A long history with many stories

St John’s Church and Schoolhouse circa 1864

The activities of the Anglican ‘Parish of St John the Baptist, Canberra’, have centred upon the stone church and schoolhouse built between 1841 and 1845 on land donated by Robert (‘Merchant’) Campbell of Duntroon, at what is now Reid.  This is the oldest continuing social organization within the ACT.

Since colonial times the parish has provided traditional European ‘rites of passage’ to a wide-flung pastoral and agricultural district, and its churchyard was long the main local burial ground for people of varied religious affiliations.  The district’s earliest organized educational activities were centred on the adjacent schoolhouse, built largely at the expence of the Campbell family circa 1845.

After 1927 the parish became home to the main Christian congregation in the national capital, with which were associated various royal and vice-regal personages, eminent politicians and statesmen, eminent public servants and scientists and eminent military personnel (especially those associated with nearby Duntroon Military College).  Its activities and influence long transcended the bounds of ‘the strictly religious’ to make it a significant national social institution, especially between the World Wars.

Although less central to the broader life of the national capital since World War II, St John’s enshrines memorials to significant figures of later years like H. V. Evatt and Viscount Dunrossil (Governor General in the early 1960s).  This parish congregation’s church and schoolhouse building complex from the early to mid 1840s, is historically unusual.  It is very familiar to tourists visiting Canberra, and the attractive old stone church is probably as well known a parish-church building as any in Australia.

The church was begun in 1841 and consecrated in 1845.   The building was consecrated by the Rt Rev’d William Grant Broughton, first Bishop of Australia, on 12th March, 1845.  The materials used for the Church were almost entirely local with the stones coming from Mount Pleasant and Black Mountain.  The Church was extended between 1872 and 1874 to the design of the Rev’d Soares, Rector of Queanbeyan and honorary diocesan architect.  The first tower was struck by lightning on 6 February 1851 and also suffered from a subsiding foundation.

The current (second) tower with spire was designed by Edmund Blackett, outstanding ecclesiastical architect of his time, and built between 1865 and 1870.  The chancel with its splendid East Window was added between 1872 and 1874 in memory of Robert (‘Merchant’) Campbell, and the original nave was then lengthened.  The church building’s interior is lined with memorials to parishioners from early pastoral pioneer families to eminent Australian statesmen of the early federal era (Garran, Groom), eminent scientists early associated with the C.S.I.R. and Mt Stromlo Obervatory, and post-World War II figures of national significance (H. V. Evatt and Sir William McKell).

The bells were presented in 1962 by Viscount De L’Isle, V.C., then Governor-General, in memory of his wife Jacqueline.  A chalice and paten were presented by the family of Viscount Dunrossil, the former speaker of the House of Commons, who died while in office as Governor-General and whose remains (together with those of his widow) are buried in the churchyard.   Two prayer desks in the church were ‘thank offerings’ from Sir William and Lady McKell.  The distinguished artist, Elioth Gruner, is memorialized by bookshelves and cupboards in the west porch.

The first resident minister of St John’s, the Rev’d George Gregory, was drowned in the flooded Molonglo in 1851.  However, later clergy have remained in service longer.  The Rev’d Pierce Galliard Smith was rector for 51 years (1855 to 1906).  A number of later clergy have served in the Anglican Church as Bishops, including Robert Davies, Robert Gordon Arthur, Owen Dowling (former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn), Cecil Warren (also a former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn), Ian George (former Archbishop of Adelaide) and Greg Thompson (current Bishop of Newcastle).

The church building has had a long-term association with the Royal Military College, Duntroon, also situated on land originally held by Robert Campbell.  Distinguished Australian warriors like Sir William Throsby Bridges (first Commandant of the Royal Military College and Commander of the 1st Division, A.I.F., killed Gallipoli) and General Brudenell Bingham White (Chief of Staff of the Australian Military Forces, killed in disastrous Canberra plane crash, 1940) are memorialized in the church.

St John’s church is also unusual for an Australian parish church in that the regimental colours of the (World War I) Werriwa Regiment and the historic colours of the Royal Military College, Duntroon (given by the Duke of York while opening parliament in 1927) are ‘laid up’ in the building.  This historic church-and-school precinct was classified on the Register of the National Estate in 1980.

A book on the history of St John’s, “Firm Still You Stand” by A.H. Body, is available for sale from the Parish Office. Contact (02) 6248 8399 or  Email admin@stjohnscanberra.org.

St John’s Churchyard overview - Inscriptions and photographs