Our Church's History - the story so
OUR METHODIST CONNECTION
Up until the mid 1850’s the nearest
churches for settlers south of the Cook's River were the
Anglican Church at St. Peter's and the Wesleyan Church
at Newtown. But in 1855, James and William Beehag, two
brothers from Essex in England, men with “true and deep
religious experience” started a Sunday school on
William's property in West Botany St., Arncliffe (In
those days known as Muddy Creek Road).
They built a bush house with rough
timbers, bags and ti-tree bushes for a meeting place and
also arranged with the Rev. Benjamin Chapman at Newtown
for services to be taken by preachers from Newtown.
Early in 1858 James Beehag gave to the
church the present site of one acre on Bay Street for a
church building with provision for a cemetery, as was
the custom in those days). A contract to build a stone
building, 30' x 20', was let for £220. The stone was
quarried from the nearby hills. The surrounding area in
those days was just bush, rock and swamp.
Rev. Richard Amos, a missionary from
Tonga opened the little church, known as the Rocky Point
Wesleyan Chapel, on Boxing Day 1858, even though the
floor had not been laid or the roof covered. This was
the first permanent place of worship in the Rockdale
It is reported that the fittings for the
building were made from the packing cases and discarded
woodwork from an old ship. The roof was covered with
wooden shingles, no doubt from the casuarina trees that
grew around the swamp. Oil lamps were used for
lighting. The chapel was added to in 1882 and again in
Services were held at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.,
during daylight hours because of the difficulty of
travelling over rough bush tracks.
Public Meetings were often held in the
Chapel during those early days. In the 1870's a chapel
keeper was employed and, because of the increasing
demand for the use of the building, his salary was
raised from £6 to £10 per year.
For our first 30 years we were an
outpost of the Newtown Circuit, which included preaching
places at Ashfield, Botany, Camperdown, Botany Bay,
Canterbury, Moorefields and Peakhurst.
Mr. Donald Finlayson, an early Lay
Preacher, tells of Sunday Appointments, walking from
Newtown to Peakhurst or Rocky Point in the morning, then
on to Moorefields (near Lakemba) for the afternoon, on
to Canterbury for an evening Service, and then back to
his home in Newtown, walking all the way over rough
Mr. John Andrews, another early Lay
Preacher, started a Day School in the Chapel in 1860,
which continued until 1884. For the last 2 years it was
part of the Public School system and fore-runner of
Rockdale Public School.
In 1871, when the congregation outgrew
the original Chapel, a contract was let for £600 to
build the present church.
West Botany Street Church was built in
1886, which took 8 teachers and 40 scholars from
Rockdale Sunday School. Also in 1886 our Church become
known as ‘Rockdale’ and was separated from the Newtown
Circuit to become part of a new circuit that included
Kogarah, Arncliffe, Hurstville, Bexley and West Botany
St.. The Rev. Thomas Parker was our first minister.
The manse (or parsonage) was built the
following year, 1887, at a cost of nearly £1000. The
lovely trees in the present car park are said to have
been planted about this time by Mr. John Bowmer during
his term as Mayor of Rockdale.
On 19th May 1898 the first pipe organ was
purchased for £135 and organ was installed the following
year. In 1908 parts of the 1898 organ were incorporated
in a new pipe organ, at a cost of £198, and this
instrument was dedicated on 18th March 1909.
In 1901 the Wesleyan Methodist Church of
which we were a part, united with the Primitive
Methodists, United Methodist Free Church and the Bible
Christians to form the "Methodist Church of
Australasia". There was a United Methodist Free Church
in Bryant St., which merged with us, but we know little
In 1902 we helped start what is now
Bexley Uniting Church, in Gladstone St. Bexley.
Concerning our Sunday School in the early
years of the 20th century, Eric Clancy
“Rockdale Sunday School, under the
superintendency of C.C. Jones, became a model for New
South Wales, and indeed for the whole of Australia as
workers came from all states to study its organisation
and methods. By the Great War, (it had 82 staff and 383
attending scholars) . . . In addition it provided for a
further 90 through its Cradle Roll and home departments,
the later providing material and occasional visits for
those who were unable to attend"
D. Wright and E. Clancy, “The
The need for a larger Sunday School
Building was felt around 1925, but it wasn't until 1933
that the building was commenced. This lovely hall with
its folding platform was opened on the 24th. March
1934. The old Church buildings were then completely re-modelled
and officially opened on 21st. December 1935 for the use
of the Beginners and Primary Departments.
1936 saw the old grave headstones moved
from the front to form a "Remembrance Wall" on the
southern side of the Church grounds.
The old chapel was placed at the disposal
of the National Emergencies Services during the Second
World War, when it was used as a First Aid Post. A
number of Church members served in the Armed Forces
during both World Wars, and the Honour Rolls for both
wars, along with the Honour Rolls from the West Botany
St. Church and the Rockdale Congregational Church now
hang in the Bay St. Church.
In 1952 the Sunday School changed from
afternoon to morning school, and the enrolment more than
doubled. The year 1955 saw the Choir and Minister's
Vestries added to the Church.
The beginnings of the Congregational
Church in this area date back to services held by the
Rev. S.C. Kent of Newtown in the Favell family home at
Arncliffe from 1859.
In 1887 services were started in Kogarah
School of Arts and two years later a church was opened
in Gray St. Kogarah with Rev. Edward Moore as their
minister. For a brief period Rev. Moore held services
in the homes of various church members, including “Athelstane”,
the home of William Judd, mayor of Rockdale.
On 1st March 1889 at the
behest of Rev. Robert Dey from Congregational Home
Mission Society, Mr. Judd chaired a meeting at Rockdale
Town Hall to consider the advisability of starting a
Congregational Church in Rockdale. The first services
were held in the Town Hall on Sunday 24th
March 1889 with 75 people at the morning service and 89
at the evening service. A Sunday School with 14
scholars and 5 teachers was held in the afternoon.
Much of the success of this was due to
the painstaking efforts of Robert Dallen who “combed the
district seeking out those who were sympathetic to the
In 1891 land was purchased on the corner
of Frederick and Watkins St. and the church was built
the following year. In 1901 it was enlarged and in 1938
the McNess Hall was built, with over half the cost being
met by a donation from Sir Charles McNess, a West
Australian philanthropist who in his time gave
generously to many causes. Sir Charles was invited to
open the hall in July 1938, but unfortunately he died
just one month before.
In 1925 the standard of music in church
services was in serious decline. The organist retired
due to ill-health and the choir master was given a
month’s notice, which led to the appointment of the
legendary Richard Thew as organist and choir master – a
position he held until his death in 1981.
Within a few short years Richard had
reformed and rebuilt the choir into one of the most
competent bodies of singers in Sydney. Under his
leadership Rockdale Congregational Church choir sang on
radio, won the coveted T.E. Rofe Trophy for church
choirs in the City of Sydney Eisteddfod so many times
that in 1958 no other choir even entered the contest.
In 1963 the choir also won the Church Choir Championship
in the Australian Eisteddfod in Canberra.
Although it never had more than 45
members, such was the choir’s fame that some of
Australia’s top soloists, including Dame Joan Sutherland
regarded it a privilege to sing with them.
For many years the church helped support
sister churches at Brighton-le-Sands and South Brighton,
and rejoiced in the opening of Congregational Churches
at Arncliffe (1893) and Bexley (1912).
1949 saw the membership of Rockdale
Congregational church peak at 219, and in its time it
produced at least three candidates for full-time
ministry, C.B. Cockett in 1915, Ernest Bowles in 1932
and Terence Corkin who was ordained in 1981.
As part of its service to the community
the church started what is now the Frederick St.
Kindergarten in 1949, and was involved in the formation
of a Mobile Nursing Service and Meals on Wheels in the
early 1960’s. In the 1970’s work started on the Bruce
Sharp Lodge and Mayflower Village to provide hostel and
self-care accommodation for older people. The Lodge,
named after one of the church deacons who was a driving
force behind its establishment, was officially opened in
Hwa Korean Uniting Church used the facilities from 1989
until they re-located to South Hurstville in 2003.
Since then it has been used by
by “Sveto Hristovo Voskresenie”
Macedonian Orthodox Church.
ROCKDALE UNITING CHURCH
The Uniting Church in Australia was
inaugurated on 22nd June 1977, but the
Congregational and the Methodist Churches here in
Rockdale had already come together about 2 years earlier
to form one congregation.
In November 1981 the West Botany St.
Church held its final service and joined our church. The
church building was sold to the Traditional Catholics
and the electronic organ was installed in our church in
In 1995, there was a recognition that our
church’s membership didn’t reflect the ethnic make-up of
those living around us. We were also aware that there
were many in our community who felt lonely, isolated and
powerless because of their lack of English, and so we
began English Conversation classes on a Friday mornings.
In 1998 we also began monthly
International Family Dinners and Easy English Services
to provide Christian fellowship and worship for people
from non-English speaking backgrounds, We’ve also sought
to provide pastoral care and advocacy for new arrivals.
In 2000 we joined the internet set with
the development of our web-site by Stephen Oades.
In 2004 with the assistance of funds from
the NSW Synod of the Uniting Church, we were able to
employ Lynette Ferguson part-time as a Children’s and
Family worker and Tiny Tse, also part-time, joined us in
2006 as a New Arrivals’ Worker. Lynette left us at
the end of 2007, and Sharon Harnwell has joined the team
as Children's and Family worker and worked with us
through to 2009.
Reverend Martin Goodwin took up the
challenge to become our minister in July 2007.