Travelling south from Wollombi down the Great North Road is a particularly pretty stretch of road. A lovely building along this thoroughfare was one of our oldest churches, the pretty St. Mark's Church of England at Laguna. Still in exquisite state, it even has its original bell tower intact at the side of the church.
St. Mark's was hand-built from local raw material. The wood for the church came from George Brown's timber mill in Cessnock and the church's sandstone piers were quarried only 91 metres away. The builder was Thomas Woodbury. St. Mark's was consecrated in November 1884 by the Bishop of Newcastle.
In the late 19th century the church was a key part of the community, particularly in a rural area. Attending church on Sunday wasn't just about connecting with God, it was a significant social event. People met up with their far-flung neighbours, young people flirted (and in doing so found potential husbands or wives) and children played with the off-spring of other members of the congregation.
Nine years after the church was opened a new Reverend was appointed to the Wollombi church circuit, which included St. Mark's at Laguna. He was Charles Frederick Withey, in his early 40s, who moved to the district with his wife Isabel and their two young sons, Alfred and Hubert. In his first year at St. Mark's a daughter, Thelma, would be born. He was to stay in the valley for 14 years, leaving in 1907.
Ministers travelled around their pastoral circuit by horse, or if they were more prosperous, by horse and sulky. Parishioners came the same way, with the less well off, but nonetheless devout, walking long distances to the weekly church services.
Withey was a man of his times, he followed the cricket and was an enthusiastic supporter of the church's Missionary Society and the British Empire. But he wasn't a hellfire and brimstone preacher. Parishioners remembered his gentleness and when he left St. Mark's his departure was deeply regretted.
When Charles Withey died in 1924 he had been an ordained Minister for 50 years. There was an outpouring of grief at his death for the Reverend with a 'kindly disposition and genial temperament [which] made him many life-long friends among all classes of the community by whom he was held in the highest esteem and regard.'
The church was deconsecrated in July 2019 and is currently available for sale.
- Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library. Contact her on email@example.com.