With joy, thankfulness and some snippets of colonial history, one of the oldest churches in Australia has celebrated the 200th anniversary of its consecration this week.
St Matthew’s at Windsor officially opened a week before Christmas in 1822, but to ensure people weren’t too tied up to take part in 2022, rector the Rev Chris Jones opted to hold the birthday events a month earlier.
Community and church members filled the beautiful Georgian church on Sunday, November 27 and the following Tuesday to remember, and to look forward. Psalm 87 was read – the text of the first sermon in the church by the colony’s first chaplain, the Rev Samuel Marsden – and schoolchildren sang music by Colin Buchanan. Indigenous aunties welcomed the congregation to Darug land, stories from the colony’s early years were recounted, church restoration work admired and lots of birthday cupcakes consumed.
However, for Mr Jones, the heart of the story at St Matthew’s will always be Jesus.
He asked Archdeacon Neil Atwood to preach on the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at the Sunday service, because the theme he had chosen for the event was “Flawed Heroes”.
“That idea of flawed heroes seems to be true when you find out about the people at the beginning of the colony – and that brings you back to the gospel, doesn’t it, because we’re all flawed,” he says. “Whoever we are, we all stand needy before the Lord and there’s only one right way of approach, and that’s ‘Lord, have mercy’.
“I care about the Christian heart of this. I think our history gives us an opportunity not just to tell our stories but reflect the gospel through them and honour Jesus, and we want to do that. That’s why the ministries matter... the building was needed for worship, and it’s the people of God who met and do meet to worship God in the building.”
A bit of history
Of course, there’s nothing like a good story to add spice to history– and goodness knows, St Matthew’s has seen a good deal since its official opening in 1822.
However, there was also plenty going on in the years before the church opened its doors. A modest chapel on another site was utilised from 1804, and the church graveyard from 1810 – the same year Lachlan Macquarie arrived as Governor of the colony. And although he had plans for a grand church building from shortly after his arrival, he didn’t lay the foundation stone until seven years later. Then the original workmanship was so poor that what had been built was demolished and a new architect appointed: Francis Greenway, whose other designs included Hyde Park Barracks, and St James’, King Street.
With Greenway in charge, the creation of a Georgian masterpiece was assured – and Governor Macquarie expected to open it himself in September 1821. However, it opened a full 15 months later, and the church’s historian and president of the Hawkesbury Historical Society, Jan Barkley-Jack, lays the blame for this at the feet of Samuel Marsden.
It is well known that Marsden and Macquarie did not get on, and it also appears that Marsden founds a number of ways to delay the consecration until after Macquarie had returned to Scotland.
“At times, even though you don’t want some things to be true... sadly you find the proof is there and they were human after all,” she says.
Mrs Barkley-Jack is particularly interested in the everyday residents of the district in the early years of the colony, and gave a tour of the graveyard on the Sunday to tell some of the stories of those buried there.
Among them are William and Elizabeth Freeman, both former convicts, who moved into the Hawkesbury area in about 1801. William Freeman worked as a cooper and they had eight children, but sadly Elizabeth Freeman died in 1816 aged only 36.
The modest stone that marks their graves, made from sandstone, bears only their initials: WF and EF. “It’s very insignificant looking, but it’s an important little gravestone,” she says.
Thanks to the Lord
Mr Jones is “full of praise” for how the events were received and enjoyed by the community, especially given his desire to focus on Jesus.
We know we’ve done something good when the service, as [Bishop] Chris Edwards said, was full of Jesus from beginning to end yet all the unbelievers on both days were saying what a great service it was to be in!” he says.
“I wish I could have bottled the joy... it’s just been wonderful.”