No. 558 - Richmond - St John the Evangelist

Richmond is a heritage town located in the Coal River Valley approximately 25 kilometres east of Hobart. The valley was one of the earliest areas penetrated by the first British settlers outside of Hobart. Richmond’s origins go back to 1823 when a bridge was constructed across the Coal River, so named because of coal deposits in the area. The Richmond Bridge is Australia's oldest surviving bridge. Beyond the bridge lies the church of St John the Evangelist, Australia’s oldest Catholic church.

Much has been written about St John’s therefore this article is limited to a brief summary of the church’s founding and a history of the building’s evolution.

In 1835 Archbishop John Bede Polding, the first Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, visited Tasmania on his way from England to Sydney. Polding was an English Benedictine monk from the Downside Priory, Somerset. Polding's ambition was to establish a Colonial Church founded on monastic ideals which would civilise and convert the new colony, just as the Benedictine’s had done during Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’. However, Australia’s first priests were mainly Irish and their different world view inevitably undermined Polding's vision.

On Polding’s arrival in Hobart he insisted on a visit to Richmond where there was a significant population of Catholics. The Governor, Sir George Arthur, tried to persuade Polding not to make the trip, which was considered dangerous, but supported him by providing protection for the clerical party. The Governor also promised to match donations collected for the erection of a church at Richmond. The Archbishop was accompanied by Father Lawrence Cotham who had accompanied him from England.

Polding was warmly received at Richmond and on 23 August 1835 he celebrated Mass at Woodburn, the homestead of John Cassidy. Cassidy donated land for a church and the Archbishop collected £700 towards its erection. Polding blessed a foundation stone for the church, making the event the first formal act of an Australian Catholic bishop.

The church, which was built in a little under two years, was designed by architect Henry Edmund Goodridge. Polding possessed a small portfolio of church plans produced by Goodridge prior to his departure for Australia. The Richmond church’s original appearance was very different from the building which now stands in the town. It was a small rectangular structure with early English detail and pinnacled buttresses at the corners, measuring 15m long by 6m wide. The only existing image of this church is Thomas Chapman’s sketch of Richmond where the building features as a small part of a broader landscape. (see below)

The church was formally opened on 31 December 1837. A short account of the service appears in ‘The True Colonist Van Diemen's Land Political Despatch’:

“In pursuance of the advertisement announcing the opening of this unique and classic edifice for divine worship on Sunday, a highly respectable and numerous assembly of gentry arrived at eleven o’clock, to witness this most solemn and imposing ceremony. Nothing could equal the surprise of the audience at finding a most efficient choir contributing to the solemnity of the scene…. The Vicar General sang the high mass with great ability. An extemporaneous discourse on the benefits of the extension of religious instruction, and the erection of houses to the glory of God, was delivered by the Rev. Mr. Cotham, and met with general approbation….A sumptuous repast was prepared by Mr. Cassidy, for his friends of the choir and others, when the health and prosperity of the worthy host, (to whose instrumentality the erection of the Catholic Church was mainly due,) was drank in the warmest manner by the guests, who returned to Hobart Town in the evening, delighted with their day's pilgrimage to Richmond”.

In 1859 the church was substantially enlarged and it was transformed into a significantly different building. The alteration of the church was driven by Father William Dunne, who had overseen the construction of the Pugin designed St Patrick’s church at nearby Colebrook. The alterations were adapted from one of Pugin’s three scale-model churches that Bishop Willson had brought to Tasmania in 1844.

The considerably enlarged 1859 church included a tower and spire. The spire was one of three spires to adorn the tower of the church over the years. The height of the 1859 spire appears to be out of proportion to the tower. (see photo below). This was replaced in 1893 by a new spire designed by the Launceston architect Alexander North. Due to its deterioration, the second spire was replaced by a third spire in 1972. This spire resembled the 1859 spire but was shorter and a better proportioned version of the original structure.

Apart from the three spires, the church underwent further substantial renovation and restoration in 1929, although most of the changes were limited to the interior of the building. The Hobart Mercury’s coverage of the reopening of St John’s in April 1929 includes a description of the church’s refurbishment:

“A beautiful new ceiling of Tasmanian hardwood has been erected, and is a witness to the utility and beauty of our own timbers for such work. Stained glass windows have superseded the old plain windows, all of which have been donated by parishioners. The beautiful stained glass window over the high altar has been repaired, and is much admired. A magnificent new altar, beautifully carved, has been presented by another generous parishioner. A set of handsome stations of the Cross has been erected, and here again each of the 14 stations has been presented by a parishioner. Two large statues are set in the sanctuary on handsome blackwood pedestals. The church is the happy possessor of a very fine picture painted in England by an artist named Brown, who is designated as a royal artist. It is much admired. The vestry has been extended and refurnished. ….Two marble tablets, one to commemorate the fact that the church was erected in 1835, and another giving the names of the parish priests since 1836, have been erected at the entrance….”

The above description resembles the current appearance of the interior of the church. The many tourists who visit St John the Evangelist would probably be unaware that the church, as beautiful as it is, has undergone a considerable metamorphosis over the last 180 years. Nevertheless, St John’s has an unassailable position in the history of Catholicism in Australia. It is an iconic building, which together with Richmond’s historic bridge, frames a small part of the 'inspiring' story of Tasmania’s early colonial history.

All the photographs below, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.

A classic view of Australia's oldest Catholic Church framed by Australia oldest surviving bridge.

A detail of a landscape sketch by Thomas Chapman’s c.1845 showing Richmond Catholic church and presbytery. (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)

An early image of the enlarged church (1859) - with its disproportionate spire (Image: Courtesy of the Richmond Parish)

A  photograph of showng the Alexander North spire which replaced the original spire in (1893) (Image: Courtesy of Richmond Parish collection
 The Most Reverend John Bede Polding O.S.B., first Archbishop of Sydney - National Library of  Australia

The historic cemetery:

A memorial to victims of the Port Arthur Massacre


The True Colonist Van Diemen's Land Political Despatch, and Agricultural and Commercial, Friday 5 January 1838, page 5 
Courier, Monday 14 February 1859, page 2
Mercury, Friday 19 April 1929, page 5
Mercury, Tuesday 22 August 1893, page 3
Mercury, Monday 22 April 1929, page 3
Mercury, Monday 27 January 1930, page 3
Mercury, Monday 15 November 1937, page 9 
Examiner, Saturday 22 October 1938, page 2

The Pugin Foundation, St John the Evangelist’s Church, Richmond, Tasmania, an essay by Brian Andrews

St John’s Richmond: the oldest Catholic Church in Australia, MN News today - by Ashleigh Banks, 4 April 2018

St John's Church and Cemetery - Souvenir Booklet produced by parish in 1972 to fund the church's restoration.


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