Sign of the times – Churches slated for sale

Our own Midland Express team was part of the Daffodil Festival parade back in 2012. Photo: Big Dog Bites

A ‘sign of the times’ is the way the looming sale of two historic Uniting Churches is being described by what remains of their once-strong congregations at Yandoit and Newstead.
The two historic churches are earmarked for sale with the much-diminished and ageing congregations in each location struggling to cover costs for their ongoing maintenance and upkeep.
Castlemaine District Uniting Church minister Reverend Sarah Tomilson holds out hope that the beautiful old churches may yet remain in some sort of public use ahead of final closing services and gatherings set for the Yandoit church on May 16, and for the Newstead church on June 27.
“The desire is that they will remain in the community as gathering places,” Rev Tomilson told the Express on site at the 1875-built Yandoit church where the congregation has dwindled to just five locals – a far cry from the heydays when Yandoit boasted a population of 7000 with churches of multiple denominations.
“It frustrates me because once they go, they’re lost,” said Yandoit local Steve O’Connor, one of the few remaining parishioners.
Mr O’Connor and his wife Kaye were married at the old church in 1980 and the couple’s connections to this old goldfields brick and stained-glass place of worship are strong.
“My father, Max O’Connor, was a Methodist minister here in the ’60s and my wife’s great great grandfather helped build the church back in 1875,” Mr O’Connor said.
“It’ll become a weekender or something, like others around here. It’s the ongoing costs that kill it. It’s just not feasible to do.”
Ms O’Connor said the old church had presided over countless occasions, celebrations and services and she well remembered Sunday School days spent there as a child.
“I think it’s a sign of the times,” she said.
“One the big things is that people are ageing. In a nutshell, each church has to cover the costs of its own maintenance – insurance, power, outreach, stipends to the minister – and when you’ve only got five people…”
At Newstead where the congregation is down to just eight, some are hoping the church, which has become a favourite live music venue for local festivals, may somehow be pressed into helping meet the need for affordable housing.
Among them Newstead and District Affordable Housing member, former local councillor John Nieman believes it “ticks all the boxes” for social housing.
“Two of the parishioners have both said they’d love to see it developed as social accommodation in some way,” Mr Nieman said.
“We’re overserviced in churches. It’s a function of time, history and geography.”
Rev Tomilson – whose parish encompasses Castlemaine, Harcourt, Yandoit and Newstead – said the specifics for sale of the two churches had yet to be clarified.
“Unfortunately it is a common thing as congregations are diminishing,” Rev Tomilson said.
“We hope the sales go to benefit the wider community, or that they can be be used in some way that connects the community.”

A beautiful stained glass window in the Yandoit Uniting Church.

The Newstead Uniting Church.