It wasn’t till 1899 that the community of Poles at Waihola saw the opening of it’s very own Catholic Church. Prior to this they worshiped alongside other denominations at the local Presbyterian church or travelled several miles to Milton in the south or East Taieri to the north. However a priest would come to Waihola from Milton about once a month and whenever a special need arose. “A new church is being erected at Waihola in the Milton parish. The congregation are mostly German Poles, and the church is to be dedicated to the great Polish Dominican, St. Hyacinth.” NZ Tablet, 2 February 1899. The erection of a new Catholic Church at Waihola (says the Bruce Herald), is making good progress. The site is excellently chosen, and commands a very extensive view. It is expected that the builders will have finished their work shortly after Easter, when the church will be opened with the usual ceremonies. We are informed that Dr. Verdon, Bishop of Dunedin, has presented the church with an altar, and the Rev. Father O’Donnell of Queenstown, formerly of Milton, has presented three beautiful stained glass windows for the chancel. “NZ Tablet”, 2 March 1899. The very Rev. Father O’Neill and the people of Waihola are to be congratulated on the completion of the new Catholic Church, to be dedicated to St. Hyacinth, the blessing and opening of which will take place on Sunday next. The church, which is 54 ft by 25 ft, exclusive of the sanctuary and sacristy, is a very pretty specimen of the gothic style of architecture. Three stained glass windows behind the altar , having medallions of the Sacred Heart, St Catherine of Sienna, and St. Hyacinth, add much to the adornment of the interior. The church occupies a very find site overlooking the lake, and is close to the railway station. The Rev. Father O’Donnell, of Gore, will preach on the occasion of the opening ceremony. Special trains, at excursion fares, will leave Dunedin and Balclutha on Sunday morning at 9.30, arriving at Waihola about 11 o’clock. An efficient choir and orchestra from Dunedin will render the music on the occasion. Our readers are referred to the notice which appears in our advertising columns. “NZ Tablet”, 13 April 1899.
The site of the church was situated at the top of Nore Street, Waihola, overlooking a spectacular view of Lake Waihola & surrounding area. Access could be obtained by a rather narrow winding lane appropriately named “Chapel Lane” that climbed what is now a rather steep Nore Street. The church was finally opened for worship on Sunday the 16th of April 1899, there being 1,000 persons present on that occasion. Father O’Niell officiated at the opening ceremony. WAIHOLA NEW CATHOLIC CHURCH. THE OPENING CEREMONIES It is rarely, if ever, that the pretty township of Waihola presented such an animated appearance as it did on Sunday last, when the new Catholic Church, dedicated to St. Hyacinth, was opened. It was computed that there must have been over 1000 persons present in the township during the day, and of these special trains from Dunedin and Balclutha brought between 700 and 800.
Apart from its sacred character the church is a decided acquisition to the township, as its pleasing Gothic proportions show out well in the picturesque and commanding site on which it stands. The Very Rev. Father O’Neill has been loyally and generously assisted in his efforts by his people, as well as by many outside friends. As a result the church has been handsomely furnished. His Lordship Bishop Verdon presented the fine altar; the Very Rev. Dean O’Leary gave the altar rails; the artistically designed stained-glass windows, with medallions of the Sacred Heart, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Hyacinth, immediately behind the altar, were the gift of the Rev. Father O’Donnell of Queenstown; the Stations of the Cross were given by the Dominican Nuns (Milton), and the carved book stand on the altar by the Dominican Nuns (Dunedin). The stained-glass windows were made by Mr. Fraser, of Dunedin. The site, which is an especially prominent one, was presented by Mr. Phillipowski, a resident of the district. The building will accommodate a congregation of about 300.
It is needless to say that numbers of those who arrived by the excursion train were unable to gain admittance to the church. The ceremonies commenced shortly after 11 o’clock, when a Missa Cantata was celebrated by the Rev. Father Edward O’Donnell (Dunedin). The music on the occasion was Farmer’s Mass in B Flat, which was rendered by a special choir and an orchestra. Mr. E. Eagar conducted, and Mr. O. Nauman was leader of the orchestra. The solo parts were sung by Misses Crane and Crawford (soprano), Misses K. Blaney and K. Moloney (alto), Mr. Sheppard (tenor), Messrs. J. Woods and W. O. Feil (bass). As an offertory piece the orchestra played ‘Der Fruhlingszeit,’ by E. Weissenborn, while at the conclusion of Mass ‘Marche aux Flambeaux’ was played. The music was admirably interpreted and reflected much credit on the performers.
The clergy present were the Very Rev. Father O’Neill, the Rev. Father P. O’Donnell (Gore), Rev. E. O’Donnell (Dunedin), and the Rev. Father Cleary (Dunedin).
The sermon was preached by Rev. P. O’Donnell (Gore). The rev. preacher took for his text the account of the miraculous draught of fishes described in the Gospel. He made an interesting and well-reasoned application of this great miracle to the repugnance which existed between the simple, humble ways which Christ enjoined and the world’s ideal of wealth, comfort, and worldly power. He also showed how Christ teaches the multitude from St. Peter’s barque to-day as he did long ago by the sea of Galilee; and drew the lesson from Christ’s command to St. Peter to let down his nets in the open day, after a night of fruitless toil, that at God’s command we must practice what our holy religion enjoins-fasting, &c.-even when our intellect does not at all times see the reasonableness of the divine commands, ever remembering the large draught; which rewarded the simple faith of St. Peter. When we labour independently of Christ, our toil is in vain, as regards supernatural reward; when it is done under the guidance and direction of God, it will meet with its reward exceeding great. At the close of an able and instructive discourse, Father O’Donnell congratulated the Very Rev. Father O’Neill on having built such a fine edifice in a district where the Catholics were represented by a few scattered people from far-off Poland. Father O’Neill had erected churches in Mosgiel, Greytown, Catlins, and Balclutha, a convent at Milton, and now this fine edifice at Waihola. The Polish people, though coming from a different land, speaking a different tongue, and having different national customs, would benefit by the ministrations of a warm-hearted Irish priest. There was a bond of sympathy between the Irish and the Polish peoples-a sympathy which sprung from the fact that both had borne centuries of bitter persecution for the faith and remained steadfast under it all. The preacher concluded with a brief biography of the great Polish saint, St. Hyacinth, to whom the church is dedicated. By a happy coincidence, to which the preacher also referred, the opening of the new edifice took place on the seventeenth anniversary of Father O’Neill’s ordination to the priesthood.
The total cost of the building is about £220, whilst the amount in hand, including subscriptions received on Sunday (£80), is about £120. Mr. Barty, of Balclutha, prepared the plans and specifications of the building, and Mr. J. Agnew, of the same place, was the builder. After the ceremony some of the visitors made the most of the fine weather in seeing the various points of interest in the neighbourhood, whilst others were entertained with sacred selections by the orchestra. A start was made for Dunedin by the visitors at 5 o’clock, the city being reached in good time. “NZ Tablet”, 20th April 1899.
August Orlowski, local carpenter of Waihola, had helped the builder, Mr. J. Agnew, do the major construction work on the church. Later on August did all the repairs on his own accord. Paul Baumgardt also supported, and voluntarily assisted in the building of the church. Paul presented to the church of “St Hyacinth” the bell. It’s tolling could be heard throughout Waihola calling its parishioners to mass.
It is also noted that August helped build the Waihola Hall and was regarded as a wonderful tradesman of the old class. He had only a few basic tools and no modern machinery. In appreciation of the work that had been done to the church, the Parish presented August a bible which is still in the family today.
The church was open for the Polish settlers to pray there during the week, there being no resident priest in Waihola at any time. Holy mass was celebrated by visiting priests who mostly came from Milton usually on Sundays. A very neat statue of the Blessed Virgin was recently presented to the church of St. Hyacinth, Waihola, by Mrs. Captain Bernech, Dunedin. The statue was blessed on the feast of All Saints by the pastor, Rev. Father O’Neill, and a fervent Rosary in the Polish language for the donor was then offered up. “NZ Tablet”, 9 November 1899.
Hyacinth Wisnesky was born on the 21st of April 1900, the son of Bernard & Henreitte Wisnesky, being the first child to be baptised at the Waihola Church.
He recalls his grandparents, father and auntie Anna, (who never married), look after his sister & himself after the death of their mother during the birth of his sister Ada Katarzyna on the 9th of May 1905. The small farm his grandparents owned in Waihola could not keep the family therefore his grandfather worked for the railways on the line up to Middlemarch. In 1907, when his grandfather was about 70 years of age Hyacinth stayed home looking after about 200 chickens and chopping firewood for his grandfather. When he was about 7-10 years old he used to drive a horse-cart or sledge for his grandfather, collecting firewood or cutting ripe grass for grass-seeds. As a boy Hyacinth also used to help Mr. August Orlowski by holding the ladder for him when he was doing repairs to the church. While at home in Waihola the old people including his father (Bernard Wisnesky), and Aunt Anna, used the Polish language. Between themselves, they spoke about Poland but never to Hyacinth. It is noted that Michael Wisnesky was the real leader of the Waihola Community. He used to ring the church-bell on occasions such as funerals, etc. All visiting priests used to have breakfast at their home where all the meetings were also held. Johann Orlowski had gifted to the church four large candle sticks and made the two milking stools. In 1921 his nephew, August Orlowski (son of the original builder) presented to the church a water-font made of Oamaru stone.
It is believed that one of the “Palmerston” immigrants brought out with them from Poland the Picture of the Holy Mary of Perpetual Succour. This was presented and still hangs in the church today. The writing below the picture has the following words: “CUDOWNY OBRAZ NAJSWIETSZEJ MARYJI PANNY OD USTAWICZNEJ POMOCY W KOSCIELE SW. ALFONSA W. RZYMIE. ARTYSTYCZNEGO ZAKLADU C.F. CALOWA W KOLONII.” (Miraculous Picture of the Holy Mary of Perpetual Succour, as it hangs in the Church of St. Alfons in Rome. Made by C.F. Calowa in the artistic studio in Coln.) This picture could be the oldest of it’s kind in New Zealand.
On Sundays Anna Wisnesky (nee Orlowski) allowed no physical work and this was very strictly observed in the family. Michael Wisnesky used to read extracts from the bible in Polish. He could read Polish but not German or English. When they needed a letter written in German or English they asked Mr. Hilgendorf of Waihola for help. Hyacinth remembers two such occasions. Aunt Anna Wisnesky, (daughter to Michael & Anna), was the organist and washed the altar linen and cleaned the church. She was very distraught & upset when the church was moved to Broad Bay in 1948. Due to all the original Polish settlers passing on, and most of their children moving to bigger centres for work, the number of Catholics at Waihola diminished sharply. From about 1918 onwards , no Mass was celebrated in the Church. Father Michael Howard, later to become Monsignor Howard in Invercargill, was the last visiting priest. However, it wasn’t uncommon on passing the church just to pop in for a short prayer. The Church Authorities decided to shift the church to Broad Bay in Dunedin, where a number of Catholics were without a church. It is believed the church was removed by truck on the 17th of March 1948 (St Patricks Day). During the haul the workers stopped off at the Henley Hotel for a quick one before continuing on their way. The bell tower was dismantled during the removal of the church and was sent down to the Catholic Church in Balclutha. It was during April 1999 that this bell had been located & re-purchased by the Bungard family & re-located to its rightful place in time for the church’s centenary celebrations which were held in May of 1999. On the 7th of November 1948 the church was re-opened for service as “Mary Queen of Peace”, the right Rev. Mgr. Delany, V.G., officiating at the ceremony.
The stained glass windows, which the Polish settlers of Waihola and Catholics of Broad Bay were so rightly proud of, were unfortunately, broken by vandals in the early 1960’s and replaced by plain green glass. Fortunately, during 2001, these windows have been authentically recreated and once again dominate the church thanks to the Broad Bay community and especially to the Polish Community of Dunedin and the descendants of those early pioneers. The altar was changed to face the congregation on the 21st of September 1968, and the first Mass in the new way was celebrated there on the 28th of July 1968. Since 1995 the church has provided a place of worship for the Polish community of Dunedin & descendants together with the locals of Broad Bay.