The History of St Michael the Archangel's Catholic Church
Only three years after the opening of Australia’s first Catholic church in Richmond, Tasmania, Rev John Bede Polding, Australia’s first Catholic bishop and the first Archbishop of Sydney, rode into Wollombi on horseback to lay the foundation stone of the historic Gothic-style church on 30 September, 1840.
The church was built by the villagers using sandstone hewn from a local quarry and was situated beside the beautiful Wollombi brook. During the flood of 1893, the church was irreparably damaged and, stone by stone, was relocated to the position where it now stands.
St Michael’s had its new foundation stone laid by Reverend James Murray, Bishop of Maitland, on 22 October, 1893. The original foundation stone from 1840 is located on the western wall.
Up until 1991, St Michael’s was used as the centre for Mass, weddings, funerals, baptisms and liturgical celebrations. Despite outcries from the whole community, the church was put up for auction in September 1991. The community bought back its church for the reserve price of $120,000. The pews were purchased for $3,400 and donated back to the community by the generous bidder.
The Friends of St Michael’s
‘The Friends of St Michael’s’ was formed as the official body of the church and trustees were appointed. Government-assisted grants enabled the Friends of St Michael's to start renovating their church.
When work began on the interior of the church, a gold colour was noticed under layers of paint. Careful removal of these layers revealed the original frieze stencilled around the walls and ornate decorations in the sanctuary.
Modern-day St Michael’s
The frieze has now been re-stencilled and the sanctuary restored to its original appearance. Part of the heritage painting was preserved and can be seen on the arch and the western wall of the sanctuary.
The purchase of the church and its restoration back to heritage status have been made possible by a tremendous ecumenical spirit throughout the village of Wollombi and surrounding districts.
A decorative feature which echoes the Gothic architectural style of the church is the traditional stained glass window above the altar. The shaped sandstone surround encloses an image of the church’s namesake, the warrior, Archangel Michael.
In 2005, as part of the fundraising activities for St Michael’s, local artist Margaret Ella was commissioned to design and craft a series of windows based on Creation, as described in the Book of Genesis. The six windows in the body of the church are in a modern style using colourful and distinctive glass, and have incorporated Australian flora and fauna as well as symbolic images. The result of this sweeping imagination and expertise is an exceptional addition to the beauty of the building and an uplifting visual experience.
Much fundraising, many donations and a great deal of voluntary labour has been necessary to make the church a place fit to celebrate Mass and sacred liturgies.
On 3 October, 1999, Rev Michael Malone, then Bishop of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, reopened St Michael’s by celebrating Mass.
Today, Mass is celebrated every third Saturday of the month, at 5pm from April to September, and 6pm from October to March.
Source: The Friends of St Michael's
Photo credit: Suella Smith