The formidable red brick church that fills the skyline when exiting Central Station in Ann St is hard to miss, yet despite its austerity, St Andrew’s Uniting Church is a treasure with some historical gems.
Admiring the architecture and history of old churches is a common pursuit among tourists the world over, and now, I have discovered, Brisbane’s church trail also draws visitors.
Heading inside St Andrew’s to see how it compared to its somewhat severe exterior, I found there were others doing the same thing – a group of cruise passengers visiting Brisbane’s churches during a stopover in port.
Nevertheless, I imagine that apart from Brisbane Open House, few locals get around to having a look at what is right under their nose, hidden in plain sight as it were.
Designed by architect George D. Payne, it opened as St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in 1905, on the corner of Creek and Ann streets, and has been dominating its corner since the days when horse-drawn carts didn’t need traffic lights.
Built in the somewhat stern Romanesque style – before the grand excesses of the Gothic St John’s Cathedral– the building is an excellent example of the ecclesiastical architecture that emerged in the late 1800s.
It is one of the earliest buildings in Brisbane to have Romanesque detail and is also recognised as one of the best examples of the neo-Romanesque style in the southern hemisphere.
The congregation had to replace their elegant English Gothic brick structure in Wickham Tce which had opened less than 20 years earlier in 1887. It turned out to be a problem when a tunnel was needed for the railway line to be extended from Central to Brunswick St.
The Brisbane Courierof August 26, 1905, reported the opening: “St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church stands out as one of the finest and most impressive architectural piles in this State.
“Opinions differ as to the actual beauty of the building, because it is of a character to which our eyes have hitherto been unaccustomed; but a little closer acquaintance will enable the spectator to better perceive and appreciate its qualities.
“There is no doubt that the massive outlines would have been softened and ennobled could the building have been placed in ample grounds and viewed through a vista of trees but in a city, even as young as ours, such may not be.
“The interior however is perhaps the most striking beauty of the new church and a glance around its spacious area, with its lofty roof unbroken by a single column, leaves nothing wanting to complete a perfect ecclesiastical picture. The first worship will be held in this new church tomorrow, 27thinstant.”
The building has a prominent tower, semi-circular arched openings and steeply pitched gables to “exploit the potential of the constrained sloping site”.
The interior is much more impressive (quite the opposite, in my opinion, to the Baptist Tabernacle on Wickham Terrace which has a commanding exterior but is much humbler inside).
St Andrew’s has a lofty raked timber ceiling, arched roof trusses, tall stained-glass windows, brick arches and a huge pipe organ that dominates the view on entry.
The elders’ chairs and communion table are in the tiered chancel in front of the organ. It has changed little since it opened in 1905.
Many of the pews are numbered. I’m guessing this is related to the British habit of numbering private pews allocated to families who contributed to the cost of church construction in the days before “free” churches.
Also in the church is a collection of about 800 Scottish communion tokens, one dating to 1768. They were a mark of identification to exclude spies and ill-doers from betraying a secret meeting place to the government troops.
It was also a means of distinguishing those who made a “credible profession of their faith” from the ungodly.
There is also the Gallipoli memorabilia of Rev Dr Ernest Northcroft Merrington, who was minister of St Andrew’s from 1910-1923. He also served as Colonel Chaplain to the AIF in Gallipoli, Egypt and the European campaigns.
Below a photo of him serving communion to soldiers at Gallipoli are the challis, patten and plate he used. Also within the transept is an honour board and plaques with the names of 268 men and women who served.
One of the last stained-glass windows to be installed in the church honours the son of a local family, a pilot who was killed in World War II. The window’s design incorporates a depiction of a pilot going to heaven in the topmost circular pane.
In 1977, the Uniting Church in Australia brought together the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational congregations and four years later, the former Congregational Church at 446 Ann St – since demolished and replaced by the Metropolis Apartments – joined St Andrew’s.
The church was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 1992.
It is open from 11am-2pm weekdays, often with guides available, and for weekend services.