19 June 2023
Members of an outer west parish lost their place of worship, but not their faith community when their church was deconsecrated.
St Paul’s Deans Marsh was closed in June after 139 years, but the Anglican values its last remaining congregants were accustomed to are still in place.
Former organist and one of St Paul’s last three members Frances Tyrer said the church was still there because of the close-knit sense of community its once substantial congregation had helped foster in Deans Marsh.
Ms Tyrer who grew up in the small town said the church had been an active part of the school community and that its ladies’ guilds had also provided catering for functions and held fetes and participated at harvest festivals, among other things.
She said St Paul’s became Deans Marsh’s only remaining place of worship following the closure of a Methodist and a Presbyterian church.
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The sense of church community was so strong people either moved away from the area or died, but no one ever intentionally left St Paul’s, Ms Tyrer said.
But she said services fell from weekly to fortnightly to monthly in the last six years, and that the church held its final worship service in 2019.
The Melbourne diocese’s decision to close St Paul’s was disappointing, but it was understandable she said.
“The church members had by then got to their 70s, 80s, 90s and older, and there weren’t new people coming to it. That’s what happens in rural towns, so it just wasn’t viable for it to continue,” Ms Tyrer said.
She said when the number of services had begun to drop she started attending the Winchelsea parish’s larger church, St Thomas’.
Parish locum the Reverend Philip Jacobson said the deconsecration process had considered the history of the congregants, and a time frame to allow them to come to terms with what was going to happen had been critical.
He said the deconsecration service itself was developed to involve the parishioners, and that Ms Tyrer had played the hymns and read the intercessions, while one of the other members did further readings.
He said the sermon had been a key part of helping people see how their community might go on.
He said Bishop Bradly Billings had preached, and carefully emphasised that although church was traditionally linked to a building, the church was not the building.
Mr Jacobson said despite St Paul’s only having three congregants, 36 people turned up for the final service.
“Even though they were not all St Paul’s church-goers, they still have a connection, and that connection was also invoked during the service,” he said.
Mr Jacobson said those parishioners who had decided to travel out of Deans Marsh to join the larger congregation at St Thomas’ Winchelsea appeared to be settling in with ease.
“It’s that’s part of being a country congregation. They’re still within quite often the same friendship cohort, same interest cohort, so it wasn’t a traumatic impact to move from one church to the other,” Mr Jacobson said.