Stories – A New Years To Remember.

For many New Years is a time of festivities and fireworks and a chance to reset the clock to achieve goals for the next year. In 1933 the Sawyers Bay Church had its buttons dramatically reset – smoke billowed from under the church’s tank stand and soon took hold. Residents ran to save the church but without an inadequate water supply, or necessary equipment to fight it,  they failed to control the fire and the building buckled to the flames.

The church was relieved to discover the building had been insured for £700, covering most of the cost of the rebuild. With the lowest tender at £1,031, the church was able to negotiate with the architect and builder- a revised plan that would cost £686. With a handful of items saved from the fire – a few pews, a Bible Class photo and a small book cabinet -fundraising for furnishings and fittings were required.

Elizabeth Hewitson and her band of merry volunteers

Elizabeth Hewitson’s (nee Perry) dedication to the parish shows one woman’s determination in securing a new church for the Sawyers Bay community. Elizabeth joined others in raising money by taking to the streets. Money was needed to kit out the new church and a sub-committee of Mrs Millar, Mr Polson and Elizabeth set about finding funding for the fixtures and fittings. Their drive ensured the fully furnished church was up and running in no time. 

The generosity of Elizabeth Hewitson’s niece also helped. Mrs Janet Tilburn was the current licensee of the Shamrock Hotel, Maclaggan Street, Dunedin. Impressed by her aunt’s dedication, Janet donated a sum of money which funded the communion table and chairs. These funds also paid for a  stained glass window in memory of two parish stalwarts – Elizabeth’s aunt (Mrs Mary Perry) and uncle (Mr Robert Millar).

The Architect

The original Sawyers Bay Presbyterian Church had been built in 1912. The architect contracted for the new church, D.G. Mouat, designed a similar but modernised version of the original structure. His earlier experience in church design included the Maori Hill Presbyterian Church(1922), and the St Andrew St Church of Christ (1926). This more than qualified him to design a new building to meet the parish’s needs.

Named the Emmanuel Church Sawyers Bay the new building took less than a year to complete, opening on 21 September 1933. The foundation stone was laid by Captain William Thomspon’s stepdaughter, Helen Watson. The Captain had himself laid the foundation stone of the original 1912 building at the ripe old age of 90.

The Church Board of Property recorded the final cost of the rebuild was £850.

Elizabeth Hewitson’s legacy continued with a bequest to Emmanuel Church on her death, held in trust at the Otago Foundation Trust Board.  The J. Tilburn Trust continues to finance work on and around Emmanuel.

Thank you to Alison Moodie, for access to her father’s notes on the history of Emmanuel. She is the granddaughter or Elizabeth Hewitson.


Bowman, H.O.  Port Chalmers: Gateway to Otago, Capper Press, 1973

Cochrane, Alan.  History of the Emmanual Presbyterian Church at Sawyers Bay, 1987.

Croot, Charles. (Dunedin Churches: Past and Present, Otago Settlers Association, 1990.

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