...take a step back in time and get in touch with Canberra's early history
St John’s Anglican Church was built in the English Gothic style which was brought to Australia in the early years of European settlement. Its foundation stone was laid on 11 May 1841 and it was completed in May 1844. The Church, with its adjoining churchyard, was consecrated in 1845 by the Right Reverend William Broughton.
Bluestone for the Church was quarried on Black Mountain and to the south of the Molonglo River at Quarry Hill. Local hardwood shingles were cut for the roof and timber for exposed beams was carried in from the Hunter Valley.
A building program between 1860 and 1872 led to the church being extended to its present size, with the tower being completed under the direction of well known colonial architect Edmund Blackett. The spire was finished in 1877. The spire, together with the trees surrounding the church, became a prominent landmark in Canberra’s early years.
The Church, now situated adjacent to the Parliamentary Triangle, continues to recall the early European-built structures of Canberra. The heritage-listed precinct was placed on the ACT Heritage Register in 2004.
The Church is open 9am to 5pm, 7 days a week. Scheduled services are held on Sunday and during the week. Special services, such as weddings, baptisms and funerals are held at other times.
The churchyard is open throughout daylight hours. Make sure you also visit the Schoolhouse Museum adjacent to the Church.
MALCOLM ALLBROOK explores the history of Canberra's oldest church
There's a place in Canberra that evokes the appearance and atmosphere of an English country parish. The churchyard at St John's Anglican Church in Reid has an attractive steepled building, an old school house and rectory, lychgates and a graveyard.
And, we might expect of such a place, it wears its past proudly. The monuments, gravestones and stained glass windows connect it directly to generations of Canberra's Anglican churchgoers and speak of the important place the church has had in their lives.
Consecrated in 1845, St John's signified the harmony and order of the small Limestone settlement. As Nicholas Brown writes in A History of Canberra, around the church's "modest stones" grew an agglomeration of "largish stations", long established and prosperous", including Duntroon, Yarralumla and Lanyon. There was a "substantial sprinkling" of small farmers, tenants or freeholders.
The most powerful and influential of these was the Campbell dynasty, many of whom are buried in St John's graveyard. The prominent colonial merchant and philanthropist Robert Campbell (1749-1848) grew up as a devout Presbyterian but became one of the most generous benefactors of Anglican activity in NSW.
In William Broughton (1788-1853), the first (and only) Bishop of Australia, Campbell found a willing ally in his scheme to establish a Church of England presence at Limestone Plains. Even though suffering from a disability, Broughton consecrated over 100 churches throughout his tenure. He tried to entrench the Church of England as "the national church, established in law, charged with the care of all subjects of the Crown, apostolic in its doctrine and government", as the Australian Dictionary of Biography notes.
When the Scottish-born Pierce Galliard Smith (1826-1908) began his 51-year tenure as parish priest, he bought the stability and devotion to compliment Campbell's vision of a pastoral idyll with the Church of England at its core.
As the new federal capital grew around the little village church, it was transformed from a country parish into one that reflected the power and influence of many of its parishioners.
It became the place of worship of Governors-General, military leaders, politicians and public servants, ANU staff and ordinary Anglicans throughout Canberra.
On the 170th anniversary of its consecration, it continues to be a vibrant part of Canberra's religious and social world.
- ANU REPORTER Volume 46 No.2 2015
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.
St John's Church showing the bluestone stonework (1841) and the 1870's sandstone tower and chancel extension.
'An English village church and through a quirk of history they literally put the national capital around us.' - Paul Black
The Prophetic Tombstone
On 8 November 1845, thirty-three year old Sarah Webb tragically died during childbirth. During her lifetime she was a pioneer in the Canberra region, but it was her death that catapulted her to fame.
She was buried on 12 November 1845 at the newly consecrated St John's church and churchyard. Her headstone reads, ‘For here we have no continuing city but seek one to come,’ a slightly inexact quote of Hebrews 13:14. The biblical passage refers to a heavenly city hoped for by believers.
Within a few decades after Sarah’s death it became apparent that the Limestone Plains was going to be the site of the future national capital. The quote on Sarah’s headstone started attracting notice, with many taking the passage to be a strange and coincidental prophecy of the coming city of Canberra.
The prophetic tombstone or ‘Prophet’s Tombstone’ as it eventually was known, rather quickly, became a local landmark with travelers going out of their way to visit it.
ROYALTY ATTENDS WEDDING 24 October 1945
Various shots are seen here of guests arriving at St John's Church for the marriage of the Viscountess of Clive (and first lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Gloucester) to Brigadier Derek Schreiber, Chief of Staff to Australia's Royal Governor General. Crowds lined the route to the church to see the international society folk arrive.
A focal point from the earliest days of European settlement
The activities of St John's Canberra have centred upon the stone church and schoolhouse built between 1841 and 1845 on land which is now Reid.
Since colonial times the parish has provided traditional European ‘rites of passage’ to a wide-flung pastoral and agricultural district, and its churchyard was for a long time 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 expense 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 for many years 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).
The church and schoolhouse built from the early to mid 1840s, is historically unusual. It's a popular destination for tourists visiting Canberra, and the attractive old stone church is probably as well known a parish-church building as any in Australia.
Construction on the church was begun in 1841 and was consecrated in 1845 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 stone 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, an 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's interior is lined with memorials to parishioners from early pastoral pioneer families to eminent Australian statesmen of the early federal era (Sir Robert Randolf Garran, Sir Littleton Ernest Groom), eminent scientists early associated with the C.S.I.R. and Mt Stromlo Observatory, 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, Cecil Warren, Ian George, Allan Ewing and Greg Thompson.
St John's has had a long association with the Royal Military College, Duntroon, which is also situated on land originally held by Robert Campbell. 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.
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.
The church and schoolhouse were classified on the Register of the National Estate in 1980.
Incumbents of St John's, Canberra
Edward Smith (Queanbeyan parish of which St John’s was then part) March 1845–May 1850
George Gregory May 1850‑August 1851
Thomas Wilkinson September 1851‑February 1854
Pierce Galliard Smith May 1855‑October 1905
Arthur Hopcraft December 1905‑October 1909
Arthur Champion October 1909‑April 1913
Frederick Ward April 1913‑June 1929
Charles Robertson January 1930‑May 1949
Robert Davies May 1949‑May 1953
(Robert) Gordon Arthur June 1953‑January 1960
Frederick Hill February 1960‑September 1972
Owen Dowling October 1972‑March 1981
Ian George August 1981‑October 1989
David Oliphant November 1989‑October 1995
Allan Ewing April 1996‑December 2003
Gregory Thompson July 2004‑April 2007
Paul Black January 2008-July 2021
'St John's Church in Spring', by Ethel Carrick (Fox) who was born in 1872. The painting was acquired by the Canberra Museum and Gallery in 2016.