The smallest church in New Zealand- possibly the world - is the tiny octagonal Oruaiti Chapel, whose shape is probably unique. It is 18 feet in diameter and its eight walls are roofed by eight faces rising up to a point culminating in a small spire. Its history began in 1859 when a band of English pioneers landed in Doubtless Bay and settled in Oruaiti, a fertile valley about 14 miles south of Mangonui. The moving spirit was Mr J. Ball who, with the aid of a few settlers, felled a kauri from his own bush, from which sufficient timber was pit-sawn to build the eight sided church, completed in 1861 on his own property.
There were many interesting features in its construction. Firstly, it was octagonal, but the reason is not known. The door lock was made from a cherished piece of heart of oak brought from England by one of the settlers. Lead intended for use in his own home was given by a pioneer for flashings which weatherproofed the building. The roof was originally thatched with rushes, but in 1866, it was shingled by Mr Whitehead and his son, Thomas, and remained weatherproof until 1919 when it was again re-roofed with hand-cut kauri shingles given by Mr J. Goldie.
As early as 1870 there was a library in the chapel, and the books comprised of such works as "Buller's Forty Years in New Zealand", Huxley's "Lessons in Physiology," Prescott's History, Letters of Junius, Selected Biography, Betney's "English Emigrants" were housed on shelves under the Bible desk. Many of them were donated by Sir Maurice O'Rorke, Speaker of the Auckland Provincial Council and House of Representatives.
At first it was a private chapel, not attached to any mission. Whenever clergy from the Wesleyan or Anglican Mission visited Oruaiti they celebrated Holy Communion in the Chapel, using an old pewter "Common Cup" brought from England for the purpose by Mr Ball.
Singing was led by Mr Ball with the aid of a tuning fork, but later Mr William Whitehead played the accompaniment for the hymns on his cello. Some years after this Mrs Simons, grand-daughter of the original owner, presented the chapel with a harmonium which had been brought to Hokianga by the White Family in 1838. This is still in existence.
The Ball property was sold to Samuel Foster in 1892, and the Chapel remained on the property of the Foster family until 1936 when it was ceded to the Methodist Connexion. With the dispersal of the Methodist congregation and the coming of the smaller sects, the Chapel was closed for 20 years. The original access was by water, but with the advent of roads, it was decided to move the building to a more central position. In 1936, a bullock team towed it on skids to a roadside site donated by the Foster family and situated on the hill on the Mangonui side of Oruaiti Valley.
Again in 1946, it was moved - this time to the Methodist property at 149 Kamo Road, Whangarei, where it was hoped it could be cared for as it deserved. John Court, a prominent Methodist and businessman of Whangarei, paid for its removal. While on this site, the Chapel was used as a Sunday School and several weddings were also celebrated in it.
Originally known as the Oruaiti Chapel, this delightful little church was, on its removal to Whangarei, renamed the "Leigh Memorial Chapel" in honour of the Rev. Samuel Leigh, founder of Methodism in New Zealand. In 1975, the Chapel was given to the Northland Regional Museum as it's site was needed for the proposed "Golden Church". It was moved by Keith Hay Homes Ltd free of charge, and set up on its new site at Heritage Park, where it was renamed Oruaiti Chapel once more. Since then it has become a popular venue for weddings. Some brides arrived in vintage cars, and several in period clothes.
By the time of the opening of the Exhibition Centre (now Whangarei Museum) on 24 March 1984, 44 weddings had been celebrated in the Oruaiti Chapel on Heritage Park and many more since.
History as recorded by Florence Keene (1908-1988)
On the 24th of November 2019, Kiwi North celebrated the completion of the Oruaiti Chapel conservation project. The chapel not only looks amazing but should stand for another 100 years! The project could not have been possible without funding support from the WDC Partnership Fund, Foundation North, Lotterys Grants Board and the Sir John Logan Campbell Residuary Fund. A small crowd joined us on the day and special thanks goes to the descendants of the Ball and Foster families, Rosalie Gwilliam from the Methodist Church, project heritage consultant David Reynolds, our very busy mayor, Sheryl Mai and the amazing team from Kerr Construction who attended the opening.