No. 197 - St Matthias' at Windermere - "The Bishop's Curse"

St Matthias' at Windermere is possibly one of the most recognised of Tasmania’s historic churches. It radiates romance and history. Writing in 1939, Launceston architect Frank Heyward wrote:

“The Interstate ferries passing up the Tamar, carrying visitors from all parts of Australia and elsewhere come suddenly upon a scene that has irresistibly appealed to Englishman as being typical of [the] scenery from their home land. They gaze on a little village church, simple, and unpretentious in design, standing on the grassy river bank, backed with fine trees and reflected in the calm water of the Tamar”.

The church’s founding is the stuff of legend. In 1842, Dr Matthias Gaunt fulfilled a promise to his wife that if there were no church within reasonable distance of their new home he would build one. Writing in 1937, Evelyn Archer wrote:

“Few buildings in Northern Tasmania possess greater historic interest than St. Matthias at Windermere. It stands as a monument to the high moral character of our early pioneers, and especially to the public spirit of Dr. Gaunt”.

Juxtaposed against this romantic and historical backdrop is the harsh reality of  the national redress scheme for victims of institutional abuse. In 2018 the survival of St Matthias', along with dozens of Anglican churches across Tasmania faced the imminent threat of closure and sale. 

The issue of survival is not a new one for St Matthias'. Perhaps less known is that the church could have been lost before. By the late 1930’s it was in a dreadful state and on the verge of closure. Writing in 1939 Frank Heyward observed that services were only held fortnightly and:

“The congregation consists of only a handful of people. The church fabric is cracked in many places, and will eventually be destroyed if the building is not repaired”.

In 1937 the church had also been the target of serious vandalism. The Examiner reported a “shocking case of wilful destruction” which took place on the morning of Sunday the 18th of July:

“On the morning of that day, rifle shots were heard in the vicinity of the church and jetty, and when the church was opened for a service in the afternoon… broken windows were discovered. Leaden pellets were found on the floor of the church, and a bullet in the wall facing the river”.

In all seventy panes of lead-light windows were destroyed by a party of youths travelling in an ‘old motor lorry’ with five young men carrying guns.

The vandalism and structural problems evident in the late 1930’s made headlines at the time but the deterioration of the church had been an issue since the 1920’s. In 1922, an article in The Examiner under the heading ‘The Church Militant’ noted that St Matthias' had deteriorated badly:

“It had been pitiful to watch the gradual deterioration of the once splendid little institution as the sacred building fell into disrepair”.

However, the community rallied and the church was transformed:

“Before they commenced their labours the church was very dilapidated and the exterior and interior were in disheartening condition. The committee set about painting and colouring the walls inside and out, renovating the woodwork, staining and varnishing the fittings, repairing the organ which had done excellent service for sixty years, re-roofing with galvanised iron and painting it and effecting other improvements. The work has involved considerable labour, and the expenditure of a large sum of money collected among the parishioners and other lovers of the church, who gave freely”.

The repairs made in 1922 bought the church some time but by 1939 the structural problems could no longer be ignored. Extensive repairs and renovations were undertaken and the church was shut for 5 months during the building work.

In October 1939 Bishop Dr Robert Snowden Hay officially reopened St Matthias. His words are especially pertinent today:

“There were many people…. who were not the least interested in history, … People should not forget that what they valued most in both the church and state was largely due to the efforts of those who had gone before them. A lack of appreciation of the work of the pioneers was apparent in many young people, …. There was also a tendency for many people to consider themselves much wiser than their ancestors…. The early settlers made provision for places in which they could gather to worship God and many of these buildings still stand as monuments to their piety”.

Bishop Hay could not have imagined that a future threat to St Matthias' would not come from vandals with rifles or from the deterioration of age but from the actions of the Anglican Church itself.

However the St Matthias' community which rallied in the 1920s and 1930s to save the church, did so again in 2018. Many are ancestors of the pioneers referred to by Bishop Hay. Writing in The Australian in 2018, Kate Legge made the point that the threat of sale and closure:


“Galvanized the custodians of St Matthias. Tears and turmoil have unleashed a wave of hope. …. The bishop’s curse may prove to be a blessing in disguise”.

                                           ****

Since this article was written in 2018, The St Matthias' community has successfully saved the church from being sold and it continues to function as an Anglican church.

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2017

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2017

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2017

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2017


Photograph: Duncan Grant 2017

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2017

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2017

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2017

Sources:

The Examiner, Wednesday 1 February, 1922, page 8
The Examiner, Saturday 24 July, 1937, page 6
The Examiner, Friday 29 October 1937, page 13
The Examiner, Saturday 20 May 1939, page 2 
the Examiner, Monday 9 October 1939, page 6 
The Examiner, Saturday 30 October 1943, page 6
The Weekend Australian Magazine, Saturday 7 July 2018

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