The first church
The first Pacific church community in New Zealand was formed in Newton, central Auckland, in 1947 to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of immigrants from Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and the Tokelau islands. At the time there were fewer than 3,000 Pacific Islanders in New Zealand.
Initiated by the Congregational Union of New Zealand – which had links with Congregational churches in the Pacific – the church was named the Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church (PICC). Within the PICC, separate ethnic communities formed basically autonomous congregations, each of which was represented in the session (the body responsible for church governance). The PICC called ministers from the Pacific to lead the church.
Early Pacific immigrants from other denominations were encouraged to worship in existing, largely Pākehā, congregations in central Auckland. As migrant numbers increased, the Catholic, Methodist, Latter Day Saints (Mormon), Seventh Day Adventist and Assembly of God churches moved to provide specifically for the spiritual and pastoral needs of their new Pacific members.
In the 1950s and 1960s new church communities were formed as more Pacific Island immigrants arrived. The new arrivals moved to suburban Auckland and beyond – mostly to places with a plentiful supply of low- and semi-skilled jobs, such as the forestry towns of Tokoroa and Kawerau, and the cities of Wellington and Christchurch with their factories. Well-paid jobs in freezing works and the Bluff aluminium smelter drew Pacific Island migrants as far south as Invercargill, where a church was also established.
Dressing up, dressing down
In the 1960s church members dressed in their ‘Sunday best’ – men in suits and ties, and women in dresses, hats and gloves. In the early 21st century the dress code in most congregations was more casual, with many members wearing shirts, skirts and shorts featuring Pacific patterns and prints.
Some people within the PICC wanted to follow a form of Christianity centred on Samoan traditions and language. In 1963 they formed a breakaway church, the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (CCCS) or Ekalesia Fa’apotopotoga Kerisiano Samoa (EFKS). This was a clone of the parent EFKS church in Samoa, where many had worshipped before coming to New Zealand.
Conversely, the merger of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in 1969 – which saw the PICC become the Pacific Island Presbyterian Church (PIPC) – reflected a desire for a diverse, multi-ethnic church.
The split divided Pacific church communities into those whose parent church was based in the Pacific Islands and those based in New Zealand. The latter included the Samoan Methodist Church, which was independent of the New Zealand Methodist Church.
Religious belief in the 21st century
In the 2013 census 78% of Pacific people described themselves as Christian, compared to 47.7% for the country as a whole. Forty-two per cent of all New Zealanders stated they had no religion, but the figure for Pacific people was only 16.5%. The most devout were Tuvaluans, with just 4.2% having no religion; the least devout were Cook Island Māori, 28.8% of whom said that they had no religion.
Resurrecting St Paul’s
In 2009 an arson attack on St Paul’s Trinity Pacific Presbyerian Church in Christchurch caused $1 million of damage. The 700-strong congregation was devastated. Church member Tailua Soli said it was ‘like finding a dead body. We were all born and raised in the church ... It’s a second home for a lot of us, we are here every day.’ 1 The building was condemned after the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake and services were held in the church hall until a new building opened on a different site in 2018.
Among Pacific Island Christians in New Zealand in 2013, the largest denomination was Catholic (24.2%), followed by Presbyterian/Congregational (20.8%), then Methodist (15.6%). The distribution was partly a legacy of 19th-century missionary activity in the Pacific. For example, Samoa attracted both Congregational and Catholic missions. Of the Samoan New Zealanders who identified themselves as Christian in 2013, 27.8% were Catholic and 20.9% were Presbyterian/Congregational. In Tonga, Methodist missionaries predominated, and 41.2% of New Zealand Tongan Christians in 2013 were Methodists.
In New Zealand there was a greater range of denominations to choose from, and 8.9% of Pacific Island Christians were Mormons and 8.1% were Pentecostals.