Our history: Four Presbyterian Churches named ‘St John’s’ in Bendigo!

2073592-the-word-history-carved-in-stoneYep it’s true! Here’s a fuller account of our history that may explain how and why!

Many of the first settlers in Bendigo were miners who had come to the goldfields in search of their fortune and escape the appalling working conditions in the Welsh mines, or those in Ireland or the cotton mills of Northern England. In 1852, Wesleyan local preachers from Wales had begun tent services at Golden Square, the Roman Catholics likewise met in a tent in McCrae Street and the Church of England also met in a tent in View Street.

Among the settlers were also several well educated Scotsmen who longed for Presbyterian worship as they knew it in their homeland. One such man was Dr Edward D. Allison who was responsible for the following announcement in ‘The Bendigo Advertiser’ of 3rd January, 1854. It read: To the Presbyterians of Bendigo: a meeting of Presbyterians will be held in the English Chapel (Rev. McGregor’s) View Point, on Sabbath Evening 8th instant, at half-past five o’clock precisely, to consider the best means of providing worship regularly, according to the forms of their Church. All persons desirous to progress and diffuse the principles of pure Presbyterianism are respectfully invited to be present. Several gentlemen will address the Meeting. A collection (which it is hoped will be liberal) will be made at the close of the proceedings to defray preliminary expenses.

At an adjourned meeting on the following Sunday Dr. Allison announced that a large sum had been received in subscriptions for a suitable place of worship. The following month, a Smithy, situated in what is now Bridge Street, was purchased and became the first Presbyterian place of worship in Bendigo.

The Rev. James Nish, a young man of 29 who had recently arrived from Scotland, was appointed the first Minister of the newly formed Congregation. He arrived in Bendigo on 24th August, 1854. The first Presbyterian Church building (St. Andrew’s), built in early English Gothic style was opened and dedicated for worship on 19th January 1859.  (The next was the Eaglehawk Church which was the first ‘church plant’ from St. Andrew’s in 1860.)

Extracts from the Minutes of Presbytery of Castlemaine on 2nd July 1872, heard a report concerning Presbyterian worship in Bendigo that Services would be well attended if a second Presbyterian Charge was established. Presbytery then resolved to apply to the Home Mission Committee for a grant not exceeding Twenty Pounds to meet the expense of such Services as may be necessary to test the practicability of establishing that second Charge in Sandhurst.

In September 1872, Messrs. McIntyre, Rae, Purcell, Browne and Small appeared as a deputation relative to the establishment of this Charge. Curiously, Messrs. McIntyre, Rae, Browne and Small all shared the first name John! They stated that services had been conducted for several Sabbaths in the Albion Hall, that they had been well attended and that the collections obtained at them had been liberal, and they submitted a Memorial signed by 104 members and adherents who expressed their desire to be recognised as a Congregation.

It was agreed that the Prayer of the Memorial be granted and that in accordance with a suggestion made by the deputation, the new Charge should be known as the Congregation of St John’s.  Mr. McCoy was appointed to take the Interim superintendence of it as Moderator, and Dr. White and Mr. R. Gordon to act with him as Assessors.

The first Service was conducted on the 8th September of that year by Rev. P.S. Menzies, M.A. with services held at the Orderly Room (Site of Art Gallery), and afterwards at the Albion Hall (Site of The Royal Princess Theatre, on corner of Mackenzie and View Streets). The Pulpit was at first supplied by Ministers from Melbourne until the Rev. R. Lewers (Robert) was inducted on 1st May, 1873, into the Charge known as St John’s Presbyterian Church. Upon his arrival the Congregation was obliged to meet at St. James’ Hall in Williamson Street (now owned and occupied by Myers as the site of the Albion Hall was required for the erection of the Princess Theatre). A bazaar was held by the St John’s Congregation and the sum of £700 realised. With this a weatherboard church was built in Forest Street. It was erected in 1874; seating accommodation was afforded for about 550 persons.

Owing to financial difficulties, St John’s was taken over by Mr. John Rae (Uncle of Mrs. W. Anderson), one of the Trustees. As Rev Lewers had accepted a call to Eaglehawk, Mr. Rae invited the Rev. T.E. Ick, M.A, to take charge. Although he was not associated with the Presbyterian Church, Rev. Ick accepted the invitation. This led to a serious division in the congregation resulting in a section breaking away and engaging the Masonic Hall, with Rev. W.C. McDonald as Pastor in 1878. This section of the Church must be considered to be the congregation of St. John’s Presbyterian Church.

The Forest Street Church became known as St John’s Free Presbyterian Church, and in 1880 it was admitted into the Presbyterian Church of Victoria and its name altered to Chalmers’ Church or Chalmers’ Presbyterian Church. This section of the Church decided to build a Church for themselves. The Foundation Stone of a new Brick Church in Rowan Street, called St John’s Presbyterian Church was laid on 1st September, 1880, by the Rev Dr McDonald of Emerald Hill. The Church when built had seating for 300 and was on the corner of Rowan and Richard Streets.

W C Vahland

W C Vahland

In the Foundation Stone was placed a bottle containing a parchment on which was written the names of the Minister, Committee, Architect, and Contractor of the Church, copies of the Bendigo, Advertiser, Independent, and Evening News. The Church was made of brick, with cement facings. Its dimensions were 45 feet by 30 feet. There was one large gothic window in front, and four small ones on each side. Mr. W. C. Vahland was the Architect; and the amount of the contract for the work was £450. The Church afforded seating accommodation for 200 to 250 persons.

In 1882 the Pastor of the Rowan Street Church, the Rev. W. C. McDonald, B.A., resigned the Charge, and the Congregation became associated with St. Andrew’s Church in Myers Street. Mr. Talbot assumed the duties of a resident Minister, preaching at Axedale and St John’s, and changing places with Dr Nish the evenings, when he preached in their new brick Church.

Meanwhile at St John’s Free Church in Forest Street, it was recorded that a small though excellent organ was in use by the Congregation. There was a thriving Sabbath School in connection with the Church, of which the Minister, the Rev. Thomas E. Ick, M.A., was the Superintendent, and Mr John Gray the Secretary. A weekly Bible Class was also held by the Minister, especially for the benefit of the younger portion of the congregation.

Then on the 1st February, 1885, Chalmers’ Church was destroyed by fire; the origin being unexplained. It was a large wooden building, and the reflection was seen for miles around. One very good result of the fire was that it led to the two sections of the original St John’s being reunited.

In 1886 the Rev. J. Hunter Potter assumed charge of the re-united Church. It became known as The West Sandhurst Presbyterian Church with services held in the Rowan Street Church. It was the wish of the re-united Church to re-build in Forest Street, the original “home” of St John’s, and this was undertaken.

1897 built building in Forest Street

Forest Street building built in 1897. Photo taken before its eventual demolition.

The Opening Services of the new St John’s Presbyterian Church were held on 4th July, 1897. The services were conducted by the Rev. J.H. Mackay who had become the Minister of the Church, and the Rev. A.S.C. James. The Architects of the new Church were Messrs. Vahland and Son, and the contractors, Messrs Fairbanks and Wilson. The building was built in the Gothic style to accommodate 400 persons. It was lighted by 18 windows at the sides and two large five feet rose windows at each gable.

Worship continued in this building until 1949 when plans were in hand for the demolition of the church and the erection of a third church building on the same site when an offer to purchase the former Congregational Church (on the corner of Forest and Mackenzie Streets) was accepted. The details of this building (which is still our present place of worship!) are as follows;

“The Congregational Church at the corner of Forest and Mackenzie Streets, was erected from a skilful design of a Gothic Type by Mr. W.C. Vahland, in the year 1890, which replaced an earlier building of an unpretending character, which was reared in 1858, that is to say, in Bendigo’s infancy, when this religious body first organised itself into a Congregation under the Ministry of Rev. Mark Butler. It was (in 1902) utilized as a School Room, but many fond memories gather round it in the minds of those who first assembled for worship within its walls. The builder was Mr. M. N. Longstaff. The tender price was £2481. The memorial stone laid was laid on 23rd April, 1890 and it was opened on 20th February, 1891 to seat 450 persons.” The new venue for St John’s was purchased for 2,500 pounds. A further 2,500 pounds was spent on renovations while the (1897) St John’s Church building was sold and became a site for housing. The new St John’s was opened and dedicated on Saturday September 8th 1957.

Churches flourished in Australia in the 1950’s and 1960’s and these photos suggest that St John’s was no exception to that general rule.

1957 Bible Class

1957 Bible Class

Junior ss 1957

1957 Junior Sunday School

Girls class 1963

1963 Girls’ Sunday School Class

St John's Church Family 1963

St John’s Church Family 1963

The St John’s congregation continued to meet in the Forest Street building until Union (the merger of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches) in 1977. As the St John’s congregation had voted to become part of the Uniting Church, the building was awarded to the Uniting Church and so those members of St John’s who wanted to unite continued to meet for worship at St John’s and also at the ‘new’ Uniting Church just down the road (which was formerly the Forest Street Wesley Methodist Church).  Meanwhile those members of St John’s who wanted to remain Presbyterian worshipped at the Eaglehawk Presbyterian Church (which had been awarded to the continuing Presbyterians) where on June 26, 1977, the first Presbyterian service after Union was held with over 100 people attending and the church packed.

Ad the years passed, however, those who had come from St John’s still retained a vision to see Presbyterian worship in central Bendigo again and held onto a distant hope of purchasing the (now relatively unused) St John’s building once more. It was with this in mind that Presbyterian services were resumed at the All Saints Anglican Church in Forest Street on January, 10th 1982 on a weekly basis with the St John’s congregation formally created again as a preaching place alongside Eaglehawk. The ‘distant hope’ became one step closer in March 1985 when a meeting of the Congregation (19 people) held in the All Saints Church meeting room agreed to put in an offer for the now unused Forest Street building. Although this offer was rejected, a further offer was finally accepted and the former Congregational-Presbyterian-Uniting Church building once again became a Presbyterian Church.

The building was eventually re-opened and re-dedicated as St John’s Presbyterian Church at a service on October 6, 1985 at a service that commenced at 3pm (and went until 4:30pm!) to an estimated congregation of 450 with many seated in the hall watching the service on a relay. Afternoon tea followed in the hall and it must have been crowded!

So….this means that there have been four Presbyterian Churches named St John’s (that is Church buildings) and the St John’s congregation has met in eleven places of worship!

The four churches are;

1. Forest Street, wooden, built in 1874.
2. Rowan Street, brick, built in 1880.
3. Forest Street, wooden, built in 1897 (pictured above).
4. Forest Street (the present Church) on the corner of Forest & Mackenzie Streets.

The eleven places of worship are;

1. Orderly Room in View Street. 2. Albion Hall in View Street. 3. St James’ Hall in Williamson Street.
4. The first St. John’s Church in Forest Street. 5. Masonic Hall in View Street. 6. The second St. John’s Church in Rowan Street. 7. The third St. John’s Church in Forest Street.  8. The fourth St. John’s Church (our present building).  9. Eaglehawk Presbyterian Church in Victoria Street, Eaglehawk.  10. Wesley Methodist/Uniting Church in Forest Street.  11. All Saints Cathedral in Forest Street.

Members of St John's Session (elders) in November 1995

Rev Andrew Clarke with the St John’s Elders in November 1995

Since 1985, the St John’s congregation (like almost all congregations) has had its ups and downs and has known times of great blessing amid some times of trouble and pain. But, thanks be to God, the current congregation is alive and well and keen to do what it can to be a ‘light on the hill’ to the city of Bendigo through the proclamation of the glorious gospel of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

In recent years, some significant developments have been the internal renovations on the Church Hall (October 2012) which have given us the added bonus of indoor toilets and a large, functional kitchen, but better than that, perhaps our greatest achievement to date, has been the planting of a new congregation in South East Bendigo known as ‘Reforming’ (South East Bendigo 6442528_300x300Presbyterian Church) which began meeting together in February 2013, led by Pastor Russ Grinter (an elder of St John’s and then a candidate for the PCV ministry).  If 1872 is taken as our beginning date, then it only took us 131 years to get around to it 🙂 And we are praying too that it won’t be the last church that we plant! For news and developments on this…keep watching this space!

Footnote: While we cannot yet report on any new church plants, we can report that Russ Grinter was ordained as a Minister of the Presbyterian Church on 14 December 2014 and inducted as the Minister of South East Bendigo Presbyterian Church! Praise God for His goodness to us.

Acknowledgement: The information on this page came from a document in our church archives, thanking Mr Len Bennetts for part of that which has been recorded while also acknowledging that the bulk of the information came from investigations carried out by Mr. Alex Hepburn Stone, in July 1972. Extra information has come through newspaper clippings and orders of service kept and supplied by Mrs Geraldine Mitchell.