Jemma & Alex - The Last Church of Āpiti

Gemma standing in the doorway at Apiti Church.

Jemma & Alex of The Last Church of Āpiti

Kiwis Jemma Brackebush and Alexander Robertson of Palmerston North are a busy pair. They have created one of Palmerston North’s quirkiest, quaintest and most lovable accommodation options: The Last Church in Āpiti.

Images by: Alexander Brackebush

Kiwis Jemma and Alexander Robertson and are a busy pair. In 2018 they moved back to Aotearoa after living in the US and started a search for their first home - a task that many New Zealanders know isn’t an easy one. In the end they found not only a home, but a church, a reno project of epic proportion and a chance to combine all of their skills as they created one of Palmerston North’s quirkiest, quaintest and most lovable accommodation options: The Last Church in Āpiti.

Where are you both from originally? 

Jemma: I grew up in Pukekohe, south Auckland.

Alexander: I grew up in Palmerston North but my home is my family farm in Rangiwahia.

When you're not maintaining The Last Church in Āpiti what are you up to?

Jemma: The Last Church in Āpiti keeps us extremely busy as we’re managing the property ourselves and completing the finishing touches on the place, like new gardens, a courtyard, an outdoor bathtub and brazier area. We want to make it the most beautiful space for people to relax, enjoy and reconnect with nature.

We’ve recently moved into another quirky property, a converted post office in a nearby village Kimbolton, which has allowed us to run the Last Church in Āpiti as a full time boutique accommodation destination, so we’re slowly making our new home feel like ours.

When we’re not in Kimbolton or Āpiti, we can often be found at one of our favourite places, Alex’s family farm up the road in Rangiwahia. We frequently head there on the weekends planting and maintaining trees and doing jobs around the farm like pest control and also the most important job of them all: caring for the Ian McKean Pinetum, the largest collection of conifers in the southern hemisphere that Alex’s late Grandpa planted.

Our days jobs are a lot of fun too, I work in communications and Alex is a photographer and videographer.

How did you find yourselves restoring the church in Āpiti? Did you have prior hospitality experience?

Jemma: We had moved back to New Zealand after living in the US (New York and Colorado) and were searching for our first home. We weren’t having much luck when a friend of Alex’s told us her friend was selling an old church and sunday school in a little village called Āpiti, which we knew well as it’s only 20 minutes from the farm. We loved the idea of buying something really quirky, close to the farm and it was far more affordable than houses we’d been looking at in Palmerston North. We fell in love with it when we first saw it and despite the size of the project ahead of us, we dived straight in.

We have both worked in hospitality in the past, including when we lived in the US, so running the place is a fun combination of all of our skills: communication, marketing, advertising, photography and videography, liaising with guests, coming up with new ideas to enhance the place. We love travelling and meeting new people, so being able to host them in Āpiti and share what is one of our favourite parts of New Zealand is something we feel very lucky for.

What do guests love about this spot?

Jemma: I think guests are surprised at how relaxing and eclectic the space is. They can switch off, relax and unwind in front of the roaring fire and they seem fascinated by all of our quirky knick knacks we’ve collected over the years from op shops or from family. Many guests come from Wellington and obviously aren’t used to being completely immersed in a little rural village surrounded by farmland with clean, mountain air. I think it’s refreshing and rejuvenating and you’re forced to just enjoy a slower pace of life (even if it’s just for a few nights - many people say they wish they’d stayed longer!).

Alex: They also love the bathtub. But the Last Church in Āpiti is more than the stay, it’s about discovering Northern Manawatū wonderland of nature in the Ruahine Ranges where there are short and long walks and it’s also home to the elusive and endemic Whio duck, glow worm caves, wetlands, the Ian McKean Pinetum, glorious swimming holes and so much more. Everyone says how much they enjoyed the nature on offer in the wider area and they all say they want to return as there were too many activities to tick off the list in one trip.

What are some of your favourite things to do in and around Palmerston North and the Manawatū?

Jemma: I love taking our dog Riff Raff for walks down by the Manawatū River, it’s always bustling with people in the mornings and evenings and it feels so relaxing. The new bridge He Ara Kotahi has been the best addition, as well as the path all the way to Linton Army Camp.

I enjoy meeting up with friends for lunch or dinner at any of the delicious cafes (LOCAL Café, Saigon Corner, Square Edge), restaurants and bars in Palmerston North. A craft beer at Brew Union on a bustling Thursday or Friday is always a treat.  

I’m also a massive fan of the op shops in Palmerston North and Feilding, they’re seriously filled with so many gems that we’ve incorporated into our properties. 

Alex: We are spoiled with a fantastic city and diverse and stunning nature at our doorstep for mountain biking and hiking (Arapuke Mountain Bike Park, Te Apiti - Manawatū Gorge, Rangiwahia Scenic Reserve, Ian McKean Pinetum, to name a few) to reset the batteries over the weekend.