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Where are the Oldest (and Most Interesting) Churches in Canberra?

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by Sue W (subscribe)
Lover of exploring, family, food and fun! Find me on instagram: @australianrecipesbythebay
Published July 3rd 2017
If you enjoy looking around old churches and learning about local history, there are some fascinating buildings around Canberra to explore. In the 1830's, early settlers started to arrive in the region and small, farming communities were formed. Churches were an important part of these newly-formed communities for their religious beliefs, but they were also a social place for the local workers, farmers and their families to meet up each week. Some of these buildings from the early years, built with sturdy local rock and building materials coached in from around the region, still remain today. Over time, particularly in the 1930's, more people moved to the area and churches in different faiths (and styles) were constructed. Although Canberra has multiple churches with fascinating histories, there are two which are particularly interesting - for completely different reasons...

All Saints Anglican Church, Ainslie

Why is it so interesting?

This unusual building was actually transported here to Canberra brick-by-brick and was previously the mortuary train station at the Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney, where coffins were delivered for burial! The original building was built the late 1860's, however once cars were invented, the train station at the cemetery was no longer needed. In 1957, the entire building and stonework was up for sale, so the Ainslie parish purchased the building for 100 pounds and it was demolished - with each stone numbered - before it was transported to Canberra and painstakingly put back together. A few changes were made, such as putting the bell tower on the opposite side, however they strived to make the building just like the original, even using the same type of wood to make the roof.

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The Mortuary Train Station in Rookwood Cemetery circa 1865. It was later dismantled and transported to Canberra to become the All Saints Anglican Church in Ainslie. Source: Wikapedia

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All Saints Anglican Church today. Source: All Saints Facebook

In the church today, the centre aisle down the middle was where the railway line went into the building. The side aisles of the church are where the platforms for the station were located, before coffins would be unloaded and taken for burial. This heritage-listed building is now an important part of the local community and its unique history is part of its charm. It is a fascinating and beautiful building to enter, with some interesting symbolism in the architecture. There are 7 sets of pillars (representing the days of the week), 52 separate arches (representing the weeks in the year) and 365 engravings (representing the days in the year). See here for church details.

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Interior of All Saints today, with the centre aisle once a train station. Source: Original photos from All Saints Facebook

St John the Baptist Church, Reid

Why is it so interesting?

It is the oldest church in Canberra and also the oldest building within Canberra's city precinct. Originally the church, built in the early 1840's, stood on a hill on its own and could be seen from all across the region (see photo below, before its current spire was built). Today it sits by a busy road and the city has grown around it, however its architectural beauty is still evident from a distance - with its tall spire a feature amongst the cityscape. It was consecrated in 1845 and built by one of the region's first and largest property owners, Robert Campbell from Duntroon, for the workers on his property and surrounding region. The homes of some of his workers - Mugga Mugga and Blundell's Cottage - can also be toured today. When you visit this historically significant church, there are plaques to read with the names of the early settlers, with the Campbell family name heavily featured. Visitors are able to walk inside to look around and sermons are performed in the church weekly. See here for a full history of the church.

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St Johns Baptist Church, around 1864 (without the church spire). Source: St Johns Baptist Church website

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St Johns Baptist Church, today

Whilst there, visitors can also walk around the historical cemetery behind the church and visit the Old Schoolhouse, which was used between 1845 and 1907 by hundreds of local children. The St Johns Schoolhouse is open during the week at selected times, so visitors can meet a guide and learn more about the children, teachers and families who settled here in the region. See the St Johns website for opening times. For a full article on St Johns Baptist Church and the Schoolhouse Museum, see here.

If you drive around Canberra today, you will see a wide variety of historically significant churches, blending in with the new evolving city. Each has their own stories to tell and hand-carved craftsmanship that you don't see in today's buildings. They each play an important role in the community, as well as being a treasure-trove of history and character to explore.

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The Old Schoolhouse Museum at St Johns the Baptist Church, complete with Dunce in the corner!

For a full list of Canberra's churches, see here. As more people moved to Canberra in the 1930's, more churches were built, such as St Andrews Presbyterian in Barton (1934), St. Christopher's Catholic Cathedral in Forrest (1930's) and St Pauls Anglican in Manuka (1938).

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