Image for A Heritage lost ... ?

*Pic: Interior of St Luke’s Church Bothwell (1830) which used to be used for both Presbyterian and Anglican before the latter built their own church.

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Swansea Anglican Church, All Saints.  Built in 1871 this is the second church on the location.

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A well kept wooden church, Presbyterian Winkleigh, west Tamar….this church is under threat of closure.

The closure of old historic churches and sell-offs has been a concern for a long time. My first book Churches of Van Diemen’s Land – a history,  was published in 1975.  I wrote the history of 42 churches and of the Jewish Synagogue.  Many of those churches, which were operating in the 1970s, have now closed.

Some remain derelict; others are now private homes, restaurants, retail outlets and craft shops.  To a degree one can say, well at least they are preserved as a building.  The other concern, however, are the numerous plaques, tablets, glass stained windows and memorials contained in these churches heralding those past ministers, congrationalists, pioneers and those who are honoured for their war time effort usually from WWI.  Perhaps it is time for these to be recorded including photographically. For instance, the old Congregational church at Pontville (now a restaurant) has a wall tablet honouring Harry Hodgman, possibly the first Australian who was killed at Gallipoli.

The continuing Congregational Church at Richmond, a fine sandstone building, has just recently closed.  It is now a retail outlet.

I often wonder what the early pioneers, so dedicated to their faith who built these churches, would think of how we now treat them. 

I believe they would be aghast.

I can fully understand why some churches have to be closed … low attendance and with modern transport people can now travel a distance to a church in the next town. In colonial days of course, when a town developed first (or vice versa) came the church then the tavern/hotel.  One to sin in and the other to repent in.

Close communities geographically had their own churches, such as Ross and Campbell Town, Carrick and Westbury, Colebrook and Campania, Moonah and Glenorchy, to provide some examples.

Some of these old churches are architectural gems and I have been involved in endeavouring to preserve some of them from outright destruction, such as St Mary’s Anglican, Bridgewater. This church had some marvellous wooden carvings and I am not too sure what has happened to them. And what happens to the pews?  The old and very historical Primitive Methodist chapel, with windows only on one side, at Tunbridge is now just a shell.

Churches that have closed and to be closed primarily belong to the Anglican faith, the Catholic and the Uniting, which previously was the old Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist.

Anglican churches that have also closed are St Lukes Judbury, St Peters Blackmans Bay and to be closed, St John the Baptist in Branxholm.

The very historical church with its remarkable stainglass window at St John the Baptist, Buckland.  There is the belief that the stainglass window is many hundreds of years old.  The window was preserved from destruction from Oliver Cromwell’s puritan troops by hiding and storing it.  Later it was sent to St Johns and mounted. Whether the story is true or not, what will happen to this window?

Numerous churches throughout the State have ceased to exist and we see them as we drive around.  One is St Johns, Ross and both Anglican and Congrational churches at Broadmarsh are now just a memory.  The Uniting church at Old Beach and the chapel at Dysart have joined the ranks as has the oldest Congrational church in Australia, Hestercombe at Granton.  By memory I believe the church at Kempton is closed and there had been threats to close St Johns at New Town, St George’s at Battery Point and St Mary’s at Moonah.  Fortunately these still remain open. Attention has been centred on the Cathedral St David’s to ensure its viable future. Driving through Campbell Town recently I noticed another old church had been sold, either the Anglican or what was the Presbyterian, a wonderful structure. A blue stone chapel in main street of that town is now a private dwelling.  And I am not too sure about St Michaels and All Angles at Bothwell.

A number of these churches have cemeteries attached such as in St Johns Franklin (to be sold) and the old Congregational at Bagdad which is now a private home. One wonders what happens to these.  After all, the old cemeteries gave a social history of the local town, with the tombstone inscription often telling the deceased’s life story.

Sadly, the very historical Bobby Knopwood church at Rokeby has now closed as has the equally historical church which served the First Fleeters in its day, the Back River Chapel near New Norfolk.  The greatest sadness was when the second cathedral in Hobart, Trinity closed much to the chagrin of its parishioners.  Fortunately the Greek Orthodox people have now taken over, but it is still in need of repair.

St Margaret’s church was under threat, an old wooden structure at Risdon, which I helped to be preserve with the assistance of the media by drawing attention to its historic value. I can’t help but think that some of these building are deliberately let go, so that the consensus is, it is now too dangerous and too expensive to keep open; this also equates to old houses, such as Chigwell House, which again with the help of the media was eventually repaired and saved.

So when a church closes down what happens to the records? Hopefully they are given to either to the archives at St David’s or to the State Archives.  What happens to the traditions?  Memories of church fairs, bazaars, social evenings, Sunday school presentations, after church picnic luncheons, christenings, weddings, fade. What happens to the elderly congrationalists who attend?  Where do they go now and how do they get there?

Many of the smaller more remote churches are a memory.  Gone are the hymns sung, the sermons preached and the well known and often colourful characters who attended.  True, things have changed dramatically in society.  Christianity was important to our pioneers, but we have become rapidly a secular society.  The passing of churches must amount to dozens and dozens in Tasmania with many more under threat.  Once these goes, much of the local history goes. 

Does it matter? 

In a worldly sense perhaps no … but in a spiritual, historic and social sense, very much so.

*Reg A Watson is a Tasmanian historian and author.