COMMUNITY CONCERN: Camberwell resident Deidre Olofsson outside St Clement’s in 2013.FEW things seem sadder in the Hunter Valley than a closed and apparently deserted church building.
Over the years, with shifting populations, especially those following work in the coal industry, some prominent churches have shut their doors forever.
Then the inevitable happened. Some people remember a once busy church being closed at Greta, then being demolished, while others remember a similar solid Methodist church at Morpeth being torn down in the early 1970s.
But sometimes there is life after death, if you’ll pardon the pun.
A landmark Mayfield Anglican church dating from 1860 was also demolished, probably in the 1960s, and its graveyard also disappeared. In this case, however, a new church was built there to replace it.
But there’s not always a happy ending to old, deconsecrated church buildings.
New life: This striking former historic Presbyterian church in Minmi has been reinvented as a Coptic Orthodox Church.
I was reminded of the sorry sight of another ‘lost church’ while motoring up past Singleton recently. It was the fleeting glance caught from the highway of an historic and imposing church building almost hidden away on the slope of a hill.
I’d spied the former church of St Clement’s, just past the village of Camberwell, about 13 kilometres north west of Singleton.
It stood below where the New England Highway intersects with Glennies Creek Road and I went off to investigate because in such a relatively young nation as , this was reputed to be almost 160 years old, or maybe 170 years, when it was formally deconsecrated in 2013.
The sign at the gate on the drive down the dirt road to the former Anglican church of St Clement’s stated 1841/1842, indicating the adjoining cemetery may precede the church.
So, what’s the story behind it shutting forever? An arson attack forced the church’s closure in 2008. It was the beginning of a sorry saga of changing times and priorities
St Clement’s was then reputed to be the Hunter’s second oldest church. Officially it was built in 1843/1844, but only consecrated in 1855. Rather oddly, the earliest tombstones date from around 1860, but a lot more are from 20 to 30 years later. Perhaps the earliest burials are in now unmarked graves, or elsewhere.
For the nearby village of Camberwell – said to be named after a district of the same name in London – must have been a long way from anywhere in colonial times.
St Clement’s church was a real community cornerstone, as former Herald colleague Matthew Kelly discovered in May 2013 when the news broke that the church could soon be deconsecrated.
Kelly reported that nearby residents believed the church had then become a symbol of defiance of mining industry expansion, which threatened to swallow the village in the next decade.
Camberwell resident Deidre Olofsson (pictured) told the Herald at the time that local residents had been robbed of their spiritual home.
“It’s not just a place of worship, it’s an icon of what our community spirit is about,”
Parishioners said they had paid the church’s insurance premiums for many years and had fought to have it restored and reopened for regular services.
The Anglican diocese, however, argued the $375,000 insurance payout would not cover the repair costs plus other likely unforeseen costs. The money should be spent instead on other churches in the Singleton area.
Historic artefacts from the church were to be relocated and a trust fund set up to maintain St Clement’s as an historic site and keepthe cemetery open to the public.
But St Clement’s former parishioners remained angry right up to the church’s being deconsecrated in early July 2013.
The Herald reported that resident Wendy Noble, who had five generations of her family buried in the church cemetery as being “absolutely disgusted with what’s happened”.
Former St Clement’s warden Graeme Cheetham also said the decision was a disgrace. Earlier, he said. “We’re tried everything but they (the diocese) control the funds. It’s a beautiful old church that’s going to be left to rot. That’s the sin of it.”
Former parishioners also feared more local churches might suffer the same fate as St Clement’s as their congregations dwindled.
When Weekender visited the church site recently everything appeared neat externally but big, heavy metal bars had been installed to deter vandals. The church appeared empty, but a magnificent stained glass window could be glimpsed inside.
On the other side of the coin,at least two impressive former 19th century Minmi churches have been given a new lease of life. The small mining town west of Newcastle was like a ghost town for years after the area’s last mine abruptly closed in 1924.
The exodus of mining families, however, had begun in Minmi much earlier, in 1909 when the Maitland Coalfields opened.
As churches closed, St Andrews Presbyterian Church then seemed to become Minmi’s sole survivor. Today the church structure remains, but it’s now the St Mary and St George Coptic Orthodox Church (pictured).
Not far away, the historic former 1883 St John’s Church of England building hasbeen reinvented as a romantic getaway, oozing old world charm (plus in-ground pool), all for $185 a night.
But closer to Newcastle, there once was a building which underwent a more dramatic and unexpected role change.
Older Kotara South residents are likely to remember a disused Catholic church on the corner of Vista Parade and Greyson Avenue. In March 1978, this landmark church building had been vacant for 15 months.
The Newcastle Sunreported that the solid, but plain, church building with its high glass wall of 1960s-style coloured glass squares, was for sale for $30,000. It was a real bargain in anyone’s language. Part of its apparent value – besides the church building itself – was its huge land area.
At the time, the site couldn’t be developed for residential use because of its then land-zoning, which specified church use. There was talk of it becoming a church hall, although none of the other churches seemed interested in buying it.
The church land was the equivalent of about four residential building blocks. The property’s zoning must have eventually changed because homes cover the site today.
The solid brick church, however, had only a short life span of 13 years. It was used until the end of 1976 when services moved to a new $160,000 church nearby. The familiar Kotara South landmark was originally builtas a bathhouse for mineworkers at the local Crofton Colliery in 1952. It wasconverted to a church in 1963.