It was a wet morning in May when the people of St Mary’s, Balmain came together to celebrate 175 years of Christian community.
“At this church in the village, since 1846 you as a Christian community of faith continue to welcome with wide arms and wonderful smile,” NSW Governor Margaret Beazley told the congregation.
“The mathematicians amongst you will already know that I haven’t miscalculated because there’s actually been 176 years of service here at St Mary’s, but these days we put it down to… the COVID catch-up syndrome.”
A self-confessed history buff, the Governor was surrounded by historical photographs and artefacts as she addressed the congregation in the pandemic-delayed service.
It was her predecessor, Governor John Hunter, who granted 550 acres of land on the west side of Cockle Bay in 1800 to the colony’s principal surgeon, Dr William Balmain.
As the suburb emerged, the foundation stone for a parish church was laid in 1845 by Bishop William Grant Broughton. The next day The Sydney Morning Herald reported that it had been so windy only a few people had heard the words of dedication.
Governor Beazley remarked on the good PA system that allowed her to be heard over the rain almost two centuries later.
“But as you know, it’s not the building that we really celebrate today,” she said. “It’s the 175 years of continuous Christian community and worship, a place provided for contemplation, for celebration. For everything that goes with sustained pastoral care.”
Former rectors John Cashman, Ed Vaughan and Barry McGrath and former lay minister Belinda Burn watched as new rector, the Rev Matt Davies, recounted the colourful history of St Mary’s.
The parish’s longest-serving rector was the Rev Mervyn Archdall, and in 1891 he and his wife set aside a quarter of their income to create the Deaconess Ministries Institution in a house next door to the church. The institute was the first of its kind in Australia – training and equipping women for ministry. It later became Mary Andrews College.
Less glorious was 1926, when the then minister banned jazz-age dancing in the church hall. The community responded by trying to storm a parish meeting, throwing firecrackers into the church and rocks onto the roof!
A sad note during the incumbency of the Rev John Howell-Price (1910-1915) is also one of Australia’s most remarkable stories of wartime sacrifice. Five of his six sons served in World War I. All were decorated – winning three Military Crosses, four Distinguished Service Orders and one Distinguished Service Cross between them. Only two returned. The youngest three died in action in France.
Owen Howell-Price, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, served at Gallipoli and on the Somme. When mortally wounded in France his final words were, “Give my love to the battalion”.
Sharing God’s grace
The existing building is the second church on the site. The first was found to be too small and was demolished after only 10 years. Matt Davies reminded the gathering that St Mary’s has always been more than a building.
“While it was initially set up to be a place for Christian community, Christian community always seeks to be faithful to the command to love [in Jesus’] name,” he said.
“That’s what we seek to do at St Mary’s. Love our neighbours, be a blessing to our community and it is our vision to be the heart of the village here in Balmain.”
Archbishop Raffel, who also attended the celebration, referred to the congregation’s history, including the 113 parishioners who served in the Great War – 29 of whom died in battle, among them the three Howell-Price brothers.
“As you know, it became the policy of the Government to ask the local Anglican minister to deliver the shattering news of men killed in action to their families, making the arrival of the vicar at your gate an ominous and unwelcome sight,” he said. “Like virtually every church, St Mary’s grieved with Balmain from the inside out.”
He added that its story had been written not only in historic moments but in ordinary ones. “Thousands of interactions and kindnesses, conversations, prayers, moments of shared tears, and silence, and comfort and prayerful hope. These are ordinary things for Christians.
“Anniversaries give us the opportunity to remember with thanks the ordinary goodness of God that is poured out upon us through the gospel… which is, in the end, all that we have to offer the world. The grace and hope and love of God that we have known in Jesus Christ.
“For 175 years, the congregations of St Mary’s have shared in God’s grace in Jesus and offered him to this community, and that is entirely something for which to give thanks.”