The Old Church on the Hill

My curiosity about an old brick building perched on the crest of a hill led me to a conversation had with Rose...on a comfy couch with a colourful crocheted rug...about this building that used to be a church that is now lovingly known by locals as The Old Church on the Hill (OCOTH). Partly a shared garden amongst the community, sometimes a live music venue, the scene of Gus' popular wood-fired pizza nights, the home of a recently discovered sound recording dating back 110 years...and the spot where you'll find a very popular Spring Fair each year. 

These are all only a small part of what this space has become. Above all else, it's a tribute to the power of community, the importance of belonging, of conversations had and stories told. Following is one of those conversations with Rose...mostly in her words with a few of mine. I couldn't bear to downsize it any further. I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I did listening.

(This conversation formed part of the article I wrote for the Bendigo Magazine summer issue...where I explored old church buildings that have been re-purposed for community and connection in other ways. The second building was Small Holdings, a sweet little restaurant/cafe at 90 Mollison Street Malmsbury. Will share more about that in an upcoming blog post. You can visit them here.)

On Rose and the part she plays:

I’m here in a volunteer capacity, and also studying community planning and development at Uni which I’m loving. It’s dovetailing beautifully with what is happening here. I have always been involved in community and neighbourhood. Growing up in “the back of Bourke” there were some pretty inspiring people that were making our town a beautiful place to be, putting lots of energy into making special things happen.

I feel like my role is really just offering hospitality to the different community members and groups that want to use this space. What I love is I don’t have to make everything happen at all…it's just happening and that’s exciting and satisfying to be part of. I’m sort of the public face of a very committed core of people without whom none of this couldn’t happen.

On What Happens at The Old Church on The Hill:

Rose describes it as a community house, but so more than that as well. It’s growing at a fast rate, having captured the imagination of local Bendigonians who are hankering for community and deeper connections with each other and the earth (in the garden) as well.

We have a large craft group meeting on Wednesday afternoons.  That group, along with their families, have kind’ve become the core of this place. With the Spring Fair coming up, most of them will be part of the organizing committee for that. They have a sense of belonging and as such, are bringing all the ideas so I feel like I’m just being a part of that.

Colin from the Blues and Roots Festival contacted us because everyone was saying “come check out the church on the hill, it’s a great place for music.” It worked beautifully because the artists really enjoy the space too. I keep saying we’re not a hall for hire…we’re a community group wanting to partner with other community groups. So that means when there’s an event here, it's something that everyone is invited to…it’s tapping into a whole community.

So in a week you can have this place packed out with women doing craft…all these couches filled up…making stuff for the fair…followed the night after by a movie/documentary that the Bendigo Sustainability Group (BSG) might be putting on thanks to a community grant from the council to install the equipment needed.  The night after that, Colin might have a musician here with 100 people packed in…BSG run a little bar in the corner to raise some money …it’s one of the few churches in town with a bar in it! Then there’s the playgroup with about 20 mums plus their kids…4-5 people from the Afghani community join in with that as well. It’s great to see the connections the kids are making. 

On Connecting Community Across Different Age Groups/Cultures:

We have a great cross-section with most of the events that happen here…kids from the playgroup, from the youth group, break dancing from the dance group, seniors from the table tennis groups and everyone in between. We have also connected in a really natural and great way with the local Afghani community….and that’s been a really positive thing…including them in what we’re doing and helping them feel at home in Bendigo.

Rather than being hugely program oriented, sometimes people just want a space to connect and do things together with people across generations and not necessarily need to make a big commitment…it’s more relaxed that way.

On The Garden:

The garden is a pretty important part of it all. This morning there’s been a whole lot of people picking rhubarb…people coming in off the street (as the garden has no fence) and I think that’s great…it brings such a good bunch of people.

It’s based around the model of a shared garden which means “share the labour, share the harvest.” I just tell people to be as comfortable to come and harvest as they are to come and weed…to put in a punnet or to water something…we’re just glad to have people in it using the veggies. It’s also becoming a place for the nearby neighbours to connect…bring their dogs and have a little chat…there’s a kids area where the children play…it's nice that it's meeting that need as well.

A little story that says something about community gardens more than the OCOTH...there was a guy that moved back to town that lived close by. He was coming along to the community garden bees and getting to meet other people and it was a great way to connect with him. Anyway he’d been here for about 4-5 working bees, and it was the middle of winter, a freezing cold night. He lives closer to the garden than we do, but the doorbell rang at our place at about 10pm. Andy went out to see who it was and here’s this guy standing there with no shoes on, just socks, (+ clothes!) and he said “I’m so sorry to bother you, I’ve locked myself out of my house…I don’t really know my neighbours...I just thought what am I going to do?…and then I thought of Andy and Rose!” He remembered where we lived and walked down. So I asked him “Were your neighbours not home?” and he said “yeah they were home but I just didn’t feel like I could knock on their door.” I thought it was so interesting how a community garden, being together in the same space, makes a connection greater than the people you live next door to that you might not ever talk to. 

On Other Examples of Connection…and the Importance of Belonging

Oh there are lots and lots of stories! Everyone has a story, and somehow or another the OCOTH has played a part. So many have said that it helped them feel at home in Bendigo…that they’ve sort of lived with one foot in Bendigo and one foot in Melbourne for awhile…and being a part of things happening here has helped them feel like they can put two feet in Bendigo and belong…maybe put the Melbourne house on the market. That’s pretty special.

One of the ladies that came to our events regularly…she’d had this sort of inability to speak…like her voice would choke in her throat. She said that coming and meeting people, feeling at home and accepted…she’s just suddenly discovered she’s got a voice and not only is she  doing OK, but she’s doing amazing things now and it started with a feeling of belonging somewhere.

Then a lady, who has lived in Bendigo for 28 years, came to the working bee in the garden last Saturday. She came because she met somebody walking the dog who said “Oh you should come to the garden bee!” She explained that she’s found it really hard to make friends for all that time in Bendigo (without a family)…she said “I feel so glad to be able to be here, and I realize I’m not just coming to a garden, I’m coming to a whole community.”

On the Popular Pizza Nights:

Gus, our pizza man, put together this wood-fired trailer with bits and pieces from an old pizza shop he used to run. I reckon those nights are the richest nights here, with conversations buzzing all over the place and people coming together…it’s very powerful. It was great having the Afghanis join us last time, and of course the kids love it as well. If you’re not sure about what happens here but you want to visit, pizza communicates across all generations and cultures!

Everything sort of happens really organically…that’s part of it. We try and keep things pretty flexible so it’s not a burden on anyone.  There’s no schedule, it’s basically when Gus has some breathing room we just decide “It’s probably time for a pizza night!”

You just can’t underestimate the power of belonging, especially today with so much technology and everything becoming digital. It can contribute to people feeling distanced from each other…and children can grow up being used to that feeling. When even our own families can find it hard to gather together and share a meal or celebrate, I think there’s even more reason to make sure we connect with each other, and other families…and belong just that little bit more.

On How it All Came About:

In a nutshell, the property is currently owned by a philanthropic group in Melbourne who have given away millions of dollars in the field of community development, particularly amongst disadvantaged communities. When I first moved to Bendigo I had a job doing research for them as they were looking at regional needs, and were particularly interested in connecting with disadvantaged families.

The building itself was the Uniting Church, and the congregation that was here kindly gave us the keys and let us make ourselves at home. We were starting to use the space as pop-up garden, and hold events here for the growing network of neighbours and people connected to the space.  When the building stopped operating as a church, the old congregation wanted us to keep using it after they closed down. The council of the Uniting Church of Australia (known as the Synod) was working out the details involved in sale of the property. In the meantime there was a huge groundswell of letters and support from people wanting to make sure it didn’t get sold to developers instead. We got about fifty letters, and a Uni student even made a small movie showing how loved and used the space currently was.

During this time I contacted a few philanthropic groups when it looked like there might be an option of us putting in an offer (which the Uniting Church would be happy to support)…and this group in Melbourne was the only one that got back to us. I knew that we didn’t tick all their boxes in being “exclusively disadvantaged”, but everyone has a different background and a story...things they have been through. I think being disadvantaged doesn’t necessarily have to mean monetarily. The group said they’d be happy to buy the property for us to use for as long as we needed, if it still remained a community house servicing the neighbourhood/local city. It was very generous of them, and they’ve helped us with funding some of our renovations too. We do a lot of fundraising ourselves (the Spring Fair is a very important part of that), and we apply for grants and also get some very generous donations.

The story has been a bit of a rollercoaster but it’s worked out so amazingly well and we’re just so grateful. Any money we get from other groups using the space goes into the kitty for developing/maintaining the property too…as you can imagine there’s quite a bit of upkeep…but lots of people are volunteering to do help as well.

It’s great for the people that have been a part of these church properties for many many years to know that they’re still very much being used and well loved. Even if it may have broken some hearts to see the buildings sold…it’s lovely that although we don’t exactly match what has been here in the past, we’re continuing on in a different way and providing for a new generation in this space.

It's been great to have the old congregation come back, to be part of our community events and they’re just so encouraging…and the local Synod were very supportive after it all got sorted out. Once they talked to the people in Melbourne…they were just so generous and supportive in letting us take it on.  People from the philanthropic group love what’s happening here, and have been to the pizza nights too!

On Plans for the Future at The Old Church on the Hill:

We do a lot of shared eating…a lot of long table meals in here…it's beautiful. But we’re wanting to put a commercial quality community kitchen in at one end of the adjoining building/hall and feast space up the other end. Overall this will make it a much more usable space and then easier to provide hospitality. Maybe cooking lessons…preserving days…pie making days, everyone has lots of ideas about how it could be used…including the Afghani’s who would love to do some cooking classes. We want to link all that more strongly with the community garden…in some ways it will probably become a lot more like our kitchen garden. I’m part of the Bendigo Community Food Network as well…it’s a network of all the different community gardens in town and all the people involved with local food, so it will be a useful part of that too.

On a Lovely Coincidence:

I was listening to the radio one day…the show was about how they found a wax cylinder with a voice recording on it that is one of Australia’s earliest sound recordings...110 years old. I’m listening away and they played the recording (you can listen here) and it was the exam results from Quarry Hill Sunday School (circa 1904) which was this church back then…that was just so amazing. We also found one of the old books that showed there were 150 kids from all over Bendigo at that Sunday School. I’m so glad I just happened to be listening!

Thanks Rose for sharing so many lovely stories about a beloved Bendigo building and garden :)

You can find The Old Church on The Hill at the corner of Russell & Harkness streets in Quarry Hill (Bendigo)...and keep up with what's happening via Facebook.