Obituary: Christine Pickering

Oct 12th, 2017 | By | Category: Latest News, Local People
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OBITUARY: Mary Christine Pickering, March 18, 1935 – October 2, 2017
By Charles Riddle

Christine Pickering lived a life of service to her family, her community, her church, and to many New Zealanders she did not know, and would never meet.

Christine Pickering


Hers was a way of living that many today would see as quaintly old-fashioned and out-of-step with the neo-liberal zeitgeist of the “individual before others” so prevalent in modern society.

Her community work should probably not be measured in money, but it is true that Christine helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars over more than four decades for a range of charities: Hospice Waikato, Red Cross, Save the Children, The Bible Society, SPCA, Guide Dogs, and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter.

She was the self-effacing matriarch of a large group of 60 or more women (and some men) who met year-round, every week, to bake, sew, and craft Christmas-themed wares to sell at market, and to decorate Tamahere’s St Stephen’s church.

One of those men was Christine’s equally self-effacing husband, and All Black, Rex, who, in 1960, returned from South Africa with diamonds for Christine’s engagement ring prior to their marriage in November 1960.

The Pickerings joined the St Stephen’s Tamahere parish in 1971, not long after the 19th century church had been razed by an arsonist. The couple got involved with fundraising for a new building and, essentially, never stopped their charitable work.

In 1986 Christine and a group of about 12 ran a fundraiser harvest festival at St Stephen’s, followed by the first Christmas festival. They decorated the church and sold Christmas crafts in the hall; the word spread, people came to buy, a couple of charities benefited, and the project continued each year, drawing in more helpers.

In 1999, the group moved their displays and crafts to the Cambridge Town Hall, starting a Christmas event which now attracts thousands of visitors to carol singing choirs and a spectacular display of Christmas as “it used to be” (and still can be), before snow-in-a-can, computer-generated singing cards, and plastic glow-in-the-dark elves. Think handmade Christmas tree decorations, wreaths, angels, quilts, table runners, tea cosies …

And then, some years back, the Cambridge Hall event well established, the indefatigable Christine brought her talents back to St Stephen’s.

It is a tribute to her hard work that this year the festival, now world-famous throughout the Waikato, will run again at the church thanks to a group of women, many in their 80s, who were brought together by her charm and organisational skills.

The festival’s success lies in part in Rex’s somewhat unusual wedding anniversary present to Christine. The usual gift for 25 married years is something in silver. Rex built Christine a big flower barn, where she could make and sell everlasting flowers to raise money for two charities: the Red Cross, and Save the Children Fund. It was this barn that was to become the central meeting place for hundreds of keen crafters down the years.

When Christine was farewelled this week in a packed St Andrew’s, Cambridge, the friends present were asked to raise one hand if they had worked in her barn. Every woman, it seemed to Bev Greene, a friend of Christine’s for more than 50 years, raised her hand.

“Just all around me there was this forest. It just blew me away to know so many women had been involved. I knew down the years there would have been lots of girls involved, but I had no idea how many,” Bev said.

Bev said the women who met weekly on Christine’s property were proud to be known as the “barn girls”.

About 18 years back, the event had outgrown St Stephen’s and moved to the Cambridge Town Hall. The administration grew too, and the Cambridge event is now run under the auspices of two charitable trusts.

However, some years ago, Christine withdrew from the Cambridge festival, and, after a hiatus of about a year, returned to St Stephen’s, where she felt more at home and closer to the spirit of the season.

When Christine and Rex moved to a retirement village, Bev helped move the barn’s contents. “I made a promise,” said Bev, “to keep the groups going when she packed up and shifted. It near broke her heart to pack up the barn, we took everything to St Stephen’s hall.”

In 2014, after petitioning from the St Stephen’s community, Waikato Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley presented a letter of recognition from the Anglican Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki to Christine and Rex, noting their many contributions, commitments, and initiatives – including the rebuilding of the church, the subsequent expansion of the church and hall, the establishment of the influential “Wednesday-School” attended by hundreds of Tamahere School children, and the Christmas Festival supported by year-round craft and fellowship activities in the barn.

The citation ended by acknowledging the couple’s self-effacing, low-key, and team approach: “For your humble, gracious willingness to serve Christ’s church, regardless of recognition or personal reward, we offer you our most sincere thanks.”

If some of the barn girls had got their way, Christine would have been nominated for a civic award as well. But the consensus was clear: the very private Christine, who was adroit at sidestepping inquiries about herself, would not have wanted the attention, and would have been horrified by being placed centre stage.

Her funeral service order encapsulated this private woman. There was no photograph, as is common practice, on the front of the sheet, and a family photograph on the back, with Christine one of those in the second row.

Christine, says St Stephen’s congregant Jane Manson, was someone who did not seek the limelight.

“But when Christine set her mind to something, she did it. She brought people together, set a goal, that’s what she did. A lot of people want to do things, but don’t want to be the leader. Christine was a leader, especially for the festival. She would keep a close eye on the detail, what to make and do. Everything had to be well made or it would not go in.”

There are two groups who continue to meet in St Stephen’s hall to prepare for this year’s festival. The Wednesday group are the older barn girls – almost all of them are in their 80s or 90s. The Thursday group is much younger – they are in their 70s.

For now, Christine’s festival is in many pairs of safe hands.

Christine was the dear wife and best friend of the late Rex. Loved mother of Andrew, Matthew and Tessa. Loved mother-in-law of Jodi, Hilary, and Brian. Proud grandmother of Daniel and Jessica; Mason and Justin; Aoife, Ben, and Ciara.

* A Life Story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape the Waikato community. If you know of someone whose life story should be told, please email Charles.riddle@wintec.ac.nz

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