I thought it would be interesting to look at what was happening at St Paul’s for Christmas 100 years ago, in December 1915, during some of the worst times of the First World War. It was in 1915 that the first New Zealand troops saw combat, and in April the terrible events at Gallipoli changed New Zealand forever. Indeed it was in December 1915, just in time for Christmas, when the authorities in London finally ordered the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula; the campaign had cost New Zealand nearly 7,500 casualties, including 2,779 dead.
A small article in the Wellington newspaper the Evening Post published the day before Christmas reflected the torn loyalties of people over Christmas that year:
Many people feel rather a difficulty in deciding what to do in the matter of Christmas greetings this year. It seems heartless to talk about ‘A Merry Christmas’ when the world is so full of suffering and tragedy … It is generally agreed to give the children as good a time as possible for they have done all kinds of patriotic work cheerfully and efficiently, and need not be kept so constantly in mind of the world’s sorrows.
The article finished with the thought that the New Year would bring an end of the war, and peace to the world; little did they know the further tragedy to follow soon after, as the New Zealand men were moved to the Western Front.
At St Paul’s on Christmas Day, the church was inundated with people: the newspaper noted that the Christmas services in 1914, the first Christmas of the war, had seen large numbers of attendees, and in 1915 there was a large increase even on that number. The newspapers noted that the church was very handsomely decorated. There were four services that day; a 7am and 8am Holy Communion, an 11am Matins, and a 7.30pm Evensong.
St Paul’s Church Hall
The large Sydney Street Hall, which was St Paul’s church hall, had been commandeered over the war years to become the Soldier’s Club. The club was run by the women of Wellington, to give the soldiers a place of rest and recreation conveniently close to the Railway Station for men coming into the city from the Trentham Military Camp, to be their home away from home.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the soldiers were hosted in the hall by hundreds of Wellington women, who undertook shifts to feed them all, including with large Christmas cakes. On Christmas Eve, the newspaper recorded that the only drawback to the hall was that it was not big enough for all the soldiers, but because the weather was so fine a ‘picnic party’ was also held outside. The St Paul’s choir gave a concert of carols, and a dance followed: ‘Although it was a hot night, and khaki is warm and boots are heavy, the dance was well partonised all evening, and both soldiers and girls seemed thoroughly happy’.
The Governor General and his wife, and the Mayor of Wellington and his wife, came to visit, and the Governor General read a message to the troops from the King. That night, so many troops partied in the city that there was nowhere for them to sleep the night, and they returned to the club for somewhere to stay.
The next day, Christmas Day, the women worked in shifts from 9 in the morning until 11.30 at night,to provide Christmas food to the troops, with ‘the rooms being continuously crowded’. This work must have taken a huge effort, and the newspaper stated that it was all very successfully done. (The building where this occurred was many years later moved and became the hall of Thorndon School.)
Just before Christmas that year, the largest ordination thus far occurred at the church, when 9 men were ordained into the church. It was observed by the minister of St Paul’s, the Rev Johnson, that some might think it better that these men fight in the war, rather than become clergy and therefore become exempt from service. However, he said it was more important for experienced clergy to become chaplins to the forces overseas, as the troops needed chaplins ‘who had learned to understand men and their religious needs’. Therefore, he said, these nine men were needed to take the place of those clergy going overseas, and indeed that by taking this decision and staying home in New Zealand these men had taken a ‘greater sacrifice’ than going to the war.
Featured Image – the church as painted at around the time of World War One, by Ethel Grady. Ref: [Interior of Old St Paul’s Church, Wellington. 1920s?]. C-014-001. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22874755