While travelling in central western New South Wales last weekend, I took time to visit a couple of old churches. Both churches were in close proximity to their cemeteries. As if not wanting to vacate the church premises altogether when death came calling, the graves of some of the former congregation members cluster literally in the church shadows. I suppose the graves further away from the church probably contained the free thinkers of the parish.
Exploring old churches and cemeteries can become rather addictive. I have previously visited St John’s Anglican Church at Georges Plains, located not far from Bathurst. It had been a quick, late afternoon visit last year and I wanted to return.
Designed by Bathurst based architect Edward Gell, the church was built in 1867. Constructed mainly of rough faced, irregular sized and variously coloured stone blocks, it is a very attractive and interesting looking building. The old, rust stained corrugated roofing sheets are trimmed with delicate, ironwork along the roof line. There is a simple design to the iron cross which hovers kite-like above one end of the church, while being dwarfed by a high, wooden bell tower. The tower’s iron steeple is topped by another finely crafted iron cross. I also noticed a long, thin stone buttress that supports the back wall.
Apparently St John’s has not been used as a church for many years. It is now just an empty shell, with all its internal trappings long removed.
The other church visited, and this one for the first time, is situated at Kirkconnell, between Lithgow and Bathurst.
A modest construction, St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church is made of weatherboard, with a high pitched corrugated iron roof. It hides away along a dirt road that meanders through a forest. The church is surrounded by grave stones, on a large, cleared piece of land. There were two old chairs beside the entrance to the church when I visited. I hope that the next time I am there, I find a local sitting in one of the chairs ready to share with me this old church’s story.
Returning from Victoria in late January 2016, I left the Hume Highway at Coolac and headed up to Cootamundra. Just north from there is the township of Wallendbeen where I noticed a modest, boarded up church. Stopping to take a photograph, I saw that there was no signage to identify the building. Fenced off on a hillside in a paddock, this lonely, discarded little church of local granite stone appeared to have lost its identity and use.
I later discovered that the building had been a Presbyterian church, subscription funded, built in 1882 and closed in 1948. Miles away, under the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in November 1948, I was baptised at St John the Baptist Church of England in Milsons Point. The realisation that this little church at Wallendbeen had never functioned as a church in my life time, saddened me.
This once valued and loved building, a social and spiritual hub of the area and a significant part of many people’s lives, was now lost in the landscape.
‘They have one of the neatest little churches to be found in any part of a country parish’, the Lithgow Mercury of 5 June 1906 proudly proclaimed about the newly built St Matthews Roman Catholic Church at Lowther. This once thriving area of farmers, graziers and loggers is situated on the road to the Jenolan Caves. Built in 1905, St Matthews Church was opened and consecrated in June the following year.
Erected on stone foundations, this quaint building is comprised of galvanised iron, steel-lined interior and polished New Zealand pine floor boards. It was named after the local priest Father Matthew Hogan, who worked so hard to see it built. Able to seat a congregation of about 100, it replaced an older church which had been moved from Mt Victoria about 35 years previously. In 1906 the parish still owed about half the building cost of 200 pounds. A social dance, at which the ‘Depression Chasers’ Orchestra from Oberon provided the music, was still needed in September 1934 to aid the Church fund.
Church buildings such as those at Wallendbeen and Lowther did not just materialise overnight. Their construction usually required great effort, cost and tireless commitment from their congregations. And they fulfilled a need, for they were wanted. Sometimes all this is forgotten when we stumble on a lovely little church like St Matthews, set in a picturesque location but now is closed and deserted.
The Australian poet Geoff Page begins his Back-road Churches poem with the unequivocal observation:
Out on the back-roads
the churches are dying.
Published back in 1975, we could now justifiably replace ‘dying’ with ‘dead’, for many of these churches are permanently closed or in various stages of ruin. Some survive as private residences or community centres but in doing so have lost their original identity and function. Now we can also include the many churches on the main-roads that, as Page says, ‘strain beneath the wind’ in varying stages of ruin.
In Frank McMahon’s poem Ruined Church – Collector, the poet describes the ‘scatter and decay’ that is present in the ruins of a church between Goulburn and Canberra. He reflects on the final day of worship and ‘how it came to this’. The poem finishes with memorable and powerful images, as the congregation:
‘…left the last to leave to shut
abandoned things behind a pointless door.’
For some time now I have been photographing derelict country churches that I see on my travels. They come in all stages of ruin. I always worry that if I don’t take a photograph, on my next visit it will be too late to do so. A number of times that has sadly been the case.
For those of us who stopped attending church many years ago, these buildings still hold indelible memories. The scripture stories and texts, the choruses, the hymns and the fellowship are not easily forgotten or disregarded.
In 2009 I wrote a song about the disappearance of functioning churches from the Australian landscape. I unintentionally echoed the first line of an old hymn I had learnt as a child. It went:
There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
The hymn was written by the Irish writer Cecil Frances Alexander, apparently during the night while nursing her sick daughter. It was published in 1848 in Alexander’s Hymns For Little Children.
In today’s society the role of the established churches do not figure as prominently, if at all, in many people’s lives. But in the past they played a very significant part in the community. They were meeting places and their members were collectively referred to as congregations. They were places of worship, sacred buildings, houses of God where people found sanctuary from life’s tragedies and uncertainties. People experienced the variety of human emotion as lives were informed, influenced, challenged, celebrated, united, comforted, changed and mourned in these buildings.
For some, the churches were places where dogma and inquiry uncomfortably co-existed; where indoctrination and free-thought sometimes inevitably collided. They were places where one’s duty to God and to the state could be severely tested when balanced against taught ideals and the weight of conscience. In times of crises they championed the power of prayer and tested rigorously the faith they nurtured. Whether harvest or drought, birth or death, gain or loss, war or peace, the church was expected to always be there and find some meaning in it all. And now they are quietly vanishing from the landscape, ‘their future … denied’.
In 1959 a movie was made called The Siege of Pinchgut. Much of the filming took place on a small, island fort in the middle of Sydney Harbour.
In the first few months of arrival in 1788, this island was briefly used to confine and punish wayward convicts. While there they had their rations limited to just bread and water. This explains the origin of the name Pinchgut when commonly referring to this small, rocky island.
The need for greater fortification of the settlement resulted in a fort being eventually completed in the 1850s on the island. It was named Fort Denison after the then governor of the colony.
The end of the 1950s was a time of imminent change. The Opera House was soon to begin construction on Bennelong Point. For those of us who lived on the northern shores of the Harbour, our suburb was about to be ripped apart by the building of the Warringah Expressway. So this modest, little thriller has a significant historic value in documenting parts of Sydney before these changes took place. There is an obvious irony to this since the film has at the core of its narrative a terror threat of great destruction to Sydney.
The movie begins as we follow an ambulance from North Sydney to the Harbour Bridge.
The ambulance moves along Bent Street, overlooking Forsyth Park. It then turns into Alfred Street North where it is stopped by a police road-block. Views of Alfred Street steeply ascending on a higher level are seen above this street. This was the way I walked to school each day from High Street. It took me up to St Leonards Park which I then crossed to reach North Sydney Boys High in the 1960s.
We next see the ambulance entering the Pacific Highway from Walker Street. A clear view is captured of the MLC building showing how it dominated the skyline in those days. Its weather beacon is clearly visible with no obstruction from any other buildings.
The way the ambulance in the film has travelled was not a direct route to the bridge from where it was stopped. Instead of continuing along Alfred Street and thereby arriving directly at the Bridge’s northern entrance, the ambulance has gone back up Mount Street before turning into Walker Street. I am so glad this way was chosen since great shots are seen of the buildings on both sides of the Pacific Highway’s approach to the Bridge. Memories rushed back on seeing these long demolished shops and businesses that were the familiar streetscape of my childhood. I was again reminded of the smell of the motor oil and grease that wafted from the car repair shop on the highway. As if on request, the camera pans across and back up the highway and we catch a glimpse of the Post Office tower at Victoria Cross and North Sydney Technical School to the left. The Orpheum Theatre and the adjacent corner milk bar are seen clearly when a police motor bike again stops the ambulance in front of these buildings. I regularly attended the theatre and milk bar on a Saturday afternoon. I saw the last film screened at the Orpheum. Appropriately it was the epic Gone With The Wind.
The policeman then directs the ambulance across Alfred Street, before stopping it at the top of McDougal Street. Wonderful views of Frank Delandro’s Garage are seen. Our last two family cars were purchased and serviced there. We also get to see again the old northern approach to the Bridge, including the overhead arch that carried the trams and then cars.
All these scenes have been erased from the landscape since 1959. They only survive in memory, art works, photographs and films like this one. which have captured the places of my childhood that no longer exist.
The Siege of Pinchgut also inadvertently captures other parts of Sydney that have changed or are no longer. The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot on Bennelong Point is one of the places included. It was demolished in 1959, the year of the film’s release, to make way for the construction of the Opera House. Included also are some of the steep roads, like Northcliff Street, near Luna Park and various shots of the Harbour foreshores. In one scene where the lead detective tries to communicate from a boat with those on Fort Denison, I could make out Careening Cove, Neutral Bay and a rather blurred High Street wharf.
When this film first came out I was just completing primary school. I imagine its PG content would have stopped my parents from allowing me to see it. It was not until the 1970s that it turned up on television. I do not remember the North Sydney footage that was background to the opening scenes. But to be honest I do not remember much about any of the film. Watching the film on DVD earlier this year was therefore a delightful discovery and surprise for me, awakening many childhood memories.
It would be interesting to know how many convicts transported to Australia had any geographic knowledge of where they had been sent. Perhaps most would have had limited or no idea at all, except that the long sea voyage made it apparent that they were far from their homeland.
The belief that some convicts accepted about China being within reasonable reach of the penal settlement was therefore not as delusional as it may have seemed. The convicts travelled a large part of the journey to Australia below deck. This would surely have reduced their sense of distance and direction. Maps of the ‘great south land’ were rudimentary and in some cases based on conjecture.