OUR HERITAGE | Little Church on the Hill turns 124

West Hoxton Community Church, affectionately known as "The Little Church on the Hill”, turns 124 on Sunday, March 3. Its official opening was on the first Sunday in March, 1895.

"In the early days, evening services were only held on moonlit nights so the horses could see their way to and from the church," said the minister, Pastor John Keane.

"Our anniversary is an important day for us, as our church will be celebrating the fact we've been continuously ministering to families in the West Hoxton community for all that time.

"We'll hold a special thanksgiving service at 10.30 am, followed by a birthday-party morning tea in the hall, during which we will cut our birthday cake."

Here Pastor John shares some of the history of this much-loved church that continues to play a vital role in the community, 124 years after it started.

HISTORY OF THE CHURCH

The year is 1895. Waltzing Matilda is first performed at the North Gregory Hotel at Winton. England defeats Australia 3-2 in one of the greatest cricket test series. In South Australia, women are granted the right to vote and stand for election. And in the tiny village of West Hoxton, 40 kilometres west of the colony of Sydney and 10 kilometres from the Macquarie township of Liverpool, a church is opened for the local people. 

West Hoxton was a rural farming community and its timber was in high demand. The village was an extension of Hoxton Park, being named in 1887 when Phillips and Co subdivided the land under that name. James Foster and Thomas Amos, a London solicitor who arrived in Sydney in 1816, were granted 800 acres here in June 1818. In 1894 a block of land was donated for “the purpose of a church, a place for Christian worship”.

Before the church was built, people held cottage meetings in their homes and invited neighbours to come on a Sunday evening when the chores were done, for hymns and Bible study. Some travelled along “the worst road in Australia”, notorious Hoxton Park Road, to Liverpool to attend worship at either St Luke’s Anglican Church or Holy Trinity Catholic Church, the only other local churches.

It particularly demonstrates the co-operation between members of the different faiths to establish an interdenominational church.

HERITAGE LISTING

The church was opened the next year. It's now Heritage-listed as West Hoxton Union Church, now known as West Hoxton Community Church, and officially described in the listing as: “West Hoxton Union Church demonstrates the foundation and development of Christian worship in the area. It particularly demonstrates the co-operation between members of the different faiths to establish an interdenominational church in a rural area of low population."

Each Sunday a service was held with speakers from different denominations. The annual report of February 5, 1909, reads: 1st Sunday – Presbyterian (attendance 51); 2nd Sunday – Methodist (48); 3rd Sunday – Anglican (45); and 4th Sunday – Baptist (46). Everyone went to church on Sunday, regardless of who the speaker was. They didn’t just go on the day "their speaker” was doing the service.

The constitution states that the church had two objects: (1) To provide a place of worship and communal fellowship and (2) to foster the exposition of the Christian Gospel by way of outreach to the local community and the support of missionary work.

Pastor John Keane. Picture: Simon Bennett

Pastor John Keane. Picture: Simon Bennett

Some members travelled some distance by horse and sulky from neighbouring farms to reach the church. The journey involved travelling up a hill (Twenty-Second Avenue) and the road was made with mud and gravel, which was very slippery in wet weather.

Evening services could only be held on moonlit nights so horses and drivers could see the road. An early record reads: “Evening meetings would be better attended if not held too often as distance and dark nights were against having good attendance.”

The church needed to raise building funds and The Sydney Morning Herald reported on January 14, 1896 of a special event: "A successful concert was held last week at the West Hoxton Union Church in aid of the building fund. Reverend D.W. Macfie (Presbyterian), of Liverpool, presided and there was a large audience. The program comprised solos and duets by local people with music on the violin and organ, with recitations and a dialogue."

The church was still unlined and had no heating, and the first winters were very cold. The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate reported on August 13, 1898: "The ladies connected with West Hoxton Union Church are working assiduously with the view of holding a sale of gifts and work shortly, to raise funds for lining their little building, in order to make it more comfortable than it has been during the past cold weather.

The church has been known affectionately as “The Little Church on the Hill” and “The Little Light on the Hill” because of its charm and intimate community atmosphere and because on dark nights as people travelled to church they saw the church lights on the top of the hill, a guiding light to the building.

Services were illuminated by candle light and kerosine lamps. The piano in the church still has the candle holders at each end so the pianist could read the music.

Interestingly, people had to buy tickets to attend church anniversaries but complimentary tickets were issued to the clergy and the ladies providing the afternoon tea.

There are many reports of tea meetings, concerts and church anniversaries in The Liverpool Herald, The Liverpool News and The Liverpool Leader, available online and at the National Library of Australia website.

During the dark days of World War I, the congregation did their bit by making parcels to send to soldiers overseas.

On January 10, 1917 the church bought an Honour Roll to honour those who fought “for King and Country”. There were two lists: “Late Sunday School Scholars” on the left, “Shire Residents” on the right.

Liverpool Regional Museum held an exhibition in 2002, “Liverpool Frontline: Nurses and Diggers from WW1” and published a book which told the story of 36 men and women, among them three men on our Honour Roll.

William Brown was killed in action on September, 3 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.

Samuel Kirkpatrick was killed in action on October 4, 1917 in Zonnebeke, Belgium.

Oswald Mildwater was stationed in Egypt and France and was wounded (shrapnel in the left knee) in the Second Battle of Bullecourt and was evacuated to England to recuperate. He then fought in the ferocious fighting around Villers-Bretonneux in France, was again wounded (a bullet in the left upper arm). He was again evacuated to England then transferred to Randwick Military Hospital in Sydney.

He wrote home: “My tent mates were rather surprised to find I was a non-swearer as well as a teetotaller, non-smoker and believer in the cleanliness of our sexual lives.”

The church held an annual Harvest Thanksgiving Festival and in the 1930’s there are several reports:

Camden News (April 5, 1934): The West Hoxton Union Church recently held a Harvest Festival. The Church was crowded with worshippers and the amount of gifts in fruit and vegetables was surprising (because of a poor growing season). After the service two ladies were admitted into the 'Congregation of Christ's' Flock.'

Unfortunately there are no church minutes between 1937 and 1958, a period of 21 years. There are likewise no reports in the local newspapers during that time. Obviously, the Second World War took place during that period and all churches experienced difficult times. The church was not exempt from the general cloud of gloom that hung over our country. Each day brought news of our young men and women being killed on far-flung battle fields, far from home, to keep our country free.

There are differing stories of what happened in the churches during that period. Many ministers were called up for active duty and lay pastors filled the pulpits. Some churches found their congregations diminished while others were filled with people praying for sons and daughters in the services overseas. It appears that church business meetings were suspended “till after the war is over.” Hence, the lack of records.

The war ended and the country and the church began to reconstruct itself and try to discover its identity once again. It took time as many people had heavy hearts, the result of sons and daughters who didn’t return home. There was a lack of leadership as many young people who had run church activities did not return from the war. Many who returned home were in no condition to take up the duties they had done before the war. It was a period of slow reconstruction.

On April 28, 1958 it is recorded that 20 people held a meeting at the West Hoxton Union Church to consider the purchase of an ex-army hut to be used as a church hall and to be located on the southern side of the church. This was done, and Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade flourished. The hall also provided a venue for other fellowship activities.

That hall served its purpose for some 20 years but in the late 1970s it was decided to replace the existing hut which was falling down and had become too dangerous for children to enter, with a “new” second hand hall. The people raised the required finances but then God spoke to them in a way that directed that money for a different purpose.

The church had always been very missionary minded. Part of its Object Statement was “to support missionary work.” The church gave 25% of its income to missionary work and this was spread over 10 different missionary organisations.

One such mission was the Asia Pacific Christian Mission and in particular, Alf and Wilma Norman, who were travelling, often on foot, between tribes in Papua/New Guinea. Often it would take them several days to travel between villages. Alf made his need known in correspondence to the church, asking them to pray about it. The result was that the church decided to use the money set aside for the hall and purchase a Suzuki Four-Wheel Drive Car for the use of the Norman family.

The church still needed a new hall, so in September, 1980 it was decided to build a totally new hall. Each family donated money for this purpose. Some loaned money from their much-needed savings. There were lamington drives, selling of cakes and jams on election days and making craft items for fund-raising stalls.

The church put as much money as possible into the building fund from the weekly offerings. It took two years to pay back some who had loaned money, however some found their finances improved and donated the money they had loaned. One lady in the congregation received an inheritance and gave most of that money to the church for the new hall.

The church was pleasantly surprised at the amount of money generated. It has been said that “God is no man’s debtor” – the church had honoured God by giving the original money to missions and He blessed them for their faithfulness in return.

And so work began. The builder was the brother of a church member who was paid for his work, but all the church men helped in its construction. The church ladies saw that the men were well nourished by bringing along morning tea and lunch for the hungry workers. There was insufficient funds to install a ceiling so the Boys Brigade used the exposed beams for abseiling, swinging from the rafters and anything else they could think of.

However, when events were held in the hall on rainy days, the rain on the roof was deafening. The church decided a ceiling had to be fitted. The church paid for the materials and two of the men, Norman Wells and Harley Goldfinch installed the ceiling all on their own. It would have been quite a job, but they did a good job of it and it is still as good today as when it was installed in 1984 – 30 years ago.

But the church is not just a building or an organisation – it is made up of people and without them the building would just be an empty shell. Many people were committed to Christ and the church and showed it by their actions.

The church has had a long line of pastors who also acted as Sunday school superintendents and chairmen of the church committee. Jack Dowse told of Albert Mildwater who taught Sunday school in the 1930s when Jack was a boy : “He used to walk up the hill every single Sunday with his Bible under his arm, all the way from Second Avenue. No matter what the weather, he would always make it to the church for his students.”

Then there was Col Wilson who used to ride his bicycle from Guildford every Sunday to deliver his Baptist services from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. He was also superintendent of the Sunday school for many years. Margaret Dowse commented “He was such a God-loving, wonderful man. He loved people so much, he had a profound impact on many lives.”

Margaret Dowse once said “The phenomenal thing about the church was the love people had for one another. They were a lovely community-based people who loved one another just as God asked us to love one another”.

Coral and Norman Wells began attending the church 41 years and are still valuable members of the congregation to-day. They had been introduced to the church by the Lay Pastor, Eric Bate who took over the role from Col Wilson. Coral “fell in love with the friendly atmosphere and openness of the family-oriented congregation”. The next Lay Pastor was Barrie Tomkins and then Coral took over this role when Barrie moved away. Coral had been chairperson of the church and had helped with church administration so the transition was relatively simple.

Coral and Norm carried out their ministry faithfully at the Little Church on the Hill. Sometimes during that period the church was full, other times only a handful came. Coral said: “Preparation for a service for four took no less time than preparing for 100, as at our 100-year celebrations”.

Coral wrote: “When I was very ill for quite a number of months with shingles we became aware that the church work would need to go to another church. We prayed and worked for many years but still the Lord did not show us where to turn. Almost seven years of struggle, but we delighted in the Lord, and the many surprises He sent our way kept us going.

Then another bout of illness took place and when Norm came home from church one Sunday (I prayed while he was away), and he said the Baptists are meeting today to make some decisions re their outreach work, so I rang the office and asked if they would consider the idea of full-time ministry at this little church.

After much prayer, John and Rita Keane volunteered. We are thankful that John has taken up the role of Pastor and his ministry is vibrant and within the framework of the Little Church on the Hill. Some ten years prior to his accepting the work here, John and Rita were sharing, as it was Baptist Sunday, and after the service I said to Rita “John should be doing Pastoral work and it would be great if it was here. I think God heard!!!”

Coral continuesd “The Lord has truly blessed us through our years here and a lifetime of loving Him. A highlight is seeing people grow spiritually and emotionally, seeing people trust, rest, pray and obey with the help of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour”.

John said: “I first began preaching at the Little Church on the Hill in 1984, 31 years ago. We had moved to Liverpool and began attending Liverpool Baptist Church. The pastor, Ron Briggs, asked me to go on the preaching roster for the church. He said “You will find it very similar to the Sydney City Mission” (where I was converted at 12).

When Coral offered the church to Liverpool Baptist in 2003, God immediately spoke to me about taking on the role of Pastor. Rita and I prayed about it, I spoke with Coral and Norm and with the Liverpool Baptist Pastor, Paul Mosiejczuk. The church board was very supportive and approved that I be appointed to this role.

On the day we were commissioned an interesting sign of confirmation was received from the Lord. Rita is one for “putting out a fleece” like Gideon of old. After we had been prayed over, we resumed our seats. Rita had already given consideration to the fact that to reach the West Hoxton adults we would need a children’s program.

As Rita sat there she prayed: “Lord if you want me to start a Sunday School at West Hoxton, please give me a sign”. Her last thought before she set her mind to concentrate on Paul’s message was “I’ll need cups and cordial for the children."

As soon as the service concluded, an elderly lady walked over to Rita, put a $50 note into her hand and said “You’ll need this to buy cups and cordial for the children at West Hoxton”.

We came to west Hoxton with no fixed agenda other than to make ourselves available to God and see where he would lead us. That was in June, 2003. Another Liverpool Baptist church member, Christine Ronnie, committed herself to attend West Hoxton to assist us in the settling in period.

After three months attendance, we three were accepted into membership of the West Hoxton Union Church and on the last Sunday in December a service of “Spiritual Handing over of Positions” was conducted by Coral. These positions came into force on 1st January, 2004. Rita, Christine and I became the new trustees of the church. It is envisaged that the Property Trust of the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT will become the new trustees of the church sometime this year (2015).

John was working full time as the Manager of a truck motor body building company and pastored the church “out of hours”. He had done studies with Moore Theological College some years before and had completed the ThC (Certificate of Theology) at honours level  but in 2010, the year he retired, he completed further studies with Morling Theological College, went before the Committee for Ministry, and was accepted as a Recognised Baptist Minister.

Our morning worship services are structured, but informal, being contemporary in format, “seeker sensitive” in focus and topical in theme, so that people who attend find the style of service comfortable to adapt to. Music is provided by organ, piano and guitar, with a mix of the newest Christian songs and the older hymns.

In accordance with that early constitution, God’s Word and the Good News of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is the centrepiece of our worship services. There have been many changes over the years. There was a time when no lady would be seen in church without her best dress, shoes, hat and gloves, nor any man without a three-piece suit and tie and hat. We are more relaxed with regard to dress today, and there have been many other changes. But our message must never change.

The message of God’s love to mankind in sending His only Son to be our Saviour remains the central theme of our services. The fact that Jesus died on the cross, rose again from the dead and is one day coming back again is our main focus.

It's only as people receive the forgiveness that God offers in Jesus, begin a new and living relationship with Him, that their lives have purpose and meaning.

Our weekly program consists of two Bible Studies (one day-time, one night-time), regular family fellowship activities and lots of special events, particularly at Easter and Christmas. We have a visitation program around the West Hoxton Village and the community are always made aware of the monthly church program and warmly invited to attend.

The church family continues to be very supportive and encouraging of each other and their pastor and his wife. It is a privilege to be the pastor of these loving, caring people.

Looking back over the years, Peter Pike, one time lay reader and Sunday School Superintendent comments: “In those days, for all the churches to combine in a project like the Union Church is just remarkable.”

Colin Wilson also wrote: “Sometimes it is good to look back into the past. But let us remember that the past is gone and we cannot recall it, neither do we want to live in it, but we should be able to profit by it.

The present is here and this is our responsibility, to do our best for our Master, for truly we can say “the night cometh when no man can work”.

We have planned for the future and are still planning, but let our plans be in His will, as the future is entirely in God’s hands. But let our earnest prayer be, that, if the Lord tarry, we may be found faithful to Him, as a church and as individuals, while he gives us breath. May we leave our future to our Heavenly Father.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

  • Research references:
  • Minutes of the West Hoxton Union Church – 1909-1965.
  • The Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser Archives.
  • The Heritage Council.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald Archives
  • The West Hoxton Union Church Constitution.
  • The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate Archives.
  • The District Reporter Archives.
  • The Camden News Archives.
  • The Liverpool News Archives.
  • The Liverpool Herald Archives.
  • The Liverpool Leader Archives.
  • Liverpool Library Heritage Collection – Local Studies Filing Cabinet.
  • Liverpool Museum.
  • Liverpool Regional Museum “Liverpool Frontline – Nurses and Diggers from WW1”
  • The State Library.
  • Trove (National Library of Australia) Archives.
  • The collection of Coral Wells.
  • Special thanks to the following people for their assistance:
  • Coral Wells.
  • Donna Edgar – Heritage Services Officer, Liverpool City Library.
  • David Berry - Information Request Service, State Library of NSW

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