By Donald Moss
Laurenne Robertson admits to becoming quite emotional when she talks about what the Neil Street Uniting Church means to her.
That’s hardly surprising, given the fact that five generations of her family have worshipped at the historic church on Ballarat’s Soldiers Hill.
In fact, the site contains three distinct churches, making it, Laurenne believes, unique in Australia.
“I’m not sure any other congregation in the country would have three separate churches on their site,” she says.
And to suggest those three churches have played a major role in the Ballarat community for many years would be a serious understatement.
They have, in their own way, become part of the fabric of the city’s life for nearly 160 years.
The original church opened on August 25, 1861, as an alternative to the Lydiard Street Wesleyan Church which, although just a mile away across Gnarr Creek, became almost impossible to get to during winter as heavy rain turned the creek into a muddy bog.
With Ballarat’s population growing quickly, the original church wasn’t considered big enough and, in 1866, a second church was built, with the first service there held on March 3, 1867.
However, 20 years later, it was decided even that church wasn’t large enough to accommodate congregation numbers, and a third church was constructed, opening on October 30, 1892.
That church is currently used for services, with about 40 people attending on a weekly basis, as COVID-19 restrictions have had an impact on numbers.
Laurenne says the number of worshippers during those early years would have numbered comfortably in the hundreds, as the church became a weekly focal point of life in the growing city.
“The number attending would certainly have been in the hundreds and, even when the first church opened, there were about 80 children taking part in Sunday School,” she says.
“They used to have an anniversary in the largest of the churches and there would be 400 children on a large platform at the front of it.
“If you add two parents for each of those children, you are looking at a huge congregation.”
Such was the level of support from worshippers at that time, Laurenne says Neil Street would hold three services each Sunday to accommodate everyone.
This year marks the 160th anniversary of the first service at Neil Street and, while it will be a low-key event, the occasion will be marked with a service on September 12.
“We had a huge celebration (in 2011) for our 150th anniversary, but we won’t go that big this time around as we can only have 172 people attending due to COVID-19 restrictions,” Laurenne says.
“It will be low key, but it will still be a special service.”
As that 160th anniversary approaches, Laurenne admits to a feeling of great pride around what Neil Street has contributed to her and the wider community.
“I get very teary at times when I think about it,” she says.
“It’s my spiritual home and it’s my family.”
However, that emotion is balanced by reality, and Laurenne acknowledges that it makes sense to consider selling some of Neil Street’s assets, which are no longer useful, to ensure its financial future.
“We have already looked at selling the old manse, which is very rundown, and is too much for us now (in terms of upkeep),” she says.
“As time goes on, we might look at doing something with the first two churches because they also need so much work done on them.
“We’re definitely receptive to having a conversation (around the possible sale of some church assets).”
As secretary-treasurer, Laurenne is heavily involved with administrative matters relating to Neil Street and, while it takes up a large amount of her time, she can’t imagine doing anything more rewarding.
“It really is a labour of love as far as I’m concerned,” she says.
That devotion is easy to understand when you consider that Laurenne can trace her family’s involvement with Neil Street back to the late 1800s.
“I’m actually the fourth generation on my mum’s side of the family to have come here, but it’s really five generations because my son now also attends,” she says proudly.
“In the late 1800s, my great-grandfather came from England and attended Neil Street. My mum used to sing in the choir here, and did so when she was pregnant with me, so I can say that I have been attending for 64 years.”
Likely COVID restrictions will limit the number of worshippers at the 160th anniversary service on September 12. If you would like to attend, contact Laurenne at firstname.lastname@example.org