Shepparton’s long journey to joy and song



It’s 4 February 2018 and 500 worshippers crowd into the splendid new worship space and gathering area at Shepparton Uniting Church. Long before worship begins at 4pm, seats in the worship space and a couple of hundred more in the narthex have filled. And still they come!

Worship begins with the exuberant ululation of Congolese members as they dance towards the sanctuary, singing This is the day in Swahili, joined by the congregation as excitement mounts.

Meanwhile the holy things are brought forward – Word, Water, Bread and Wine – and the church registers, followed by the ministers, Rev Rosalie Rayment-Hewitt and Rev Loni Vaitohi and the moderator, Rev Sharon Hollis.

Uncle Lance James, a Yorta Yorta man with long links to the Shepparton Methodist and Uniting Churches, welcomes us to country. As chairperson of the congregation, I welcome the congregation and ministers to their new home, as well as the many visitors – neighbouring congregations, from presbytery, synod, former ministers and members, other Shepparton churches, people of other faiths and those who transformed the congregation’s vision into reality – drawers of plans, builders and tradespeople, craftsmen all.

It’s worship-as-usual, with a heightened sense of joy. The children explore the sanctuary with the moderator. How great thou art is sung in English, Swahili and Tongan. The moderator inspires and challenges as she breaks open the Word. Ministers and the congregation dedicate the redevelopment. During the communion, the Lord’s Prayer is sung in Tongan by Tongan members of the congregation, joined by 50 from Bowen Uniting Church, currently picking fruit at Merrigum and sharing Loni’s ministry there. The new font bowl, crafted by liturgical artist Rhonda Kissick, and the new Lectern Bible are dedicated, along with items from the previous churches.

It was Uniting Church worship at its best.

The worship space itself welcomes. The octagonal space with pyramidal ceiling rising to its glass apex is light and airy, with large windows overlooking a garden. It brilliantly encapsulates the vision of the congregation.      

It was worth waiting for – and working for! Why did it take eight years, with changes in the membership of the Property Planning Task Group and three chairpersons, as well as three presbytery representatives?

Following Union, there were four Uniting Church congregations in Shepparton. The two large ones in the CBD were less than two blocks apart.

Shepparton coordinating committee worked to link the congregations, but it took the ministry of Rosalie Rayment-Hewitt to complete the task.

In November 2009 Scots’, Wesley, St David’s and St Andrew’s churches were closed and on Advent Sunday, Shepparton Uniting Church was born.

Decisions about a home for this new congregation were resolved prayerfully.

The more spacious Fryers Street site, opposite TAFE and the university, offered exciting prospects for new ministry to the community.

Plans to build the new worship space on a street frontage had to be rethought because of heritage restrictions. The back rooms of the hall and church were demolished and the two buildings joined by an extensive narthex and gathering area opening to the worship space. Fifty-two metres of Uniting Church doves line the glass round the open, welcoming areas which people immediately find extremely attractive.

Much of the planning had to be repeated to satisfy Property Services’ changing requirements. The Property Planning Task Group was frustrated by the additional costs in time and money and use of experts from Melbourne. We asked the general secretary for assistance.

In October 2014, Dr Mark Lawrence and Pauline McGillivray listened carefully to our case and offered changes, from which churches in other regional centres benefit.

We could use local experts, and were freed from the monthly visits of the Property Services Consultant, allowing us flexibility and greater ownership of the project. We cannot thank Pauline sufficiently!

When 2D plans were submitted, it became necessary to have them transferred to autoCAD to allow accurate costing and solving of hidden construction problems. We suggested that Property Services’ initial directions indicate this need for autoCAD. The op shop’s self-funded extension and refurbishment had to become part of the redevelopment – at double the cost.

Four years later, work is expected to start shortly on this.

Construction on the main church complex began on April 18, 2017 with a blessing liturgy on site. Our appreciation of the builders’ expertise and love of perfection in every aspect of the build also began then. A detailed photographic record kept the congregation informed as did the Skype virtual tours.

Our landscape team worked wonders in the secure turfed playground and on the two street frontages.

So we rejoice: our constant prayer is ‘Thanks be to God!’

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