Explore Canberra's first church, over 170 years old
Canberra's early-settler history is a fascinating era to explore, with buildings located around the city still standing from these times. One such building is Canberra's St John's Church (now called St John's Anglican Church) located in Reid, just minutes from the CBD. It is Canberra's first ever church and the oldest building in the city. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1841, with the church being consecrated in 1845. It once stood alone on this hill in Reid, before the city landscape was built around it. This historical church, now situated on one of the busiest roads in Canberra, is still used today. Visitors can walk inside and admire the craftsmanship of the building and imagine what life was like when it was first used by the early-settler community, over 170 years ago.
At the time it was built, Canberra was being settled by pastoralists who were setting up sheep properties in the area. One of the prominent sheep property owners, Robert Campbell from Duntroon, wanted a church and community meeting area where the shepherds, dairymen, ploughmen, labourers and their families on his property could come to congregate. The Campbell's donated their land and half the building costs for this church to be built; creating a striking landmark perched on a hill overlooking the plains. When the church's spire was later added in 1878, local farmers could see it from around the region and it became a prominent landmark when travelling across the countryside.
Photo of St John's Church in 1864 - before the spire was built. Source: St John's Anglican Church website
The Reverends who worked here have their own stories to tell over the years. Sadly, the first Reverend of the church, Reverend George Gregory, drowned as he tried crossing the Molonglo River - where Lake Burley Griffin is today. The next Reverend, Pierce Galliard Smith, was the head of the church for over 50 years and was a prominent figure in the community. He officially chose the spelling for Canberra, which derived from the aboriginal word Kamberra, meaning "meeting place".
As St John's Anglican Church is still used today, the doors are open daily so that churchgoers can pray and visitors are welcome to respectfully explore this beautifully-crafted church and grounds. Walk in and admire the high ceilings, original wooden beams and the historical beauty of this charming church. This sandstone church has stood the test of time with the rock sourced from quarries located at the base of Black Mountain - where Telstra Tower sits today.
Whilst inside, take a moment to picture what it was like the first time this church was used, with the Duntroon community lining up in these pews for the first time.
After exploring the interior, take a walk outside and visit the cemetery to look at the headstones from the pioneering families from the mid 1800's, which still stand today. With beautiful rose gardens and inscriptions to read, it is a peaceful place to look around, respectfully playing tribute to the hard working, early-settler families who travelled here to start a new life.
Outside the church is St John's Schoolhouse, also built by the Campbell family of Duntroon at the time the church was built, to educate the children on their property and local area. It was used to school children between the 1840's – 1907, with a room at the back for the school teacher to live. It is preserved as a museum and currently open on Wednesdays and weekends and run by volunteers with a passion for the era and their church. See here for more information.
On our visit we were met by an enthusiastic guide who gave us a tour of the schoolhouse, told stories of how the children were schooled and showed photos from the era. There are rows of school tables for the children of today to sit on and practice writing on slates, which were used in the early years of the school. It is interesting to hear stories about the Dunce that would have to sit in the corner and what life was like for kids in the early-settler period. Take a walk through the other rooms in the building and discover historical photos and items on display from over the schooling years.
Both the St John's Anglican Church and St Johns Schoolhouse Museum are part of a Canberra Tracks self-guided driving route, which takes in other historical buildings in Canberra's early settler history. They are both fascinating buildings to explore and learn about the families who made up the community from the 1840's onwards. To see such a prominent building once standing alone on the Limestone Plains, now surrounded by citylife, reflects the changes that have happened over the years since this building was constructed.
For over 170 years the buildings and grounds have been lovingly cared for by the local community, so take some time in exploring the grounds and enjoy this quiet historical haven, in the heart of the city.
Australia's first stain glass window at St John's Anglican Church, dedicated to Robert Campbell (1769–1846).