New roof for Canberra’s oldest church

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Reverend Paul Black… “We have our fingers crossed because you never know what you’re going to encounter when you start pulling the roof off.” Photo: Holly Treadaway

ONLY one major storm away from becoming unrepairable, Canberra’s oldest church, St John’s Anglican Church in Reid is in the process of getting a new, asbestos-free roof. 

It’s not the first time the church’s roof has been replaced and Paul Black, the reverend at St John’s, says the church, which was built in 1841 and consecrated in 1845, needed a new roof in the ‘60s when its original timber shingles started to deteriorate. 

“In 1960 the roof needed replacing and at that stage they initially looked at slate,” says Paul, 64, who lives on site in Reid. 

“But there was this other material, this new, super, beaut material, that could do the job – asbestos tiles!

“[They were used and over time] what happened with the tiles was they became grey with mould. 

“People have been surprised to learn that the roof is asbestos tiles.”

The project to replace the tiles has been about seven years in the making and was sparked following an asbestos report.

“Basically, we were told that the roof is at the end of its life. The surface area of the asbestos tiles can start breaking down and can release asbestos into the environment,” he says. 

“That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s why they need to be replaced.”

The repairs started on July 1 but before they had, Paul says they were running the risk of a major storm damaging the roof to the point where they would not have been able to repair it. 

Through the long consultation process, he says they were lucky that wasn’t the case. 

“We had to get ACT Heritage Council approval for the work and then we had to get work approvals from the ACT government and the NCA, because we’re on the edge of the parliamentary triangle,” he says. 

“We also had to decide what we’re going to put on the roof.”

Coming from Wales, the church decided on Welsh slate tiles, which Paul says should last about 100 years, but the conservation of the church comes at a big cost. 

“Always with heritage buildings and churches, there’s enormous costs in making sure they’re preserved for generations,” Paul says. 

The removal of asbestos, which is estimated to cost more than $300,000, is being funded by donations from the church, the wider community and a heritage grant from the ACT government.

“Whether there will be other costs will be unforeseen,” he says. 

“We have our fingers crossed because you never know what you’re going to encounter when you start pulling the roof off.”

St John’s church circa 1864… “I call this church an English village church and literally, through a quirk of history, they put the nation’s capital around us,” says Paul Black.

It’s estimated the work will take about eight weeks to complete and until then Paul says St John’s worship services have been moved to the hall, which is across from the historic church. 

While Paul’s only been at the church for a slice of its long life, 11 years, he says he emphasises the importance of preserving the church for future generations. 

“We often say that when you come to this site, you’re coming to the original Canberra,” he says.

“We’re the oldest church in Canberra, the first stone was laid in 1841.

“[At that time] there was nothing here. There was Duntroon Station and isolated farm houses.

“I call this church an English village church and literally, through a quirk of history, they put the nation’s capital around us.”

But the church isn’t the only heritage listed building on the site and just near it sits a heritage-listed school house, with a school master’s residence, which Paul says was built by Robert Campbell, of Duntroon Station, for the education of workers’ children. 

It’s this rich history that Paul believes has been bringing significant people through the congregation since it was consecrated by reverend William Grant Broughton, the first Anglican Bishop of Australia, almost 175 years ago. 

The Queen is one of these people and has been to St John’s Anglican Church five times. The first time was in 1954, and the last was in 2011 when Paul says he was lucky to conduct the service and preach the sermon. 

And even though the church is the oldest in Canberra, Paul says it’s still a vibrant, functioning church community today. 

 

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Danielle Nohra
Danielle Nohra is a "CityNews" staff journalist.

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