Built by Rogues and Thieves: Sydney’s Mother Church

St. James' on King Street, in the heart of Sydney, Australia

By Robyn Douglass

Imagine worshiping in a church built by rogues and thieves. It was designed by an architect who had a side hustle in forgery, which landed him at the ends of the known earth 200 years ago.

Australia has precious few Georgian buildings. European settlement arrived in the form of shiploads of convicts in 1788, and by the time the colonies got around to building civic monuments, Victorian grandeur had become the fashion.

The interior of St. James’ has been renovated many times

St. James’ in King Street is remarkable on many levels, being built by convicts, completed in 1824, and standing as the oldest church in Sydney. (Ungrateful convicts burned the first church down in 1798.)

The parish is marking its bicentenary from 2019 to 2024. While COVID blew a hole in the celebrations, there have been some special services, and a new pipe organ will be installed.

St. James’ was designed by Francis Greenway, an architect who escaped execution but was transported (deported) from England for forgery. His skills were sorely needed in the new colony, so he was granted a “ticket of leave” and designed many buildings.

Much later, Greenway appeared to have tried forgery again. He died on his Australian country property in 1835, but his son became an archdeacon and conducted services at his father’s best monument.

Major General Lachlan Macquarie, the progressive governor of the day, had appointed Greenway to design law courts on the site, but changed his mind and decided a church was needed more. St. Andrew’s Cathedral was another 40 years coming. St. James’ is opposite Greenway’s barracks and next to the courts and Hyde Park. It is a beautiful precinct.

Building began in 1819 and Greenway was dismissed in 1822, mostly for political reasons. Governor Macquarie had been keen to establish a proper township, but his overseers in Great Britain were anxious about this expanding role. A commission of inquiry reiterated that transportation to Australia was to be “an object of real terror,” not a free passage to a land of civic improvements.

Greenway was swept aside, but St. James’ survived his departure. A service held there in June 1822 was attended by “several hundred Crown prisoners” who were “orderly, respectful, and attentive.”

The architect escaped execution

There is real evidence that the design of St. James’ was simplified to meet political pressure. During renovations in the 1970s, a semi-circular portico was discovered, but it had been replaced by simple rectangular porticoes with the straight lines that builders love. What passed for plain in 1820 has nothing on post-industrial concrete blandness, so to modern eyes its simplicity verges on elegance.

In February 1824, St. James’ was consecrated by the improbably Rev. Samuel Marsden, better known as “the flogging parson.” An architectural historian described it as “a true 18th-century preaching box,” an auditorium for convicts to hear the Word of God.

At first, it held a mixed congregation. There were a couple of hundred prisoners whose attendance was compulsory, but there’s no record of whether services were effective as punishment or inspiration. Convicts were joined by officials and increasing numbers of free settlers.

With a couple of restorations, Greenway’s exterior stands, but the interior has been renovated many times, in tune with changing tastes. Galleries were erected to seat hundreds of worshipers, although after 1846, the convicts got Sundays off.

There are marble monuments around the walls — common in English churches but unusual in Australia. Alongside some notable Australian leaders and sportsmen, there are inscriptions to explorers and soldiers “speared by the blacks,” “slain by Aborigines,” and “treacher

The Children’s Chapel in the crypt

ously murdered.” There’s no mention of crimes against these people, although one faithful native servant, Jackey Jackey, is honored for his role as the sole companion in an adventurer’s “conflict with the savages.”

Early on, the church was a base for the Diocese of Sydney, schools, and a theological college, but changing fashions nearly wiped it out. As Sydney grew into a township and then a city, its convict origins became a source of shame. St. James’ lost its resident population as the city became a commercial hub. It was nearly destroyed to make way for a railway station.

But enlightened leadership renewed the interior and maintained the church’s ministry to the poor and derelict who camped under its verandas.

People also kept traveling to St. James’ for its expression of Anglicanism. As the Sydney diocese became more uniformly evangelical, St. James’ pursued and upheld Anglo-Catholic traditions. In the early 20th century, there was a bruising standoff between the priest and the archbishop of the day over liturgical vestments.

Downstairs there is a crypt, rare in Australia, and it contains an astonishing chapel. It was painted in 1929 by a group of artists who wanted to bring a hymn alive to children, so Christ and the holy family are seen sailing into Sydney Harbour, complete with native flowers and birds, and the unfinished Harbour Bridge. “The Children’s Chapel,” as it is now known, features young Australians, all blue-eyed and blonde.

These days, the first thing visitors see as they enter the church is an acknowledgment of the original custodians of the land, Cadigal Clan, and a request for prayers for traditional owners “and all the Indigenous people of this country who have honoured this land as sacred for thousands of years.”

Homeless Jesus

St. James’ vision, within the conservative Diocese of Sydney, is to create “an open, inclusive, and engaging sanctuary for all, regardless of social standing, sexuality, race, or religion.”

Art has replaced dark galleries, and the thriving parish of 600 maintains its ministry to people in the heart of a great city. The boxy auditorium that was perfect for sermons is now perfect for music, and the parish hosts regular concerts, including free lunchtime recitals for city workers to enjoy.

Outside, you could almost walk by a sculpture of someone sleeping on a park bench. Closer examination pulls you up short when you realize who is in your midst. A replica of Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture of “Homeless Jesus” is just below a stone plaque honoring architect Francis Greenway and the artisans and laborers who built the church.

There’s no mention of the thieves and rogues whose work was guaranteed. Jesus surely remembers them.


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