My first book published in 1975 was entitled, “Churches of Van Diemen’s Land” – (a history). In the book I dealt with the history of forty two historic churches, beside the oldest continuous synagogue in Australia situated in Hobart.
The book contained churches from the main denominations such as Anglican, Catholic, Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist, the latter three amalgamating in to the Uniting Church some years ago.
1975 was a long time ago now and since then, many of those churches contained in the book have been closed with more to come. Those already closed included the Anglican and Congregational Churches in Broadmarsh, the most historic Back River Chapel, the Hestercombe Chapel at Granton and to be closed the most beautiful and quaint, St Mary’s Church, Gretna.
Church closers, particularly of the Anglican and Uniting denominations are not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on for years with a number of these churches being closed much to the chagrin of their parishioners. I have been involved in a number of churches in an effort to preserve them, such as St Maraget’s Church, Risdon, The old Congregational Church, Old Beach, churches in Launceston and Trinity Church North Hobart, which fortunately is now being used as Greek Orthodox. I say “fortunately” because it is still being used as a place or worship. I have recently been contacted regarding the future closure of St Matthias, Windermere East Tamar built in 1843 and is unique- as many are – in its architecture. A number of churches were designed by convict architect, James Blackburn.
The recent publication in The Mercury shocked me with the number of churches to be closed, such as the magnificent St Michael All Angels Church, Bothwell and St Andrews Church, Evandale (both of which are covered in my book), and St Stephens Church Sandy Bay, beside so many others. It is all so sad. Many of these historic and beautiful churches contain cemeteries in which numerous pioneers are buried.
I am aware church attendances are down and that many of these churches and halls, built by our settlers were in rural areas when transportation and communication was primitive. Modern transport allows parishioners to attend churches in other communities without a great deal of inconvenience. It has been reported that the selling by the Anglicans of many, of their churches and properties is to pay compensation to those ‘abused’ by members of the church. However, I also understand that amounts to 25 per cent of the revenue raised, so where does the rest go?
What does all this actually mean? It means a huge loss of heritage and the passing of an era. When our pioneers settled in an area, they did two things. They erected (not in order) the church for worship and the hotel….one, as I often have said, to sin in and the other to repent in. Joking aside, it does state quite dramatically the intention and desires of our early society. There was obviously a conflict in values, but both equally and important as each other. There were thousands of taverns and hotels in olden days, many more than now as there were churches. Many of the former still survive, seemingly in a much healthier way than our churches. This does reflect upon modern values and wants in comparison to previous generations.
Many of the churches now are homes, craft shops, retail outlets and cafes/restaurants and some are simply derelict. A number have been allowed to crumble beyond repair, such as St Mary’s Bridgewater. When I did my book that particular church was full of wood carvings, performed by artist Ernest Osborne whom I interviewed. What has happened to these pieces of work? What happens to the pews, plaques, wall tablets, fonts, war memorials, etc, etc. of these churches when they close and are purchased? This is a major concern.
I often wonder what those pioneers would think of what is happening today. Would they approve or understand or would they shake their heads in bewilderment? I believe the latter.
I am not a church goer, but I have a respect for religion, particularly the Christian religion which has given so much to us. As I was growing up we were not a church family, but the church was always there, particularly for christenings, confirmations and weddings. It shaped our consciousness and sense of what was right and wrong. Since the demise of that influence, society in my opinion has lost its way.
I cannot help to be critical of those who make the decisions to sell and close down such edifices. I am aware of the effect it has on existing congregations and very aware of even the anger it produces. Such as was the case with the selling of Trinity which went against the wishes of the parishioners as is the current case with St Mathias.
Christianity came to Tasmania with Lt John Bowen who settled at Risdon Cove in 1803. The first Christmas service was held there in December, by the order of Governor Philip Gidley King of Sydney. The first church was erected in Hobart with David Collins. This shows the importance on the inherited religion placed by our early settlers. Yet today even by our church leaders, it appears such emphasises are missing.
When my book was published way back then, Tasmanian historian and author, G. Hawley Stancombe wrote the foreword. He finished off by writing, “This book will hope to remind us of this (why our ancestors built and believed as they did) and perhaps point a way to the future”.
Hopefully it will remind us of what was, but unfortunately it has not pointed a way to the future.