Australia's oldest church?

Posted by barbara on August 3, 2013


Ebenezer Uniting Church, the oldest surviving European place of worship in Australia


Following the British ‘settlement’ of Sydney Cove in 1788, one might have assumed that the oldest church building in Australia would be found in the heart of the City of Sydney’s CBD.


St Philips Anglican church, constructed five years after the arrival of the First Fleet

But while the first church, a mud brick structure that doubled as a schoolhouse, was built in 1793, this Church of England place of worship was destroyed by disaffected convicts in 1798 and rebuilt twice over, with the current St Philips erected between 1848 and 56.

So where exactly is the oldest church in Australia? For the record, it is 69 kilometres north-west of Sydney and five kilometres from the little township of Wilberforce, attractively located on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.

Built in 1809 by a group of free settlers, Australia’s oldest surviving European place of worship began its existence as a Presybyterian chapel at a riverside locality known as Portland Head. The high ground it occupied, Ebenezer Mount, had been used for open air services for a number of years, with lay people leading the worship.

Why did this small group of settlers leave England under their free wll to make the dangerous journey on the Coramandel to the penal colony of Port Jackson in 1802? Religious persecution, in short, underpinned the decision of the Presbyterian Free Settlers to leave everything they and loved behind them.


The gravestones bear witness to the first Portland Head settlers and the descendents

A mix of Scottish and English 'non-conformists', they had chosen to turn their backs on the Church of England, the official church of the land, opting instead for Presybterianism. In doing so, they were deemed to be second class citizens, barred from holding a range of positions in society and from attending university.


The nearby Hawkesbury River served as a mode of transport for the river-borne coffins of loved ones from up and down the river

When faced with the option of recanting their faith, they chose to 'non-confirm' and when given the opportunity, they took up berths on a convict ship in order to start a new life in a penal colony. Hard as the shipboard conditions might be, the prospect of being able to worship in peace without the threat of persecution was an overwhelming plus.

Originally settled at Toongabbie, the Coromandel immigrants as they became to be known, carved out a pioneering life on the Hawkesbury River, clearing the heavily wooded land by hand and constructing basic accommodation.


Additional buildings have been added to the historic site including a tea room and school room

Australia's oldest church also served as a schoolhouse for many years.

The first Portland Head service presided over by an ordained minister, as opposed to a lay person, was held in 1824 by the Scottish Reverend John Dunmore Lang.

He presided over a service which he subsequently described as follows: 'according to the hallowed customs of the Presbyterian Church. It was the first time it had ever been dispensed on the Australian continent, in such sort as it is written in the standards of the Presbyterian Communion. There were twenty communicants; and the very peculiar circumstances in which the ordinance was solemnized, in the little church standing on a rising ground on the edge of the forest, and overlooking a beautiful and romantic reach of the noble river, rendered the whole scene the most interesting and affecting I had ever witnessed.'

Services are still held most Sundays in the Ebenezer Church that now bears the name Uniting after most congregations of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational denominations joined forces in 1977.


A Convict's Story-Part 7, 2004.'Janice Doughty' <>

Pioneers of Portland head - Builders of Ebenezer Church and School

Early Settlers of the Hawkesbury and Hunter Rivers and Squatters of the North-West New South Wales and Southern Queensland including Family Genealogies

by RM Arndell, Cattai, January 1973

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