IT’S an imposing building that owns the intersection of Wickham Terrace and Edward Street, and shouts Brisbane as loudly as City Hall or Story Bridge.
The City Tabernacle is a huge stone structure that just begs the passerby to stop in and have a look but to be honest, the interior is somewhat austere despite its impressive stained glass windows.
(I must confess here that my Quebecois visitor found it hilarious to see “Tabernacle” on top of the church as the word “tabernac” is exceedingly impolite where he comes from).
Nevertheless, their church is big, dominant and interesting and so is its history, including the fact that it was the original home of the Brisbane High School for Girls, now known as Somerville House, from 1899-1912.
With its choir, English classes, commitment to multiculturalism and groups of all ages, and the homeless, it remains very active in city life.
The first Baptists arrived in 1849 on board the “Fortitude” which carried free immigrants from Gravesend to Moreton Bay.
They joined with Presbyterians and Congregationalists to form the United Evangelical Church of Brisbane and first met in the old Court House in Queen Street.
It wasn’t long before the different denominations wanted to go their own way and in 1855, the Baptists, swelled by new arrivals from Sydney, had the numbers to move into their own little meeting house in William Street.
Within three years, they were ready to start construction of their own church in Wharf Street and it opened in February 1859.
Despite extensions in 1881, it was still too small for the ever-growing congregation and the Wharf Street building was eventually sold in 1888 for £16,000 and the new site purchased for a mere £5500.
The grand building we now see on Wickham Terrace is designed in a “classic Venetian style” and is the grandest monument of Irish-born architect Richard Gailey (1834-1924) a devout Baptist who had arrived in town in 1864.
The final service was held at Wharf Street in October 1890 and a week later, the first service was held at the new church.
The grand pipe organ “there is nothing elaborate about the instrument but the tone is good” that had arrived from Hill and Son in London in 1878 was moved up the street to its new home.
It was eventually replaced in 1914-15 and created it own little mystery.
While a pipe organ is hardly the sort of thing to go astray, its fate was unknown for years but has since been identified as an organ installed at St Andres Anglican Church in Roseville, Sydney, which arrived not long after it left Brisbane.
It was eventually broken up in 1953 and its pipework recycled.
Now, back to the church and contemporary reports describe it best.
On Saturday September 9, 1905, the Brisbane Courier reported on the “Jubilee of the Baptist Denomination 1855-1905” that: “The Tabernacle is an imposing edifice, built in the classic Venetian style, in the form of a square.
“The measurements are about 78ft each way, and on the western angle a tower rears itself to a height of 99ft or 50ft. above the main roof.
“The tower is surmounted by a dome executed in concrete, and forms a noticeable landmark.
“Each side of the building is broken up with recesses, and surmounted with turrets and parapet. The roof span measures 70ft. The building is well ventilated and cool.
“In the interior the corners of the square are cut off, and the seating accommodation is arranged in a style somewhat unique, six aisles or passages radiating from the pulpit, and the seats being placed around in such a manner that everyone has an uninterrupted view.
“Quite 900 people can be comfortably seated, and this could be extended to 1000 if necessity arose. There is a large public gallery, choir gallery, and organ. Circular-headed windows, filled with toned glass, provide plenty of light.
“There are a number of apartments in the building which more than suffice for all the purposes of Sunday School, week-day.”
Amen to that.