Building History: St Andrews Strathalbyn.
the Oldest Presbyterian Building in South Australia still functioning as a church...
The first Christian services held in the Strathalbyn area took place on farm homesteads, from 1839 onwards (see History of the Congregation).
In 1844 a church was erected on the site of the present building*. The 1844 building served various denominations for several years and was also used as a school.
By 1848 the original church was too small and so began the building of St. Andrews. The stones for the foundations may have been quarried from the Angas River just below the site. The structure that opened in January 1849 is now at the crossing of the nave and the transepts of the present church.
The building begun in 1848 is the oldest Presbyterian building in South Australia still functioning as a church: the first Presbyterian church in the state has since been demolished, and the ‘Inverbrackie Ruins’ are of a Presbyterian church built in 1846, State Heritage listed, and also owned by the Uniting Church.
By 1857 the church was again too small (copper mining had increased the population and wealth of the town) so the transepts were added, completed in 1859. Again the congregation grew, so in 1865 the nave was enlarged and a gallery, spire and porch were added. English & Brown were the architects engaged as the church building developed.
These buildings were a big demand on the resources of the parishioners. Cash was always scarce, but people supplied labour and materials. They donated sheep, cattle, grain and hay to be sold. Tea meetings, lectures, musical evenings and fetes were organised. Loans were arranged through banks, often at high interest rates, and through local parishioners.
Edward Stirling Esq. returned to Scotland where he was persuaded to donate a bell for the spire. The bell, which was cast in Sheffield, England, weighed 2 tonnes. When it arrived in Strathalbyn, church officials realised at once that it was too heavy for the spire. Several alternatives were tried until eventually the decision was made in 1869 to build a bell tower.
Mrs E J Tucker suggested in 1895 that the tower needed a clock, so she started a subscription list within the community and the project was completed. The four clock faces were purchased from Mr J M Wendt of Adelaide.
The last of the building was completed in 1938 when the Vestry and its furnishings were donated by Mrs E J Tucker to celebrate 100 years of the Presbyterian church in South Australia.
So the church took 90 years to grow from a modest rectangular structure to its present imposing appearance.
In 1954 the slate roof was replaced with cement tiles. In 1956 two spirelets were blown from the top of the tower during a storm; the remaining two were removed in 1957 as a safety precaution.
In 2001, after extensive external maintenance which included the tower, four new spirelets were placed into position. This was financed by generous donations from the community. The church now has the same appearance as it had in earlier days.
Over the years there have been extensive alterations and refurbishing of the interior, with gifts from parishioners in the 1930s, and generous bequests from the Bell-Richardson families in 1951, and the Buckley family in 1965.
There are many memorials both inside and outside the building, commemorating special events and in remembrance of people associated with the church. The stained glass windows, including The Good Shepherd and The Good Samaritan, are a particular attraction. The Burning Bush in the east balcony is a Presbyterian symbol, and a Scottish Thistle is used in memorial windows along the sides of the church, naming various individuals and families.
After the Uniting Church in Australia was inaugurated in 1977, services were held on alternate Sundays in John Wesley Church (formerly Methodist) and St Andrews. But eventually a decision was taken to sell the smaller John Wesley church in Commercial Road (now the Chapel Theatre, owned by the Strathalbyn Players) and to worship in the larger St Andrews church.
So in December 1981 St Andrews was closed for extensive refurbishing. Furnishings from John Wesley Church were incorporated. Various memorials from both churches were placed in the worship area and gallery. After a final service in the John Wesley Church on December 5th, 1982, St Andrews was re-opened as Strathalbyn Uniting Church on December 12th, 1982.
By 2020 it was becoming apparent that extensive renovation was needed on the roof & ceilings, walls, clock tower and spire, so surveys were carried out by heritage architects Hosking Willis and structural engineer John Bowley. We await an indicative estimate of restoration costs, but in the meantime we are taking related issues into consideration in our use of the building. The St Andrews Hall serves as an alternative venue for services when necessary.
*We acknowledge that St Andrews church stands on Peramangk country, overlooking the Angas River, which borders Ngarrindjeri country. We are grateful to these traditional custodians for their care for the land, and pay respect to their elders past, present and emerging.
This brief history is adapted and updated from Evelyn Glazbrook’s ‘The History of the Strathalbyn & District Uniting Church 1839-1989’, which was edited and published in 2015 by Janet Stacey and Catherine Hirschausen.