One of the questions frequently asked by visitors to Iona Church is whether there is a connection to Iona and its abbey in Scotland. The quick answer is yes and no. On the face of it Iona Port Chalmers is an entirely separate entity. Iona does however, indirectly is linked through taking the same name given to the tiny Hebridean island.
It is useful to remember that Iona is not the first church to stand on the site – two earlier churches both stood above the hill, and neither of them were named Iona.(Johnstone Hall which is joined to Iona was the second church, named after the first minister – Glaswegian Rev William Johnstone.) Otago was however a Scottish settlement and just as we all like familiarity, our creature comforts, and reminders of the town we grew up in, so did the Scottish settler. Dunedin was made more “homely” by including reminders of home, making their new life feel just a little bit more familiar.
The name Iona is one example of keeping the memory of home alive. St Columba too had left his home in Ireland, exiled in 563 AD after being threatened by clerics and ex-communication during a tribal feud. He took his teachings and knowledge of Christianity with him, settling on the island of Iona. He built his monastery as a place of learning and, during the next 35 years spread the word of God throughout the British Isles and parts of Europe.
Anglicans, Catholics and Protestants have all made connections to Iona and St Columba. The protestant tradition in Scotland was firmly established in Presbyterianism, the key denomination of immigrants to Dunedin and Otago. In 1848 the first ships to arrive in Port Chalmers carried many new Scottish immigrants. Quickly after arriving in Dunedin Rev Thomas Burns, the nephew of Robbie himself, held services at the port. Within 4 years a Presbyterian church was built upon this site, establishing the roots of the Free Church of Scotland. It was the second Presbyterian church in Otago, second to First Church in Dunedin. Far away from home, in a strange place on the other side of the world, the indirect link from Columba’s evangelism was created with New Zealand.
Iona Church, Columba College, Iona (Havelock North) and Iona Rest Home (Oamaru) are all Presbyterian institutions. Education and the church were important to the Scots and perhaps this tells you how they viewed Columba too. Other Scottish tie include “ Knox” Church and College, street names (including Princes and George Street, Stuart Street) and suburbs (Corstorphine, Roslyn and Glenleith).