Now known as the Uniting Church, the Methodist Church was one of the early Christian faiths to spread the gospel in the fledgling town of Gunnedah and beyond.

In the 18th century, Rev John Wesley founded the Methodist Church in England and continued riding his horse all over the country for 45 years. To assist him in his ministry, he recruited lay preachers who rode horses to many scattered congregations. In 1813, the first Methodist clergyman Samuel Leigh arrived in Australia. A man of great energy, he rode his horse over vast distances to Parramatta and Windsor and other fast-growing regions of Sydney.

The first recorded Methodist Church services in Gunnedah were held about 1866. From 1873 to 1878, services were conducted in the Court House as part of the Narrabri-Wee Waa circuit with Rev JA Carruthers the first minister. In his memoirs titled, Out To The Back Blocks, the young circuit rider recorded that there were no churches in any of the towns he preached. He said it needed no circuit plan and there were no local preachers. Taking Narrabri as a centre, visits to Boggabri, Gulligal, Gunnedah, Carroll and stations enroute were organised every six weeks.

Returning on the other side of the river, Rev. Carruthers would journey on to Moree where he preached on a Sunday and then headed up the river to Bingara and Keera or sometimes across the plains to Mungindi. On another trip he would head down the river from Wee Waa to Pilliga and Walgett.

Methodist Church, 1906. Back left, unnamed, GK Weakley, J Westerweller, JB Pole, Pleffer, W Kuhl, D Perrett, WA Weakley, J Turner, second row, CK Kuhl, Mrs Latter, M Lockyer, unnamed, A Cocks, TM Westerweller, L Coote, P Cocks, L Westerweller, L Kuhl, H Turner, Rev HS Bowden, third row, A Moffat, Mrs Barton, P Neader, S Perrett, J Cocks Snr, A Garnham, EW Westerweller, WA Weakley, HS Bowden, front row, unnamed, V Moffatt, E Neader, A Moffatt and M Flett.

In conjunction with the celebration of local government in 2006, the Uniting Church placed a sign at the front of the original Methodist Church called the circuit rider, featuring a clergyman on a horse as he rode around the circuit.

In 1876, Gunnedah became a separate circuit, with the community, led by an English lady, Mrs Agnes Polke Allen and her son Wills Allen, largely responsible through their generosity and appeals for raising funds to construct a church, which was built and opened in 1878, at a cost of 1500 pounds, followed by a parsonage in 1879. Wills Allen was an officer in the church and a very generous supporter. According to the jubilee souvenir booklet of 1929, Mr Wills Allen would settle the accounts at times when the financial strain was acute. Food for the minister’s horses and fuel for the parsonage were in comparison with other gifts, mere details to the donor, the booklet recorded. The name of Westerweller was also long linked with local Methodism with Jacob Westerweller and his ‘zealous wife’ enthusiastic workers ‘honourably maintaining the church they loved’. The historical notes recorded that a beautiful clock was placed in the church in their memory by their son EW Westerweller. Another name associated with Methodism in the early days was Mr GC Richardson who came to Gunnedah in 1866 and was one of the original trustees. The jubilee booklet also mentioned the Weakly family, especially WH Weakly, who rendered “great service” to the early ministers on the circuit driving them to their long appointments. Mr GH Weakly was also actively connected with the church and Sunday School during his 50 years residence in the district. His son Willis Weakly was also a trustee and junior circuit steward. Mr JA Turner and his “devoted wife” were also stalwarts of the church, with Mr Turner occupying every office in the local church.

In 1904, a beautiful two-manual pedal organ was given to the church by the Kleinschafer family.

Sunday School was established from the time the church was built. At the time it was the only one of its kind in the town and the enrolment was very large. In 1880 there were 15 teachers and 180 students supervised by a superintendent. In 1928, the sessions were changed from the afternoons to the morning before the church service which allowed the country families to attend and others to assist in teaching.

The first superintendent minister was Rev. WM Weston, with Rev. Richard East the first resident minister but with no parsonage built before his arrival he and his wife were guests of the Wills Allen’s at Gunnible Station until a convenient house became available.

The parsonage was built during Rev. Weston’s second year in Gunnedah and this was the home for ministers until 1908, when a new house was constructed in Bloomfield Street and the old one let out to tenants. An updated parsonage was constructed in Cushan Avenue in 1978 to resolve the uncertainty of rented accommodation and secure the role of additional ministry in the parish.

First Superintendent Minister, Rev WM Weston.

Rev Weston remained in the circuit for just two years and was followed by Rev. Halse Rogers, whose son, Halse Jnr, was born in the parsonage and went on to become a judge.

Ministers to follow Rev. Rogers were J Beale, J Scott, RM Laverty, FJ Curwood, Stephen Wright, WM McCullum, GT Baker, EW Brimscombe, HS Bowden, A Graham, D Hunter, Egan Moulton, PL Black, CL Connor, G Williams, Bruce Willis, GS Udy, and G Moore up until 1935. Rev Udy was described as a colourful character, of Cornish origin, who was small in stature, outspoken and possessed a powerful, booming voice. He had three sons – Gloster, Jim and Dick who all became ordained ministers in the NSW conference.

For years the need for a new church was apparent and in 1953 the trustees of the day, led by Rev Wilbur Dundas, decided that the existing property would be retained due to its central town location in Abbott Street with the new church built on the corner of Abbott and Bloomfield Streets. The tennis courts on the corner were relocated to the former stable and horse yard area – the old stable had served as a garage for the circuit car, so a new garage was built next to the parsonage. The parish hall had been constructed in the 1920s to cater for a wider range of activities.

The building of a new church was made possible by the generosity of the Methodist community which contributed most of the finance required with individual donations ranging from one pound to 2560 pounds. The church was opened on September 21, 1957, with little debt. The total cost of the building was $41,299, with various items of furniture also donated by parishioners.

Superintendent Minister, 1929, Rev G Stuart Udy.

It was a stellar day when the new brick building was officially opened by conference president Rev BR Wyllie. In 1961, the additional meeting rooms and kitchen were added to the original hall.

In 1976, the Gunnedah Methodist Church celebrated its century during the ministry of Rev David Taylor. Over the years services were conducted in farmhouses, and churches with the circuit name changed to Liverpool Plains in 1974. This now included Curlewis, Piallaway, Premer, Dunnadie Creek, Boggabri, Willala, Maules Creek and Gunnedah.

While the roots of the organisation are founded in Methodism, a significant change came about in 1977 when the Methodist Church of Australasia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia and the Congregational Union of Australia, combined to become the Uniting Church.

The church was also a presence in the wider community with the property a venue for a Citizens Day Centre, recovery group, play group, ballet and dancing classes, marriage and family counselling, through its ministry and discussion groups. A youth group, women’s groups and a couple’s club were all part of the circuit’s ongoing program.

One of Gunnedah’s most loved general practitioners, Dr Donald Barr, was an organist at the Uniting Church for 25 years. Dr Barr and his wife Joan raised two children, Ian and Susan and after his retirement in February 1986, the couple moved to Sydney, where Dr Barr died three years later at the Alders Gate Nursing Home in Leichhardt.

Gunnedah’s Uniting Church as seen today at the corner of Abbott and Bloomfield streets.

On April 5 last year, Gunnedah Uniting Church was filled to overflowing for the final farewell of their much-loved pastor, Mere Lightfoot with the thanksgiving service conducted by Rev Simon Hansford. A woman of great faith, Mere felt the call to join the mission field for the church after a suggestion from half-time supply pastor Rev Jim Furze. He was convinced that she had the gifts and attributes to explore a role in ministry and after discussions with church leaders about the sacrifices that this life entailed, Mere spent 18 months in Vanuatu where she found something in herself and it wasn’t long before she enrolled in Bible College doing her studies by remote learning.

After returning from Vanuatu, Mere carried out several jobs, but as her faith journey continued at the Uniting Church in Gunnedah. She had grown and matured into the role of pastor and this led to her involvement with many of the wider Uniting Church family, known as Presbytery and Synod, where she accepted the role of chairperson of the Pastoral Relations Committee.

Mere reached out to the Curlewis congregation when required and brought the Liverpool congregations together on a regular basis with a service and lunch in the Breeza Hall. She was also involved in community engagement, with her school chaplaincy role at Mullaley Public School, and a chaplaincy role as part of Gunnedah Shire Council’s sister city trip to Tonga.

When Mere was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer three weeks before her death, her great faith allowed her to accept her fate and she died on March 27.

The Uniting Church parish had loved and lost another inspirational pastor who had carried on the foundations set down by her predecessors over the previous 147 years.

Further information about the Uniting Church Gunnedah is available at the Gunnedah Water Tower Museum.

The first Methodist Church in Abbott Street, Gunnedah, with the Circuit Rider board over the door.

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