A Marker on the Highway
An outback Australian icon's 50th anniversary was celebrated in Tennant Creek in December
The Tennant Creek Uniting Church is a striking A-frame structure built in 1966. It stands on the Stuart Highway as a marker to all who drive by, and an invitation to stop and visit for the devoted and the curious.
Rev Peter Wait of the Tennant Barkly Patrol is currently serving as minister of the church. He led an inclusive service to celebrate the building of the church and reflected on all those who contributed to cooperation and ministry on the site to the present day.
Other speakers at the service were Mr Peter Jones, General Secretary of the Northern Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia; Rev Lee Perkins, former minister of Tennant Creek Uniting congregation and Tennant Barkly Patrol; Pastor Mike Baker, Tennant Creek Christian Family Church Jameson Casson, AIM (Australian Indigenous Ministries) Church; Pastor Ken Schultz, Alice Springs Lutheran Church (who gave greetings from his own church, but also read a greeting from Rev Brian Jeffries, Alice Springs Anglican Church).
More than 70 people attended including members of Tennant Creek community, representatives from various local churches, out of town and interstate guests.
“During the service we heard the words of Rev John O’Reilly, recorded for his family a couple of years ago, reminiscing about the process of building the church” said Rev Peter Wait.
O’Reilly attributed the initiative to Peko mining engineer Fred Soars, “He came to me, unsolicited, with drawings of an A-frame church.” O’Reilly was persuaded, and so committed his negotiating skills to ‘wrangling’ with the powers that be (in Sydney and Darwin) to get the project off the ground.
About the local decision making process O’Reilly said “There is no record of committee meetings making decisions about this project. We yarned about it on the footpath after church or whenever individuals met but formal meetings did not exist” he said.
Local and interstate voluntary labour built the church. Rev O’Reilly made special mention of George Parmenter, an 80 year old carpenter from Ballina NSW who offered himself for a fortnight, ‘or a bit longer’, and ended up staying 8 months, and Bill Russell, also a carpenter, from Wagga Wagga.
John O’Reilly had conjectured that if the two had not gotten on as well as they did, the project wouldn’t have been completed in the way that it was.
A morning tea followed the service and then guests gathered back in the church to share some more stories of the church’s history.
While speakers and guests reminisced, Ps Ken Schultz took a small team of volunteers and visitors to the Barkly Work Camp. There he led a worship service attended by over 20 prisoners. “It was the most I’ve had at any service there” said Ps Schultz.
Worship conducted at the work camp is representative of one of the contemporary partnerships the Uniting Church has – working with Anglicans and Lutherans to provide worship and pastoral care to the Work Camp. As such it was a fitting part of the day’s celebration, testifying to an ongoing tradition of cooperation in ministry and service in this area.
A number of prisoners in the Work Camp service had participated during the week in helping prepare the church grounds for the main celebration, gather firewood for a Fijian lovu (for lunch), and transport extra chairs (provided by Nyinkka Nyunyu).
“We achieved our aims of bringing people together, remembering the past and building hope for the future. It was a joy to witness these aims being met” said Peter Wait of the event. "The Uniting Church calls itself a ‘pilgrim people, always on the way towards the promised end.’"
The history of church activity on the A-frame site dates back more than 80 years. And the story of God’s activity, here and elsewhere, dates back much longer than we can imagine. Seeing a marker on the highway can help us imagine the future.
With thanks to Jason and Carien Pelcher, Ian O’Reilly, Peter Jones, Ps Ken Schultz, Win Joswig, Lavery Plumbing, Mike Nash Electric, Tennant and District Times, Emma Newman and the Red Cross community, Linda Rice, Karen and her coffee van, Robin Small, Nyinkka Nyunyu (Julalikari), Barkly Work Camp, Ben Whippy and Tevita Naroba and their lovu team, and the committed members of the Tennant Creek Uniting Church congregation.
Photos kindly supplied by Sam Gubicak. Top to bottom: people gather inside and out of the historic church. Peter Jones, of the Northern Synod, one of the speakers at the service.