The oldest working altar frontal at Old St Paul’s has been in use for 82 years, ever since the altar was extended for the Duke of Gloucester’s visit to Wellington in 1934. It is the beautiful Festival Altar Frontal — an interesting object because it is still being used today even though it is so fragile. It decorates the altar at the top of St Paul’s Church every Easter and Christmas.
We can enjoy this gorgeous piece of embroidery thanks to two women from different eras: Emily Steele and Rangi Te Kanawa.
It was made by Emily Steele, a well-known church embroiderer from Johnsonville. Emily was a tireless member of Wellington church society and a woman with ‘pungent wit, but a very kind heart’. You can only imagine the type of character she must have been to have ‘pungent’ wit! However, she was also humble, and ‘was not the sort to wish for a lot of fuss’. A senior member of her church said ‘it was a pleasure to visit Miss Steele and receive her charming hospitality’.
At one ceremony held by the Wellington Diocesan Synod in 1936, Emily was invited to attend, and the entire diocese paid tribute to her ‘long arduous and generous labours’ which had ‘added to the beauty of worship’. The clergy who worked in churches which had benefited from her work were asked to stand up as a tribute, and more than 20 did so. At the time of the ceremony she was working on projects for eight different churches. Her obituary in 1940 said that she worked tirelessly for her own church, St John’s in Johnsonville, but:
it was her skill in church embroidery that has made Miss Steele’s name known from one end of the country to the other. She made beautiful altar frontals for a large number of churches, probably not short of 100, besides making stoles for many of the clergy. This was entirely a labour of love; she never accepted a penny for any of her work beyond the cost of materials. The little time she had left over from her church work she devoted to music, of which she had a great knowledge.
Emily Steele did a grand job of embroidering the Old St Paul’s altar frontal, but it did deteriorate with continual use. In 2010 all the frontals were conserved and stabilised by Ngati Maniapoto conservator Rangi Te Kanawa (in a project funded by the Friends of Old St Paul’s). Rangi cleaned the water stains and repaired the fine embroidery in a unique setting, in front of the public, answering questions as she worked (most of the questions came from Old St Paul’s hosts!).
Rangi is a talented Te Papa conservator. She comes from a line of weavers: her mother, Diggeress Rangituatahi Te Kanawa, and grandmother, Dame Rangimārie Hetet, were leading Māori weavers. Rangi was then possibly always going to work with textiles. She said weaving harakeke (flax) ‘was just a very natural part of my home life. I have that background so I have a tendency to fall straight into the responsibility of caring for Maori textiles’. She began conservation in 1986, and has experience in England conserving King William III’s bed canopy. She has specialised in the damaging black die used on Maori cloaks.
When Rangi worked on the Old St Paul’s project, she commented: ‘I have a huge admiration for the craftsmanship of the original works. The work is actually a lot finer’.
This is a testament to the skill of Emily Steele and all those who made the frontals.
These two woman came from different backgrounds. However, both are now inseparably linked to the beautiful Festival Altar Frontal still used at Easter and Christmas in Old St Paul’s.
Sources: Evening Post, 20 July 1938, p7; Evening Post, 4 June 1940, p.12; ‘Tender touch resurrects church fabric’, Dominion 2 Oct 2010, Archives NZ.
Image: Heritage New Zealand