first couple married there with Rev Gittos officiating. Sadly for the Brookes family, the first funeral was for one of their own. Charles Henry (nicknamed Loll) was drowned in the Oruawharo River in September 1868. He was sailing up to Port Albert to see his sweetheart when his little boat capsized in bad weather.
Over the years services were conducted by ministers of all denominations, including Rev Brookes Sen. By 1888 he wasn’t well enough to carry on an active role as preacher and administrator so the Chapel and Cemetery were passed over to the Baptist Union. In 1902, due to lack of membership, Minniesdale stopped functioning as a separate denomination and was gifted by the Baptist Union to the district. Since then both cemetery and Chapel have been cared for by dedicated Trustees.
A listed Historic Places Trust building, Minniesdale is still used for services (especially the Anniversary Service held closest to December 29), funerals, weddings and christenings. Its simple Gothic design and quiet, almost idyllic setting has a huge appeal to visitors from all over the world as well as descendants of those buried in the cemetery.
The internet has helped bring Minniesdale to wider attention. The Chapel is going to be included in a book on historic churches of New Zealand, published by Random House and was recently used as a location for Lee Tamahori’s New Zealand feature film The Patriarch. Minniesdale is not just a church, but a memorial to the faith of our pioneer forebears.