St Peter’s Mt Victoria
In 1832 convicts completed work on the Victoria Pass and it became the principal route of access to western NSW. However not a lot was happening at Mt Victoria until 1868 when the rail went through. Locals sniffed the air and detected heady days of progress ahead. A building program must proceed. But years before the post office and high-class hotels became a reality, a small sandstone Church of England opened up the account in I875 drawing together the community as it still does today.
Land for the church, to be called St Peter’s, was given by prominent landholder, Henry Bell, who owned most of the land to the south of the Western Rd at Mt Victoria (there’s a connection here to The Bells Line of Road) and the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Frederick Barker, Lord Bishop of Sydney, on September 18, 1874 with all the pomp and ceremony such occasions then warranted.
There were hymns, prayers and speeches. An inscribed parchment was consigned to a bottle and laid in a cavity before the official stone was lowered and Dr Barker presented with a trowel and mallet as a memento .
The treasurer’s pre-construction account was read which showed that the committee was 85 pounds shy of its target. It resulted in a quick whip around with the locals providing a further 50 pounds and 10 shillings and the guest of honour’s wife, Mrs Barker, coming to the rescue with an envelope containing 35 pounds from donors in Sydney.
When the mid-afternoon proceedings wound up, treasurer John Perry, invited everyone to a ‘late lunch’ at his local Family Hotel where there were more speeches and responses, loyal toasts and hymn singing, the occasion merging into an evening service taken by the Bishop of Sydney, Bishop Marsden.
The church was completed in I875, the earliest church in the Upper Mountains. It was on a rising piece of ground commanding an extensive view of mountain scenery. The building was a neat rubble stone construction 30 foot by 18 foot clear inside with a chancel. Stained glass windows at the eastern end above the sanctuary were of St Peter and St Paul. The building cost 200 pounds. The architect was David Macbeath and the builder, Alexander Armstrong. Its original affiliation was with St John the Evangelist's Church of England, at Hartley, which had opened in 1859.
The church licence issued on June 21 1875 stated that it was granted through a petition of the Rev. Robert Hansen Mayne, BA, Licensed Minister in the District of Hartley in the County of Cook and several residents and inhabitants of Mt Victoria. The difference between ‘residents’ and ‘inhabitants’ is not stated. The Rev. Mayne was rector of St John’s Hartley, and so became the ﬁrst minister at St Peter’s.
By the mid 1880s Mt Victoria had become a busy, thriving country resort with bandstands, tea sheds, shops, boarding houses and fancy hotels. It was the fashionable refreshment stop for visitors going west and to the Jenolan Caves. St Peter’s was caught up in the prevailing expansion.
A parsonage was needed. Dr Barker had noted this and proposed the idea in 1882 also suggesting that Mt Victoria and Blackheath should be combined as one parish. The matter lapsed. It was raised again in 1886 by Bishop Barry and once again it was the Bell family who gave the matter impetus. This time Mrs Henry Bell obliged, her generosity noted in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on November 13 1899: “The site of the parsonage was donated by Mrs Henry Bell and she was presented with a massive silver trowel and mallet mounted in ivory and bearing the inscription ‘Presented to Mrs Henry Bell on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of St Peter’s parsonage, in grateful recognition of her generous gift of the site and her many kindnesses to the church at Mt Victoria. November 9 1899’ “ The article would have been more correct had it said that Mrs Henry Bell couldn't make it on the day and St Peter’s oldest church member and resident of Mt Victoria, Mr P. G. Whittal, requested her relative, Colonel Baynes, to act on her behalf, lay the foundation stone and hand the inscribed gift to her!
St Peter’s was the setting for gala occasions and bazaars, presided over by large committees of women, in the lead-up to WWI with the Sydney Morning Herald's own correspondent sending reports by telegraph to Sydney. During WWI there were fund raisers and occasions for more sombre reasons.
Post WWI, the church - prominent in the community - ﬂexed its civic muscle in 1927 and wrote to the President of the Blue Mountains Shire which then had its headquarters at Lawson. The subject? An objection in the strongest terms to tennis being played at the tennis court in Mt Victoria on Sundays. The letter stated, “The tennis court is within a stone's throw of the Church of England rectory and the Presbyterian Church and will cause a deal of bitter feeling” adding that the court was maintained by local ratepayers and a poll should be taken among them on the question of this ‘innovation’. The list of signatures was led by the rector at the time, the Rev. W. P. F. Dorph. He didn't have to wait long for a reply. It was back within a few weeks and minus the poll...council, while not slamming down an ace, delivered the church a ‘serve’ deciding that tennis could not be played at the courts at Mt Victoria during church hours. The “open for business” sign was up for the rest of the day.
Soon after Japan entered the WWII conflict many people were evacuated from Sydney, especially children, and St Peter's bolstered its congregation. The Sydney Church of England Grammar School (known as Shore) bought the old hotel at the corner of Station St and Harley Ave at Mt Victoria, surrendered the hotel's licence and with minimum alteration converted the pub to a boarding school for preparatory schoolboys. The headmaster, R. A. Gilfillan, H. W. Prince and J. Terry moved to Mt Victoria to staff the school and the boys attended St Peter's every Sunday during school term. In 1992 a 50 year jubilee of the Shore Mt Victoria evacuees was held and included a church service at St Peter's. One of the boys who had been evacuated, Peter Benjamin, and his wife Jenny, then had a holiday residence at Mt Victoria and it fell to them to organise the well-attended event,
From 1875 to 1964 St Peter's was part of the Parish of Hartley cum Mt Victoria. On January 1 1965 following a reorganisation of parish boundaries St Peter's became part of the Parish of Blackheath.
The roof's wooden shingles were replaced in the 1920s with cement shingles laid in a diamond pattern. Over the years other extensions have been made. The back part of the church was remodelled to include the front porch as a welcoming area. For some time a shed-like structure was in use as a vestry. The minister changed there and, usually in bad weather, Sunday School was conducted there. Donations raised enough for the present vestry to be built and in 1999 a separate hall was built to accommodate the needs of the very active church. In 1995 the church's floor was re-done. The original floor had sat on dirt and rotted away. Some 40 tonnes of dirt was dug out from under the church and piers put in for air space.
The church can lay claim to two traditions — one of bell ringing and the second, a strong inter-action with the community.
Bell ringing started when the church was established and still continues today. The bell is rung a few minutes before each Sunday service as a reminder to those attending to smarten their footwork When the original 10 inch square wooden post rotted in 1986, local grazier Ross Fragar was instrumental in undertaking repairs and installing a new, round yellow box post from his property. In 2014 Jack Thompson is the church's bellringer. Jack has the long or the short version... either 33 rings (one for every year of Christ's life) or 12 (for the number of Christ's disciples).
Given the town's involvement with railways and trains, the Mt Victoria Great Train Weekend was held annually for some years. Noting Mt Victoria's history as a great refreshment stop for train travellers, a forward-thinking parishioner decided to recreate the railway refreshment rooms in the church hall with former RRR workers and church women re-enacting their former workplace, in uniform, and serving Devonshire Teas in special booths set up in the church hall to resemble railway carriages. It became one of the highlights of each year's GTW.
As St Peter's approaches 140 years of ministry, a much-loved minister, the Rev. John Gaunt, retired as rector on February 28 2014 after six years’ ministry. He said before his departure: “The parish is blessed with some very fine, mature Christians who have been active in their local church all their lives. We are also fairly denominationally mixed in terms of history and background. In some parts of the parish, we're the only church functioning so we pick up everyone who is Christian and who wants to be at church. We are here to preach the gospel and build up the body of Christ and keep each other encouraged.”
St Peter's is the highest church above sea level in the Sydney Diocese and as a parish probably the largest in terms of area given that it takes in Hartley, Mt Wilson, Mt Victoria and Blackheath. The church is part of a far-flung and diverse parish, warm and welcoming to its many visitors and still very much embedded in the local community.
Our thanks to Jill Bowen, Historian, who updated and compiled this history. March 2014.