While admiring the historic bridge, you may have noticed a grand old sandstone church perched upon a small hill in the background. This is St John’s Church Richmond, more formally known as St John the Evangelist Catholic Church.
It’s more than just a nice piece of architecture; it’s the oldest existing Catholic Church in Australia. It’s still in use today by locals and students of the St John’s Catholic Primary School.
While there were a small number of churches built before St John’s, including St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, however this was destroyed by fire in 1865, while larger churches replaced others.
The Origin of St John’s Church
The establishment of St John’s Church Richmond was a long time in the making. By the early 1820’s there were approximately 1000 Catholics in the area (not including convicts). In fact Richmond had the highest Catholic population outside of Hobart and Launceston.
The church was made possible by Australia’s first catholic archbishop, John Bede Polding, who visited Tasmania on his way to a position in Sydney. Polding visited the Richmond catholics who used to gather at the home of John Cassidy, who owned land slightly north-east of the village centre called Woodburn.
Cassidy was generous enough to donate a portion of this land for the new church. St John’s Church was going to be built. The location for the church is perfectly placed on top of a small hill, overlooking the riverbank, Richmond Bridge and the Catholic school that was constructed not long after the church. A graveyard lied behind the church, with a number of historic headstones still standing today.
The foundation stone was layed in 1835 and blessed by Polding before he departed for Sydney, the first formal act of a catholic bishop. Money was raised by locals and contributed to by the government, enabling construction to be completed by 1837. Gothic in style, rectangular in shape and decorated with architectural details found in many English churches.
Amendments Along the Way
In 1858 additions were made including a chancel, a sacristy, tower and spire. These additions provided some nice medieval touches and enabled more space inside for the growing community. Frederick Thomas, a convict who later became an architect, designed this work, creating adaptations of existing plans.
The spire didn’t last long and had developed a serious lean, which had to be replaced with a shorter spire in 1893. This lasted longer but eventually the slate spire required significant maintenance and was replaced in 1972 by the copper-clad spire you see today.
There were also renovations performed during 1928-1929, with the installation for improved furnishings and replacement of the plaster ceiling with a wooden ceiling, as well as some stone maintenance to the stone.
St John’s Church Today
Overall this church is still in very original condition and a fine piece of Australian history. One can visit the church today and appreciate the high wooden ceilings, timber pews, Stations of the Cross paintings, finely detailed alter and stained glass windows. It’s only a five minute walk from the Richmond Bridge, well worth visiting on your trip to Richmond.
Address: St John’s Circle, Richmond
Priest: Father Terry Rush
Mass: 8:30 AM (1st and 3rd Sundays), 11:00 AM (2nd, 4th and 5th Sundays
Image: By LBM1948 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0], from Wikimedia Commons (has been cropped)