Post World War 2 was a time that the NZ Presbyterian Church took action to reach people in the rapidly emerging suburbs and developing industrial areas.  Initially, any  action to evangelise and offer support in these new areas lay with bordering parishes.  The efforts to plant new churches under  the ‘New Life Movement’  was relatively successful, but the programmes in the areas of industy for a variety of reasons were largely unsuccessful
Excavations for Roxburgh Hydro Dam, 1950. P-A359-11-47
 Fifty-four years ago, on 3rd November, the Roxburgh Dam on the Clutha River began to generate electricity.  It is the earliest large hydro-electric scheme in the southern South Island. Begun in 1949 and completed in 1956 the Hydro village was centred at Coal Creek some 8 kilometres from Roxburgh and presented a challenge to the Roxburgh Presbyterian Church and its new minister, Archie Kirkwood. Although the Government’s official announcement did not appear until March 1949, the locals had made approaches to the Ministry of Works seeking suitable accommodation and facilities for a cultural and religious centre as early as June1948.

Kirkwood wasted no time in reminding the Church’s Home Ministry Committee of their commitment to providing a suitable person to minister to this rapidly growing but temporary community.  He reports in May 1949 that the Village under construction would accommodate upwards of 2000 people.  The Dining Room was nearing completion and intended housing 200-300 single men, with the married quarters about to commence.  He argued that the local Presbyterians “must grow with the scheme” for it to be successful and an added person to the ministry team would be an advantage.

Roxburgh Hydro Dam Village, Coal Creek. 1951, Rev. AM Kirkwood Collection

Kirkwood had made a commitment to visit the Camp for a day a week to build a “rapport with the men and their families” in preparation for full-time ministry.   The response was one of surprise, “it ought to be possible for you to handle that much without any difficulty”.  The writer continued that the Committee was looking at Roxburgh to mother the ‘Coal Creek Scheme’, but to let them know when “things look to be getting heavy”. 

One year on, in June 1950 Kirkwood reported on the work of a Sunday School and the plans for the establishment of a Church Committee at the Hydro Village.  The staff kitchen provided the only suitable location for a fortnightly service (with a sauce bottle as an offering plate) but a grant had been received from the Synod of Otago and Southland towards the purchase of a Nissen Hall.  The population had reached 900 and a survey of the married quarters highlighted that forty Presbyterian families had settled.  Kirkwood believed that the time was now ripe for some assistance especially with the predicted population now reaching 3000 by 1952.

Sister Margaret Reid’s short but successful six weeks provided a children’s mission week, the beginnings of a Bible Class, meetings with the women of the parish, visitation programme and regular weekly worship over the summer of 1950/1951.  The Roxburgh Session expressed their delight at her achievements and had a clearer vision of the potential; however, no immediate follow-up ministry was available to consolidate her work.  Tensions surfaced with the Methodist community who finally withdrew from the area encouraging their members to support the Presbyterian ministry.   Eventually, in November 1951 the Home Ministry Committee advised the appointment of the Rev. Stuart S. Robertson to commence in February 1952.  In the meantime, Ian Cairns, a Theological ordinand provided a 10 week ministry from November 1951 to March 1952.  

At the close of the first year of full time ministry reservations from supporters of what was now referred to ‘as the experiment’ began to be expressed.  Little evidence of support for the church was apparent among the ever increasing population. A Report highlights the perceived difficulties of young parents and families attending worship, “also Sunday work, Sunday film screenings and to ‘get rich quick’ creates an atmosphere reminiscent of gold mining days.” The sense of impermanence, not only among the 800 single men in the camp but also the married residents made it “impossible to undertake any effective work”.  Stuart Robertson’s ministry ended mid-1954.  Six months lapsed before another minister took up the reigns. 

The Rev. Ivor McIvor soon recognised that little could be achieved at such a late stage of the project’s development.   From early 1955 indications that only months rather then years remained before the Hydro project would be wound down saw a shift in the discussion to whether an independent parish should continue.  By October 1955 a decision against purchasing a new property at the site of the permanent village led onto the realisation that the village would be too small to maintain a full ministry.  The Roxburgh Hydro Home Mission Station closed on 31 December 1956. 

The Presbyterian work at Roxburgh Hydro could not be described as successful.  The Home Ministry Committee had difficulty locating a suitable person early in the project and its structures lacked a flexibility to cater for the demands of a very different ministry. McIvor believed “new techniques must be found” and that the work “must be shaped according to its own needs”.  At Roxburgh his vision went beyond the traditional parish paradigm, the church required to express its faith at the very chalk face of all aspects of the workers and families lives.

Sketch of Roxburgh Dam

By Yvonne

Published in Touchstone.                                                                                                         

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