Just a few minutes from the Parramatta train station is the home of Australia’s longest continuing church site and one of its earliest churches.
In 1788, soon after the first load of convicts arrived at Sydney Cove, Governor Phillip took a trip up to find the headwaters of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). Finding good soil and fresh water there he formed a settlement at Rose Hill (named after Sir George Rose the Under-Secretary of the Treasurer) and mapped out the bare bones of a town extending from the foot of Rose Hill for one mile eastward along the creek.
This place he named Parramatta, as this was his interpretation of the name given by the first peoples to the spot on which the town is situated. By end of 1791 there were one thousand people living in the district and they were ministered by the Rev. Richard Johnstone in a large shed once a fortnight. In a letter to Governor Phillip dated March 23 1792, Johnstone states;
Last spring there was the foundation of a church laid a Parramatta. before it was finished it was converted into a gaol or lock up house, and now it is converted into a granary. … I go up to Parramatta, as usual, once a fortnight the distance by water about fourteen miles.
On 10 March 1794 the Rev. Samuel Marsden who had been appointed Assistant Chaplain arrived in Parramatta and relieved Johnstone of the care of the Western settlements. According to David Collins a temporary church … formed out of the materials of two old huts, was opened at Parramatta on the first Sunday of September 1798. However this is contradicted by the following entry in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1848 which states it was opened in 1796;
I may here mention that Rose Hill or Parramatta was soon after supplied with a temporary‘ church. On the first Sunday in August,1796, one was opened by the Rev. S. Marsden,which had been built of the materials of two old huts; and thus, says Collins, the two principal places in the colony wore supplied with respectable churches. While speaking of Parramatta, I may also add, that the foundation stone of the present church, dedicated to St.John, was laid on the 5th of April, 1797. Service was first performed in it on the 10th of April, 1803. This church is, therefore, the oldest in the colony, and, therefore, in Australasia. R. L. K., The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 9 May 1848, page 3
Whether this was an official laying of the stone is unclear for five years later, in October 1799, Governor Hunter is also recorded as having laid a foundation stone for a new church. This was to be 100 feet long and forty-four wide but work proceeded slowly and in 1801 Governor King wrote to Sir Joseph Banks saying; … nor have we an elegant stone church at Parramatta, one of brick and stone will be finished during the year. By 1807 Governor Bligh was still complaining that work was unfinished although presumably the superstructure was intact as it had been used for worship since 1803.
Made out of brick the predominant feature of the ‘Old’ St John’s Church was the two towers inspired by a similar set on Reculver’s Church in Kent. The story behind these somewhat unusual features states that they were made at the request of Mrs Macquaire, as Reculver’s was the last church she saw as she left England. Governor Macquarie asked his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant John Cliffe Watts of the 4th Regiment, to come up with designs. In Mitchell Library, Sydney, there is a drawing folder by Watts which includes drawings of the church spires one of which bears the watermark of 1813 and has Macquarie’s initials and approved written on it. Also in the portfolio is an excellent water-colour of Reculver’s Church by Watt. In 1902 the grandson of Marsden, Rev Hassell, published his book “In Old Australia”in which he gives a good description of this church.
… old St John’s, was a large brick building, stuccoed, with two towers and spires. The church was removed afterwards and was rebuilt of stone, all but the towers which are still standing, … within were high pews and galleries. I remember my grandfather preaching from the old high pulpit, which stood in the middle of the church. The soldiers sat in one gallery, and afterwards, the King’s School Boys in another. On one occasion I recollect my grandfather preaching about the patriarchs, and saying that Abraham was a squatter on Government ground. The reading desk was below the pulpit, and the clerk’s desk somewhat lower still. The clerk’s desk was occupied for many years by Mr J Staff who repeated the responses and amens …
In 1838 Rev Marsden died and was replaced by Rev H. H. Bobart his son-in-law. Sometime around 1852 it was decided to pull down the old church and erect a new one. The original chapel was demolished in 1852 and replaced with a new sandstone nave built in Romanesque Revival style. All of the main part of the building removed except for the two towers and later, in 1883, the transepts were added.
Frank Walker, Parramatta and District Historical Society,Journal and Proceedings,
Volume 1, The Cumberland Argus, Parramatta, 1918
Parramatta Heritage Study, Parramatta Council, 1992
Centenary Celebration’s, Anglican Church, Australia, 1913