It is not surprising to find old churches regularly listed on historical walks. With their gothic arches, steep roofs and stained glass windows they are incredibly beautiful buildings and even when they are no longer being used as a worship centre, they can make interesting homes, galleries and restaurants. I do wonder, though, about the steep roofs of old churches in Australia. I understand steep roofs were a necessity in the northern hemisphere where it snows, but here in Australia, apart from a few very small pockets in the mountains, it does not snow, or at least, very rarely. While Toowoomba has seen snow in the past on occasions, the falls have been so slight it certainly wouldn’t warrant the need for steep roofs. I guess like most other things the European settlers did, they built what they were used to without any consideration for their new environment.
The Toowoomba Council lists three churches on their historic walk of the CBD, Wesley Uniting Church, St Stephen’s Uniting Church and St Luke’s Anglican Church, all built during the nineteenth century. Given the age of many buildings in other parts of the world, they don’t really seem that old, and sometimes that leads to mistaken ideas about Australia’s history. After mentioning that I was studying Australian history, I’ve heard it said quite a few times – “Oh, that won’t take long” – implying, of course, that Australian history is quite young. While it’s true that the history of European settlement in Australia only dates back just over 200 years, Australian Indigenous history dates back tens of thousands of years. Our history is more than just the colonial buildings that have survived and been preserved.
The oldest Australian church that is still standing, however, was built in 1809 in Ebenezer, New South Wales, but it pales in significance to the oldest known church in the world built in the city of Dura-Europas, (modern day Syria), some time between 233 – 256 CE. I’d love to show you a picture but sadly it was left to disappear under layers of sand and mud after the city of Dura-Europas was invaded by the Sasanian Empire around 257 CE. Its ruins were discovered by some very determined archaeologists during the 1920s and 1930s. That is history for you – cities and empires rise and fall, and nature moves back in.
In the city of Toowoomba, the rapid growth of its population from the 1840s led to many of its early buildings being quickly outgrown and replaced, and it is the same story with the first churches. The Wesley Uniting Church started out as a Methodist church until the formation of the Uniting Church of Australia in 1977. Construction of the current building began in 1877 with an extension added in 1901. In 1998 the church became part of the Empire Theatre and is now used as a function room. This is one of the things that I really love about Toowoomba – old buildings are preserved and repurposed so that new generations can still appreciate their history and beauty. Like many other churches built during the nineteenth century, the Wesley Church’s design was based on the Gothic Revival.
The Gothic Revival
The term Gothic describes the kind of architecture built throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. In churches particularly, it includes features such as pointed arches, pinnacles and spires, and an emphasis on the vertical. The attention to detail also extended to the interior as well, with the use of rich colours and opulent decoration. The Gothic Revival was a movement of the 18th and 19th centuries which resurrected the use of Gothic features, not just in church construction, but also in homes and other buildings. Churches built during the Gothic revival were often constructed in a cruciform design (cross-shaped) and featured steep roofs, lancet windows, pointed arches and stained glass windows.
St Stephen’s Uniting Church also originated as a Presbyterian church. Built in 1884 from local basalt and sandstone, the church has an interesting history for innovation and community engagement. In 1925 it pioneered the use of radio for worship services and in 1946 started a radio Sunday School. It seems our use of Zoom and live-streaming is not so revolutionary after all! St Stephens also played a major role in the establishment of St Andrews Hospital in Toowoomba and even ran a lunchtime church service for workers in the city for about twenty years. Tragically, the church was damaged by fire in 1989, which caused the roof to collapse and damaged the organ beyond repair. However, restoration began in 1993 and in 2013 the church celebrated its 150th anniversary.
St Luke’s Anglican Church began as a timber slab building in 1857. When the congregation outgrew the building, worship services were shifted to the St James church. However this apparently caused so much debate and controversy that they went back to worshipping in the wooden building until the current church’s construction began in 1895. As you can see, the church is enormous and construction was planned to occur over a series of stages, one of the last being in 1959. One of the most interesting features at St Luke’s is the addition of a labyrinth that invites people of all faiths to take time for reflection.
Aside from the incredibly steep roofs and gothic architecture, one of the most eye-catching features of traditional churches are the stained glass windows. Despite their exquisite beauty, their purpose was much more than just decoration. In a time when most of the population was still illiterate, stained glass windows provided a visual representation of the biblical narrative. Even if they couldn’t read the Bible stories for themselves, parishioners could be reminded of them by simply gazing upon their church windows. In fact stained glass windows have even been referred to as the “Poor Man’s Bible”. Other church decorative features such as murals, mosaics, carvings and sculptures also performed the same educational role. Unfortunately during the French Revolution and the English Reformation many of the stained glass windows created during the Middle Ages were smashed and destroyed. Not only were thousands of windows lost, it also led to a loss of traditional stain glass making skills. It wasn’t until the Gothic Revival that stained glass windows became back in demand again.
Strictly speaking the Masonic Lodge in Toowoomba is not actually a church, but it does have an interesting background. Freemasonry has often been the subject of rumour and controversy, and much of this probably arose out of their tendency for secrecy. These days the movement claims to be more open, although still restricted to men, so I believe. The first Queensland lodge was founded in 1859 and has grown to include 280 masonic lodges throughout the state and over 7,500 members. The masonic lodge in Toowoomba was completed in 1886 and one of the features that most tickles my fancy is the circular driveway. Apparently this was so that members could be safely driven right up to the door. I didn’t know that safety was such an issue in historic Toowoomba, but who knows! Originally the lodge was surrounded by land which included a paddock for the horses and carriages – I guess parking has always been an issue no matter what the era!
Until next time…