Monday, April 9, 2012

Darlinghurst Blog: Churches: St John's Anglican Church

How many times have you walked past St John's Anglican Church in your lifetime? One hundred times, 1,000 times, 10,000; for me I'd guess about 1,500 times. 
Located on one of the highest points of the hood, the church became a landmark in Darlinghurst after it opened for "divine worship" on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1858 - 154 years ago.
Designed by Gould and Hilling and made from soft Hawkesbury sandstone, it was built for the wealthy residents that lived along the ridge.
They weren't happy however, with the finished design, and in the 1870s Edmund Blacket was enlisted to design the tower and spire, which made it even more famous.

After the spire was built in 1873, the church was known across the harbour and became a distinct feature of the Sydney skyline, and could be seen from ships as they entered through the heads into Sydney Harbour.
Even today, the 139-year-old spire's presence can be felt across the neighbourhood: I can see the 43-metres high tower when I am walking along Nimrod Street, Craigend Street, from afar as Macquarie Street, and even when I am flying over Sydney in a plane.
But while I have long loved, and taken comfort from, the exterior of St John's, I had never once set foot inside - until one balmy weekend about three weeks ago.

I don't know what compelled me inside. I wasn't seeking any spiritual succour; perhaps I was just bored and looking for something to pass the time, and I love being a tourist in my own neighbourhood.

Fortunately, near the entrance, just past Blacket's bell tower, there was a collection of pamphlets, including one entitled, "A 10-minute Tour". 
I picked one up and stepped back to the tower section as instructed on the pamphlet: "Start your tour here".
There I learned that the first bell in the tower was from the Dunbar, a ship that wrecked at Sydney Heads on August 20, 1857, killing all 121 people on board.

The Dunbar bell is still there, but no longer rings the start of Sunday service, that duty is instead left to the tubular bells that were cast by Harringtons of Coventry, England, in the 1880s and installed in the tower in 1889.

The wreck of the Dunbar must have had a huge impact on Sydney at the time, and obviously Darlinghurst, too, for on the southern wall of the church is a marble Dunbar memorial (above), which was placed by Charles and Mary Logan, who lost their three children on the ship.

On the western wall I was fascinated to find this shiny brass memorial to Wilfred Lawrence Docker, who lived across the road in The Statler, and who I wrote about here.

One of the larger memorials is also, to me, the creepiest. 
It is a baptismal font in memory of Emma Holdsworth, who died aged five in 1877. 
I don't know why anyone would want to baptise their baby at a memorial for a dead child.
But churches are strange like that. 

Obviously, one of the highlights of being inside a church is the ability to admire the stained glass windows that can't be appreciated from the outside. 
The "10-minute Tour" flier sheds little light on the origin or artist behind the glass-work, and instead has a simple description of what is depicted on each window. 
For example, "These depict Jesus as a child in the temple, carrying the cross and ascending to heaven".

For a more comprehensive history - that lasts longer than 10-minutes - it's probably best to read Paul Egan's Serving the Cross, St John's Darlinghurst, A short history, which can be purchased from the church through an honesty box.
I had a flick through the pages and it seems to be a thoroughly researched history of the church and its congregations over the years.

The church is laid out in cruciform, that is, it is shaped like a cross, with side extensions or "transepts" from the central area - known as the "nave" - where the congregation sits.

At the head of the church, behind the pulpit is the chancel, which is home to "the table" and a  "beautifully executed" mosaic tile floor.

The window behind the chancel was erected in 1888 and depicts the fishes and the loaves bible story, when Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 hungry people from five loaves of bread and two fish. 
The window cost 500 guineas, was made by Messrs Shrigley and Hunt of Lancaster, England, under the instruction of architect John Sulman and was donated to the church by William Edward Sparke of St Monans, Elizabeth Bay, in memory of his parents.
Sparke once owned Maramanah, which was located where Fitzroy Gardens in Kings Cross is today, and was responsible for giving the mansion its name.

Beneath the stained glass window is this amazing reredos, or alter piece, which is intricately carved from sandstone. I have never seen sandstone carving with such minute detail. It's astounding. And was donated to the church by Frederick Tooth, of Kent Brewery fame, as a memorial to his wife, Jane Tooth.

I was less impressed by the pulpit, which looks a bit over the top with its painted white stone, rounded staircase and red carpet. It doesn't really suit the rest of the church, despite being designed in 1886 by the Blacket brothers, Cyril and Arthur, who also helped their Papa out on the tower and spire.
The pulpit is dedicated to the memory of the first rector of the parish, Thomas Hayden (1856-1882) and its carvings depict gospel scenes. 
I suspect its hideousness owes a great deal to whoever chose to paint the stone white. Perhaps the church could employ a heritage restorer to remove the white paint, but I suppose there are more important things to spend money on.

Finally, there is the organ chamber, which is located on the southern wall of the chancel, a short distance from the organ console - where the organist sits and plays - in the north transept.
Do you like all this church lingo?
Anyway, the organ chamber was built 127 years ago by William Hill and Son and was first played at the church the following year, on August 26, 1886.
It was restored in 1998 and when I entered the church was being played solemnly; its spooky, morbid sounds echoing in the 43-metres high ceiling and adding a distinct religious feeling to my tour.

St John's Anglican Church
120 Darlinghurst Road
Darlinghurst NSW 2010
02 9360 6844

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