Almost 150 years ago our people came to settle in what we now know as Mt. Gambier and district. They came with vision, bringing the faith of their fathers with them to a strange new land. Early ministers, from places such as Portland, visited the homes on horse back to conduct services, baptisms, weddings, and sometimes the belated funeral service at a lonely grave.
The Presbyterian Church in Mount Gambler had its beginnings in 1858 when Rev. James Don was inducted on 11th May, 1858 to minister to the spiritual needs of the many Scottish settlers who had arrived since the 1840’s. The first service was in the courthouse in June 1858, later moving into the old Sturt Street schoolhouse - this building is still standing. In 1860 the first church was erected on land donated by Mr. John Livingston. More land was later acquired. Rev. Don served 6 years, before he was called to Penola in 1864, believing it would become the major centre of the South-East.
Rev. Robert Caldwell was inducted on August 4, 1864 in a ministry that was to last forty-five years. A remarkable man whose record speaks for itself. He travelled long distances on horse back and by buggy to minister to the people. During his term the Presbyterian cause was spread through the district with the opening of churches at Allendale East (1866), O.B. Flat (1886), Compton (1902), Glenburnie (1907). Nelson was not opened until 1910, but Rev. Caldwell preached his first sermon there in 1875.
He saw the original church enlarged once before the present St. Andrews was opened on December 10, 1871. A manse was built in 1872. As the congregation grew, the Sunday School and classrooms were added in 1884. A gallery was added to the church because of growing numbers. Rev. Caldwell was minister until 1909 when ill-health forced him to retire. He died shortly afterwards - his was the largest funeral Mount Gambier had seen, as all respected and admired him.
Rev. G. M. Baird succeeded him and served till 1913. During his ministry, the current manse was built and opened on April 26, 1911. Perhaps a man before his time, Rev. Baird saw the advantage of the country churches forming a separate charge, but he did not receive support and consequently resigned. It was to be forty-five more years before the people agreed to two charges. Rev. Baird had the services of an assistant, and after a long vacancy was followed by Rev. James Cully (1915-1923) who ministered through the difficult years of World War 1, yet saw steady growth within the congregations.
In 1923 Rev. H. A. Ballinger came from Kalgoorlie W.A. to minister here. He was known and loved by all for his “wholehearted and unselfish” devotion to his work and congregation. The heavy commitments to the church and community took toll of his health and he died in office on 11th September, 1935, only procuring an assistant a few months prior to his passing.
Rev. Douglas Fearon was inducted 23rd January, 1936 and guided the congregation through the difficult days of World War 2. He kept contact with the enlisted men, and led prayer meetings weekly to comfort families and friends. One of his assistants was Mr. Charles McLeod.
In 1946 the Rev. Wilf Collins came to Mount Gambier directly from service as a Chaplain with the Armed Forces. These were the years of considerable growth in the church. The work of the Sunday Schools, women’s groups and P.F.A. were strong as was the faithful witness in the country churches. Regular services continued at Glenburnie, O.B. Flat, Allendale, Nelson, Glencoe, Mil Lel, and Compton. Services are no longer held at the latter three locations.
The church’s centenary was celebrated in 1958, and saw the commencement of construction of Scots’, which joined with the four remaining country churches in 1960 to form the East Gambier Charge. Rev. Collins served here from 1960 -1965, preceded by his assistants Mr. Arnold James and Mr. Forth.
It is interesting to note that for almost 100 years; the South Australian Church was weakened by the fact that the strong South East Churches were linked with the Victorian Assembly and not South Australia. In 1950, the Penola Presbytery became part of the South Australian Church, bringing strength in numbers and financial assistance.
Rev. Reynolds Waters succeeded Rev. Collins at St. Andrew’s and ministered until 1967. Rev. C. R. Brandt assisted during 1967/68, and Rev. Alec Yule served from 1968 until the mid 70’s. He was assisted by Rev. Donald Bell (1969-mid 70’s). Rev. Robert Cook who arrived in the mid 70’s was minister at the commencement of the Uniting Church in June 1977.
At East Gambier, Rev. Ian Tennant followed Rev. Collins in 1966 and served until 1969. The Charge was vacant in 1970, Rev. Keith Wright being inducted in 1971 and ministering until 1975.
Rev. John Owen was called to East Gambler in 1976 to continue the Presbyterian cause. The congregation of Scots’ voted to go into Union, however the Property Commission awarded Scots’ and the manse to the Presbyterians not wishing to unite.
The other property awarded to our denomination was ‘Karnkendi’ - the campsite at Nelson which has seen considerable development in the years since 1977. In June 1977 there were only 13 members on the Communicant Roll at Scots’, with the country churches remaining constant. The first year saw a viable congregation developed at Scots’, Nelson re-opened, three branches of women’s work, and Sunday Schools at four of the five churches. The enthusiasm of the people was reflected in the spiritual and financial growth of the Charge. Rev. Michael Grieve (1979-1984) continued this vital re-establishment work with much being done to buildings and grounds during his ministry.
He was succeeded by Rev. Albert Harvey (1984-1994). His long and highly valued ministry was the stabilising time needed and continued the steady growth of the past. A new manse was purchased at this time, and during Rev. Harvey’s term the Livingston bequest was granted and planning began on the Allison Street complex. He was assisted by Mr. Rod Waterhouse in 1987/88 and Mr. Ralph Holwerda in 1989. In 1994 Rev. Waterhouse returned to the Charge and was ordained and inducted as Rev. Harvey’s colleague and successor. Mr. Philip Daffy commenced his ministry as a licentiate in 1996.
This history has focused on the incumbent ministries, but the people - who are the Church - have served the Charge wonderfully over the years. Those who have taught Sunday School, served on Boards, ran youth and womens’ groups etc. are all too numerous to mention, but nonetheless appreciated. In particular, Session Clerks have been John McDonald (1858-1864), John Watson (1864-1925), David Collins (1925-1951), Alex Scott (1951-1963) and Murray Martin (1963-1977).
The first Session Clerk at East Gambier was Bob Telford (1960-1977), followed by Noel Cusack (1977-1991) and Alan Fox at present.
These have been the leaders of the Presbyterian cause in this part of the world. They have led people who have gone through all the trials of life and what it means to serve God in the midst of a society which has become increasingly secularised, yet which is all the more needy of the grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We thank God for all “who have gone before”, and on this day of great significance are reminded afresh, not only of the greatness of this material gift, but of the incomparable gift of Christ - to God indeed be the Glory.