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Hiona St Stephen's Church Graveyard, Ōpōtiki, Bay of Plenty, North Island, New Zealand

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  • Rev. Carl Sylvias Völkner (1820 - 1865)
    Carl Sylvius Völkner (c. 1819–1865) was a German-born Protestant missionary in New Zealand who was hanged and decapitated at his church grounds on the east coast of the North Island in what became know...

The Anglican church of Hiona St Stephen in Ōpōtiki is a rare example in New Zealand of a church that houses a martyr’s memorial. The church was originally dedicated as Hiona (Zion) in January 1864. In early 1865 a group of Pai Mārire (Hauhau) adherents entered the town and seized Hiona’s minister, the Rev. Carl Sylvius Völkner, and his fellow missionary, T.S. Grace. Völkner was accused of spying for the Crown. He was hanged from a tree near the church and his body was mutilated: his head was cut off, his blood was drunk from a chalice, and one of his assailants, Kereopa, swallowed his eyes.

Grace was then allowed to bury Völkner’s remains in the churchyard.

Völkner’s tragic story has been widely told; what concerns us here is simply its representation within the fabric of the church.

When Ōpōtiki was reoccupied by government forces in September 1865, the church was fortified and a redoubt was built around it. The prominent Whakatōhea chief, Mokomoko, and several other men suspected of involvement in Völkner’s murder were arrested and sent for trial in Auckland. Mokomoko and three other men (members of Ngāti Awa) were executed on 17 May 1866.

On 28 November 1875 Hiona was rededicated as the Church of St Stephen the Martyr. In October 1877 a new tombstone was erected above Volkner’s grave. This was inscribed as follows:

In / Affectionate Remembrance of the /Rev. Carl Sylvius Volkner, C.M. / who entered into / rest March 2nd 1865. / Aged 45 years. / ‘And they loved not their / lives / unto the death’ Rev. 12.11 / ‘These are they which came out of / great tribulation and have washed / their robes, and made them white / in the blood of the lamb,’ Rev. 7.14. Völkner’s Bible, chalice and paten were put on display in the church (and remain there today).

In 1910 the church was extended at the eastern end, enclosing Völkner’s grave. The extension was consecrated as the Völkner Memorial Chancel on 2 April 1911. Völkner’s gravestone was placed outside the church and the position of the grave was marked by a raised marble slab on the floor of the sanctuary. This was inscribed: ‘Carl Sylvius Volkner / C.M.S. / who suffered Martyrdom / on / March 2nd 1865 / is interred here. / ‘He that loseth his life for My sake / shall find it’ Matt. X.39 / Resurgam’. In 1960 the slab was lowered to the level of the sanctuary floor.

The subsequent history of memorialisation within the church is a story of reconciliation. On 18 October 1964 three sandblasted windows that had been gifted by the nearby Māori parish of Te Kaha were dedicated in the chancel. Then in April 1979 a set of tukutuku panels made by Māori parishioners were installed on the sanctuary walls. With the passage of the Te Runanga o Ngati Awa Act 1988, the three Ngāti Awa men who had been executed for Völkner’s death received a pardon. On 15 June 1992, Governor-General Catherine Tizard formally pardoned Mokomoko (who had not in fact been directly involved in Völkner’s death). The pardon was later formally presented to the Mokomoko family at Waiaua Marae. In accordance with the wishes of the family, the framed document was placed on display in the church. (There are two plaques at the marae which read in English and Māori respectively: “The proclamation by / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. / Absolves Mokomoko for the / murder of Rev. Carl Sylius [sic] Volkner. / It took 126 years to finalise / Absolute Pardon, the removal / of all the accusations of time. / Unveiled by Her Excellency the / Governor General of New Zealand / Dame Catherine Tizard / this day the 25th July 1992.” / “HE PANUI TE NEI / NA TE KUINI O INGARANGI / IRIHAPETI TE TUARUA MO TE / WHAKAPAE. KOHORU IA MOKOMOKO / MO TE MATE O E WAKANA / KOTAHI RAU E RUA TEKAU MA ONO / TAU TE WETENA O NGA HERE / O TE WA”.)

In 1995 the Church of St Stephen the Martyr was renamed Hiona St Stephen’s.

During the church’s 150th anniversary celebrations in April 2014, and in recognition of the passage of the Mokomoko (Restoration of Character, Mana, and Reputation) Act, a wooden carving (pare) symbolising reconciliation between Māori and Pākehā was installed above the front door.

The Völkner and Mokomoko memorials are not the only items associated with war and conflict that the church has possessed. In 1919 Bishop Sedgwick presented the church with a pair of candlesticks in memory of the fallen soldiers of the First World War.