Our Church's History - the story so far...
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 City area.
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 1904.
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 difficult roads.
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 about it.
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 writes,
“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 Methodists”, p.89
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.
OUR CONGREGATIONAL CONNECTION
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 Congregational cause”.
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 October 1977.
Pyung Hwa Korean Uniting Church used the facilities from 1989 until they re-located to South Hurstville in 2003. It was then used by by “Sveto Hristovo Voskresenie” Macedonian Orthodox Church.
In May 2016 fire destroyed the Frederick Street 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 Bay St.
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 joined the team as Children's and Family worker and worked with us through to 2009.
Reverend Martin Goodwin took up the challenge and became our minister in July 2007.
We continue to:
- minister to children and their parents and guardians through Playtime
- support people who are new speakers of English through English Conversation classes
- support the Kogarah Storehouse food pantry to help those who are destitute.
- co-operate with other churches in the district to provide a Religious Education teacher at James Cook Boys High School and Moorefield Girls High School.
- provide “Christianity Explained” courses for those seeking a faith to live by.
Our church buildings are used by many community groups throughout the week, and the Rockdale Sydney Nepali Church-Christ Vision Nepal worship
in the church on Sunday evenings.