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St John's - Canberra's oldest 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

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