Australia’s Oldest Surviving House of Worship

Ebenezer Church

In 1802, a small group of determined pioneers settled on the banks of New South Wales’ Hawkesbury River. Seven years later, the deeply religious settlers completed the construction of a tiny, one room church.

After more than two centuries, Ebenezer Church still stands as a witness to the struggles and steadfastness of the nation’s founders. The structure is believed to be the oldest church building in Australia – and it houses regular services to this day.

The story of Ebenezer Church begins with eight strong-minded families who chose to leave their homes in England and Scotland for the freedom and opportunities of a new, uncharted land. Religious persecution was likely the underlying motivation that drove these free settlers to risk the harrowing sea journey aboard a convict vessel and take part in the founding of a nation.

The Davison, Hall, Howe, Johnston, Johnstone, Mein, Stubbs and Turnbull families arrived in New South Wales in June 1802 after a long, difficult voyage on the Coromandel. The group requested that they be settled together and the Governor King granted them 100-acre land grants at Portland Head on the Hawkesbury River in early 1803. Seven additional families (Arndell, Bushell, Grono, Cavanough, Jacklin, Suddis and Jones) soon joined them and they all worshiped together in the open air and in one another’s homes, despite the fact that they were of several different protestant denominations. With no clergy available, settler James Mein led the modest congregation in prayers and hymns.

The pioneer farmers flourished despite the challenges of their new home, and their efforts were seen as a significant contribution to the Hawkesbury community and the fledging colony as a whole. The successful group quickly put their efforts into creating a permanent church, and covenanted on 22nd September, 1808, forming the ‘Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge and the Instruction of Youth.’ The goal was simple: to build a church and school and to recruit a minister to lead the worship of the small but devout group.

The project was a group effort from day one, with each family pledging to help erect the new building. In fact, the community provided all of the labour and the entire £400 cost, with no assistance from the government. The settlers chose to build on a patch of high ground known as Ebenezer Mount, which was already the site of their outdoor services. The original plan called for the structure to be built of stone and measure 50 feet long by 20 feet wide and 12 feet high.

Owen Cavanough donated the four acres on which the church was built. Andrew Johnston designed the building and supervised its construction. George Hall hauled local sandstone across the river to the designated site. With no bridge available, the farmer relied on his cattle to swim the materials to the other side. David Dunstan and later Charles Smith, who was the carpenter for Governor Macquarie and architect Greenway, took care of the carpentry. The builders used whatever materials were locally available, primarily sandstone, cedar, and hardwood.

The construction was completed in 1809, and Ebenezer Church became the first non-conformist Church in Australia. The name was fitting for the rag tag group of God-fearing pioneers; taken from 1 Samuel: Chapter 7 Verse 12, it means ‘The Lord has helped us all the way’ or ‘Stone of Help’. The completed building was slightly smaller than originally intended, measuring only 40 feet by 20 feet. Elegant in its simplicity, the utilitarian structure bears no cross or ornamentation. Instead, the building is a neat, rectangular box made of stone blocks of varying sizes and shades.

The builders soon erected a cedar partition inside the small structure to create two cramped rooms. One room was used for church services, the other for a school that opened its doors in 1810. This is a key part of Ebenezer Church’s history; the structure is not only Australia’s oldest extant church building, but the oldest surviving school building as well. In fact, the church school is considered an important pioneer in education for the entire colony. Lessons began under schoolmaster John Youl and continued under notable teachers such as John Anderson, an ex-convict transported for his involvement in the Scottish Uprising of 1820. A schoolmaster’s residence was added to site around 1817. Also designed by Andrew Johnston, the structure serves as a prime example of early colonial architecture.

In 1824, under the leadership of Presbyterian James Mein, and influenced by the Reverend John Dunmore Lang from Sydney town, Ebenezer Church became the first Presbyterian Church in Australia. Reverend John McGarvie agreed to immigrate to the colony from Scotland the following year to become Ebenezer Church’s first ordained minister.

Ebenezer Church’s storied cemetery survives alongside the historic building. The site is Australia’s first Presbyterian graveyard and is considered one of the most historically significant burial grounds in the country. Unfortunately, many details about the cemetery were destroyed in the 1867 flood. Although the records no longer exist, the oldest grave is believed to belong to an infant named Sarah Gilkerson. Her life and death are recorded on a single headstone which reads simply:

In Memory of
SARAH GILKERSON
who departed this life
May 14 1813 Aged 3 weeks.

Young Sarah is surrounded by the graves of the original pioneers who arrived on the Coromandel, as well as other early Hawkesbury settlers.

The need for a cemetery may have become evident after the untimely death of William Stubbs, who drowned in the river only two and a half years after arriving on the Coromandel. His body was laid to rest on the family grant at Swallow Rock Reach, and the tragedy likely spurred the surviving settlers to create a common burial place for the growing community.

Unassuming sandstone headstones in Ebenezer Cemetery are dated from 1813 through the 1820s. There are also some later graves from the Victorian period, when the normally austere Scots allowed mourners to indulge in a few modest decorations at the burial site. A good many iron guards still survive from this period and efforts are underway to restore and preserve them. More modern tombstones can be found from the early twentieth century all the way through to the present day. Burial plots are no longer available, but those wishing to be laid to rest beside Australia’s Presbyterian pioneers may still have their ashes interred in one of the two columbariums.

Today, Ebenezer Church and the surrounding grounds have been carefully restored and a museum has been built inside the old schoolmaster’s cottage. The site is located in a rural area on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, about 69 kilometres north-west of Sydney and five kilometres from the small township of Wilberforce. The house of worship still boasts an active congregation that holds regular services within its historic walls. They became associated with the Uniting Church after most congregations of the Methodist Church of Australasia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia and the Congregational Union of Australia agreed to unite in 1977. Visitors are welcome to tour the grounds or join the congregation for a Sunday morning worship service.

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January 17, 2019, 6:31 AM AEDT