There’s a vintage sign propped up in The Old Church on the Hill hall, a relic from the days when religion reigned supreme. It reads; ‘Quarry Hill Uniting Church Divine Service, Friday morning 10.30am’. While the church itself was de-consecrated in 2012, Fridays in this place are still very much divine.
We’re here for the weekly Living Room session, which runs from 10.30am to 12.30pm and welcomes all and sundry for talk, tea and creativity. “This is going to be funny, this is my life on a Friday morning,” says Rose Vincent, as she attempts to explain among the constant distraction of friends catching up.
“The idea is to make a space where people can come together and connect with others. A space that’s intergenerational and intercultural.” Practically speaking that means Fridays at The Old Church are reserved for gardening, sewing, children’s story time, and lots and lots of cups of tea. Spiritually, it’s a conduit for something much deeper.
“It’s a neighbourhood drop-in morning and the neighbourhood is Bendigo,” Rose says. “We all need each other and it doesn’t matter where we fit in in terms of social divides. None of us needs to be lonely.”
She says, perhaps ironically, churches used to provide that function in the community, and although they’re “no longer felt to be relevant in society, the spaces are still really important. We still need a place where we can meet and connect”.
Rose works four days a week in Bendigo in multicultural services and volunteers here each Friday. “I represent a very committed crew of people who quietly and sometimes invisibly work behind the scenes and we couldn’t do without them,” she says. She’s also part of the group who founded the Old Church.
Rose moved to Bendigo with her husband and three children ten years ago, knowing only two people – the parents of friends. But that was soon to change. They had spent the previous 15 years in Dubbo and were looking to settle in a regional Victorian city with good services and a university.
The downside of the move was leaving behind a large, leafy garden and orchard. “We came to Bendigo and were renting a place with a very small backyard, which was all paved, so I started growing vegies in the neighbour’s yard,” Rose says.
The local café along Carpenter Street heard of the family’s plight and offered them more space in the cafe backyard. Others quickly joined in and 15 households were coming together to grow food. They soon needed even more space and started gardening in the Uniting Church grounds. Then, the property was put up for sale.
Rose had done some research with a Melbourne-based philanthropic group called Component Industries, Australia’s first not-for-profit business, which made millions from designing a clip used in shed construction.
The gardening group asked for an interest-free loan to purchase the site, but was offered something better when Component Industries decided to buy the site outright for community use. It was otherwise pegged for residential development. That was five years ago. “Now we’re just trying to keep up with it,” Rose says.
The Old Church on the Hill is not a hall for hire so much as a community group partnering with other groups. It’s become a home for the Bendigo Sustainability Group, Bendigo Blues and Roots Club, local folk club and jazz club, the Ukulele Orchestra, Old Church children’s theatre group, playgroups, craft groups, life-drawing, choirs and plenty more. “My background is in community development and town planning,” Rose says. “The most exciting thing to me is knowing how much this space means to people and watching people flourish here.”
Rose and her family included. “I feel like I’m part of a tribe that has kept growing and there’s no edges to it,” she says. “For my husband Andy and I, we’d always lived simply and we had good friends who’d made similar life choices together, based on simplicity, authenticity and community. They’re the three values that are often missing from our fragmented, chaotic, crazy world. Even in the church there’s suspicion around its authenticity now – what can we trust?”
Jess Lambert can answer that question. The Old Church has become an important place in the life of her growing family. She manages the Community Pantry, which is a co-op buying groceries and other household items in bulk, based on the values of low food miles, sustainability and fair trade.
“This is a space where you feel like you can trust people, have deep conversations with people and really get to know people, so it’s not hard to enter into an agreement of trust,” Jess says. “It’s 100 people making a choice together.”
Jess started coming here because of the community gardening session. “As a mum with little kids often you don’t find spaces where you can socialise on your own level that are still safe and fun for kids,” she says. “It was an excuse for everyone to catch up, have a chat in the beautiful sunshine and work on creating a garden together.”
At that stage Jess’s two-year-old daughter Inika was a baby. Since then she and her partner have welcomed a fourth child into the world – and the Old Church community – Maeve, who is four months old when we meet.
“When she arrived we had everybody from the Old Church drop off meals to us for two weeks,” Jess says. “We had so much food we had to freeze it and in fact we’re still going through it.”
Atong Thon is here with members of her family, all the way from South Sudan. They’ve been in Bendigo for two years, after coming to visit cousins on a two-week holiday and deciding to stay. The Thon family arrived in Australia as refugees in 2005, first living in Sydney and then Canberra.
“I’d lived in a camp since I was born, in 1992,” Atong says. “Life was tough at that time. To have a roof over our head to sleep, that was the most important thing. We left our own country and escaped that place.”
As the youngest of four children, Atong says although she didn’t get to attend school, she was sheltered from the worst of it, and has fond memories of playing with childhood friends and relatives in the camp.
She turns to her mum to ask how she felt about coming to Australia, and translates on her behalf. “It was really an exciting memory that she’ll never forget,” Atong says. “She was a single mother raising four kids in a camp on her own and that was really tough to do with no government help to rely on. Coming here has changed her life.”
On settling in Bendigo Atong’s cousin introduced the family to the Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services. “Everyone was very friendly and they started inviting us to programs and we started engaging with a lot of activities,” she says, which is how they discovered the Old Church. Atong quickly began helping with the regular multicultural dinners, called the Feast of Stories, held here.
“I find it really welcoming. Everyone is friendly and it’s something I look forward to. Everyone is just wonderful.”
Recently she help prepare a South Sudanese community dinner of hand made cous cous and spinach. “We even had South Sudanese people from the Castlemaine community come,”Atong says. “There was music playing and everyone was dancing.”
The Friday aim of bringing together people of different cultures and ages is working. Lucas Frost is nursing a cup of coffee with Paul Tarquinio, as Paul’s young grandson Cedric climbs onto his knee. Paul is a retired maths teacher, Lucas a busy English teacher. The pair lived in the same street but only got to know each other within the Old Church walls.
“Rose and Andy moved next door to us and within two weeks they were introducing my wife Mary and I to our neighbours,” Paul says.
“There are lots of friendships made in this space,” Lucas adds. “It does connect people of different age groups. You can come and be part of something that’s bigger than just yourself.”
You can come and make boomerang bags or sow seedlings or add to the weekly grocery shop or find friends for your children, or you can simply come and have a chat. “We’re talking about bikes and where we’ve ridden lately,” Lucas says. “And about solar panels because I’ve just signed up for some and Paul is researching getting some.”
“Also philosophy, mathematics and science,” Paul says. “And William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.” As you do.
For more information on the Living Room or the other programs and events at the Old Church, go to www.theoldchurchonthehill.com