Columba Presbyterian Church, designed by Oamaru architectural firm Forrester and Lemon in Victorian Academic Classical style and built in 1882-1883, is a landmark building, with aesthetic, architectural, historical and spiritual significance. Its solemn presence emphasises the important role and rapid growth of the Presbyterian Church in nineteenth century Oamaru.
In October 1870, Presbyterians met at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church to discuss building a church for those living in the southern part of the town. After talking about the possibility of acquiring the old Wesleyan Church, the parishioners settled on erecting a stone building on a site in Hull Street. Plans were drawn for a church to hold 180 people at a cost of around £500. In 1882, the congregation voted to build on the present site, with the congregation to be called ‘South Oamaru Presbyterian Church’. In February 1882, Duncan Sutherland purchased the land for the church, and soon after, on 23 March, the Reverend Dr James Macgregor was inducted into the charge. The building committee selected the competition plans of Forrester and Lemon, at a cost of £2700.
More than 800 people attended the opening of Columba Presbyterian Church on 19 July 1883 (the first church service being held on the 15 July). The Otago Daily Times, reported the event describing the ‘handsome, commodious, and substantial structure.’ The church, which seated 800, was 86 feet [26.2 metre] long, 60 feet [18.2 metre] wide, and 48 foot [14.6 metre] high to the ridge of the roof, with a 30 foot [9.1 metre] stud. The main elevation to Wansbeck Street was ‘imposing’ with its ‘four round columns on massive pediments’, flanked by a further two square columns. The internal arrangements were ‘in every respect suitable and chaste.’ The pews were crescent shaped on the raked floor. At the recommendation of Dunedin preacher D.M. Stuart, the church was dedicated to St Columba, commemorating the sixth century evangelist stationed at the Scottish mission of Iona.
A pipe organ was installed in 1903. In 1913, the Sunday School was built to the rear of the church. The church was altered in 1921, with the removal of borer ridden pews, and the addition of a vestibule and organ chamber. Lower rows of windows on the east and west facades were enlarged. A memorial window was installed at the back of the chancel. In 1981, Columba celebrated its centenary, attended by over 1,200 people, with a focus on the youth of the parish, as well as an evening conversazione and a celebratory evening service.
Columba Presbyterian Church is on a prominent corner site overlooking Oamaru Harbour. Architectural historian Conal McCarthy describes it as ‘striking in its uncompromising severity.’ He writes that the Classical style was ‘popular in Scotland for Presbyterian churches, the rectangular plan providing the simple “preaching box” suitable to Presbyterian worship’ and that Forrester was in touch with church design in his native Scotland. The plans show that behind the church is the memorial hall, with vestry, and Sunday School rooms. Two brass rolls of honour commemorate World War One and World War Two.
In 2015, Columba Presbyterian Church remains part of the Waiareka-Weston Presbyterian parish.