The story of St John’s Parramatta is almost as old as the story of colonial Australia.
The British arrived at the head of the Parramatta River on the 3rd of November 1788 and established a military post on a site in Parramatta Park, displacing local indigenous families from their land as they did so.
Eight years later a temporary church was constructed from the materials of two old huts and served as Parramatta’s “church” on the site of the present Woolpack Hotel in George Street until 1803. Up till this point the church had gathered wherever they could, often under the shelter of a large tree.
In 1797, Gov John Hunter granted land for the building of a Church and laid the original St John’s foundation stone in 1799. Gov Philip Gidley King declared St John’s a Parish on the 23rd July 1802. Rev Samuel Marsden opened St John’s church on Easter Day, Sunday the 10th of April 1803. This was the first officially established church building in Australia and was the only one until 1810. St John’s site remains the oldest continuously-used worship site in Australia.
In the early 1800’s the church underwent many changes. It was lengthened, re-roofed, and the twin towers added by 1818. A new chancel was designed and built by James Smith in 1819, and the church yard enclosed with a paling fence. A gallery was added in 1823.
In 1852, St John’s had become so dilapidated and unfit for public worship that a decision was made to replace it with a new building. The towers remained as a link to the past and the new St John’s building that we gather in today was consecrated in March 1858 by Bishop Barker. Transepts were added in 1882 and further renovations taking place over two years from 1967.
As grateful to God as we are for our beautiful building, the story of St John’s is bigger and more significant than the building itself. Today we celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the parish in 1802, before any building even existed on this site. The story of St John’s as a church – as the people of God gathered together – extends beyond any mere bricks and mortar or even the tree under which the original congregation met. The very first chaplain, Rev. Richard Johnson, was supported by funding from evangelicals of the famous Clapham Sect: the same group that included the former slave trader John Newton (the writer of the hymn Amazing Grace) and William Wilberforce (who campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of the slave trade across the British Empire). Through their generous gifts, the Clapham evangelicals now made sure that the good news of Jesus would be heard on the other side of the world. Richard Johnson arrived on the First Fleet and soon established a preaching ministry based in Parramatta; travelling up and down the river to share the good news about Jesus. His replacement was our first senior minister, Samuel Marsden. He sailed from England to NSW in 1794, writing in his journal,
“I am now about to quit my native country with a view to preaching the everlasting Gospel. Oh! that God would make my way prosperous, and that the end of my going may be answered in the Conversion of many poor souls. Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon me. May I walk in the light as Thou art in the light.”Samuel Marsden, 1794
Marsden preached throughout the region and also took the gospel to New Zealand. He and his successors were convinced that God would grow his church as the Bible was read and explained and its hearers were transformed by the hope of the risen Christ.
And so for more than 220 years that has been our story; St John’s at the heart of the city, long before modern Parramatta existed, holding out the good news of Jesus so that as many as possible would be transformed by the hope of that same risen Christ.
But St John’s legacy is far greater than that! The church founded here late in the 18th century, the first church in this great southern land, was the wellspring of gospel ministry across all of Australia and New Zealand and beyond.
We’re very much looking forward to joining together on Sunday as we celebrate this wonderful anniversary, pray with great thanks to God for all that he has already done in and through St John’s, and call upon his continued goodness for all the future years that he gives us.
Bruce Morrison / Senior Minister
St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Parramatta
PRAY: Give thanks for the many men and women who have preached the gospel faithfully in Parramatta for more than 200 years. Pray that God will continue to use his church in Parramatta to glorify him, grow disciples, and engage our city – to see this city transformed by the hope of the risen Christ.
Join us this Sunday for our Sunday services. We meet at 8am, 9:30am, 11am and 5pm at the Cathedral – and online at 11am. Check out out Sunday services page for more information on our face-to-face services.