“Congregation of Cessnock – Bellbird”
|Cessnock Uniting Church
Corner Cumberland & Cooper Streets,
CESSNOCK (02) 49901107
|Bellbird Uniting Church
478 Wollombi Rd,
BELLBIRD (02) 49901107
Our beginnings lay in the small-holding farming communities of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Our predecessors lived alongside the Great North Road between the administrative centres of Wollombi and Maitland. Cessnock, named after the large grant along Black Creek, became a hamlet because it was the point at which that creek could be crossed.
These were not the first people. The first Europeans were the convicts and their ticket-of-leave overseers who were sent to develop the grants given to the grandees of Sydney. These, aided by disease, hunger and despair, soon dispossessed the original indigenous people from the land they had lived on for thousands of years, a land that people called Berrinba.
Our first congregations met in family homes in their localities. Like Pokolbin, they built a hall on a member’s land. Others, as at Glenmore, joined together to buy land on which to build their slab church. These groups were supported by lay preachers and ministers from Maitland.
The great change occurred as the coal began to be mined. From 1905 when the Aderdare Colliery began, coal miners and their families from the mining communities in Britain were brought to work the Greta seam. Methodists came from the English Midlands, Presbyterians from Scotland and Baptists from Wales, bringing their faith with them. The township of Cessnock rapidly grew, surrounded by the pit-head settlements that were built by the mine owners for some of their workers, like Aberdare, Kearsley, Kitchener and Neath. One of these migrants was William Kearsley, who had trained as a Methodist Home Missioner and who came to the Newcastle district to serve at Greta. He became a miner at Kurri, then at Aderdare. He led the first service under a gum tree in the rising town of Cessnock, possibly on what became the first church site. He went on to be an official of the Colliery Employees Federation and was elected to the NSW parliament from 1910 until his death in 1921. William was the first of many local leaders.
By 1909 the Methodists had an ordained Minister serving them in their Church on the corner of Edward and Vincent St. Cessnock. The Sunday School hall at Bellbird was erected in a day in 1913, to be replaced by the present church in 1926. In 1927 the large Sunday School and congregation at Cessnock required the building of Wesley Hall. The foundation stone was laid by the widowed Betsy Kearsley. The turmoil of the Depression and the Second World War and the industrial troubles associated with these, were followed by a down-turn of underground mining. From the 1960s until the 1990s jobs disappeared, and the population decreased.
Our church shared in all of this. While our congregation was sufficiently strong and confident to build the Cessnock church in 1974, we were soon feeling the effects of the loss of work opportunities. Our youth left the town, some for further education, but most for jobs. Many of their parents went with them. Our congregation began to be made up increasingly of older members. The Bellbird congregation shrank to the point at which it was decided to place it “in indefinite recess”, its remaining members attending at Cessnock. As our members moved to be nearer their families, or passed on, our numerical and financial strength also diminished. We became a group of faithful grandparents and great-grandparents.
Since 1996 our population has once again begun to grow with increasing rapidity. First came a rapid expansion in the wine industry. That industry and the tourism it has sparked, now employ more than 3000 people. In addition, we are increasingly having families and retirees building their homes here to enjoy the rural lifestyle.
Cessnock is increasingly a major centre of the Lower Hunter. It is the centre of Local Government, and of State and Federal services. All the banks are present. Woolworths, Coles and IGA supermarkets have recently been joined by Aldi and BigW. Two High Schools and a TAFE College provide for our educational needs. New housing estates are being developed to provide for our increasing population. Attractive National Parks and State Forests cover our ranges to the West and South. Newcastle, its University and the ocean, are 45 minutes away. We are an hour and a quarter north of Hornsby, the entrance to Sydney.
We face the future with hope. Some of the incoming families are visiting our congregation, testing our fellowship to replace the one they left. Young couples are requesting baptism of their children. Meanwhile, we know that 9% of the population claim in each Census that they are adherents of our church. Some of them were married and baptised in out church. We are challenged to find ways of deepening the engagement of all these in our fellowship. We have an active and respected play-group at our Bellbird hall. We host an Arts and Crafts group at our Cessnock hall. We are seeking new ways of serving the needs of our wider community. As one response we have renovated our Bellbird church and hall. We are working to establish a new congregation there, with a style suitable for the younger generation.
With faith, planning and hard work, we can turn our hope into the reality of a growing and deepening fellowship, centred on the teachings of Jesus.