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The Mission Chapel: Conserving an island icon

The Mission Chapel: Conserving an island icon

St Barnabas’ Chapel, otherwise known as the Melanesian Mission Chapel, or the Patteson Memorial Chapel, would be the most visited historic building on Norfolk Island and perhaps even in the whole South Pacific.

Visitors are often surprised and delighted to come across such a picturesque and elegant church building on a small Pacific island. Built in ‘a grand gothic style on a small scale’, the Chapel was erected between 1875 and 1880 as a memorial to Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, the first Bishop of Melanesia, who was martyred in the Solomons in 1871.

Two of England’s best known architects of the nineteenth century had input into the design of the building, and the fact that Norfolk Island at that time was the Bishop’s ‘seat’, may explain why the building has some of the ornateness and grandeur often associated with a cathedral.

In establishing St Barnabas’ Chapel, the Melanesian Mission was seeking to give expression to a vision articulated by Bishop Patteson, before his untimely death, of “a beautiful Gothic Chapel, rich inside with marble and stained glass, and carved stalls and encaustic tiles and brass screen work… It may come some day, and most probably, long after I am dead and gone.”

As well as being a memorial to a much loved missionary bishop, St. Barnabas was actually intended as a school chapel for St Barnabas’ College, to which Melanesian students were brought to receive a Christian education. This is why the seats are made to face each other across the aisle. The missionaries hoped that the beauty of the building would inspire their students to loftier things.

When the Melanesian Mission closed up and moved to the Solomons in 1920, the Chapel and around 100 acres of the Mission lands became the responsibility of the Church of England on the island. Many Norfolkers already felt a strong connection with the building. A number had been employed in its original construction. Others had been in the employ of the Mission both here and in the islands.

To this day, St Barnabas remains one of the parish churches for the Church of England on Norfolk Island. The parishioners naturally feel a strong responsibility as guardians of a significant building in the history of the island, and a not-to-be-missed stop on the touring almost every visitor.

The Chapel incorporates some beautiful craftsmanship in its infrastructure and furnishings. While many local materials were used in its construction, some timbers and stone were imported from New Zealand. Gifts that would enhance this memorial to the much-loved Bishop martyr also flowed in from well-wishers back in England. Marble flooring, a font and columns came from Devon, the Bishop’s home county. Beautiful stained glass windows came from the well-known firm of William Morris, with those over the sanctuary being the work of the famed pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. The intricate carving and inlaid shell work bear testament to the artisan skills of both the Missionaries and their Melanesian students. Victorian novelist Charlotte Yonge, Bishop Patteson’s cousin, arranged for a fine pipe organ from the famous firm of Henry Willis, paid for from the proceeds of one of her novels ‘The Daisy Chain’.

Further gifts have been made over the years – the belltower, the communion rail, the sedilia, kneelers, sanctuary chairs, a processional cross, a Bishop’s staff, a flower stand, and, quite recently, a fine new lectern. St Barnabas’ Chapel represents the work and love of many people over a long period of time. The responsibility of ensuring all this can continue to be enjoyed by future generations comes at quite a cost in terms of time and finances. Some years ago, the church members decided to form a separate body, ‘The Friends of St. Barnabas’, which would raise funds and focus on restoration and conservation of the Chapel, freeing the Parish Council to devote time and resources to ministry.

Working loosely to a specially commissioned conservation plan, many restoration projects have been undertaken. In the past thirty years, the Willis organ has undergone two complete overhauls, the first being carried out by Henry Willis IV, the great-grandson of the original organ builder. The ‘Friends’ also ensure that it is regularly tuned professionally to keep it in ‘good voice’.

The precious stained glass windows have also been completely restored in recent decades, and clear protective panels installed to minimise the possibility of damage caused by vibrations from aircraft landing on the strip nearby.

Local joiners have been involved in restoring and maintaining the timberwork, and in recent times, local painters have stripped back the external sandblasted paint finishes, and some rotting timbers were replaced before a new layer of paint was applied. The local tradesmen express great pride in having the opportunity to work on this very special building.

Some of the lighter coloured sandstone used internally in the Chapel was originally imported from Oamaru in New Zealand, and had been flaking in some areas. It had, in fact, been affected by the salt in the adjacent limestone that had been quarried near Slaughter Bay on the island. Last year, an Oamaru stone mason was able to come to the island and repair and replace some of the stone, and carry out damp-proofing work.

One of the major tasks in recent times has been the re-roofing of the Chapel. The original shingles were actually replaced, with the assistance of the local Norfolkers, on two occasions during the time the Mission was operating on the island, and about fifty years ago, asbestos tiles were put in place. The need to replace these became quite a concern, but because of the enormous expense of importing authentic timber shingles, the project was put into the ‘too hard basket’ for some years. Finally it was decided to use a grey-green Canadian slate, and a Sydney roofing firm, with experience in dealing with historic buildings, was engaged to carry out the task.

The Norfolk community supported the re-roofing project with great enthusiasm. Tiles were ‘sold’ to members of the public for $10 each, which gave the right to an inscription on ‘their’ tile. Many families donated tiles, some in memory of loved ones. In a wonderful ecumenical spirit of goodwill, other churches also made valuable donations. The inscribed tiles were all placed on the bell tower, and in the right light, most people can easily identify ‘their’ tile! This local support, plus contributions from the Friends of St Barnabas, the Parish Council, the Church Property Trust and the local Historical Society meant that this major project was expertly completed in 2010 with nothing owing.

The Church of England feels fortunate in having not only this lovely building, but also the extensive adjacent property. Even on Norfolk Island, open green space for recreation is at a premium nowadays, and the Church is happy to make the land available for activities by the Archery Club, the Pony Club, and for trail rides by the local stables. An area of ground is leased out for a commercial tourist activity. A local farmer manages the church cattle herd and maintains fences in return for some grazing rights. In a great spirit of co-operation, all these individuals and organisations play their part in maintaining the property in good order, planting trees, and keeping the old Mission lands aesthetically attractive.

Visitors to St Barnabas, whether they come to a regular service or on a tour, are valued and welcome. The doors remain unlocked. Donations, and sales of books, CD’s and cards provide a useful income that assists both maintenance and ministry.

To this day the Chapel interior and the grounds are kept in neat order by a team of volunteers from among the parishioners and the community. The lovely Willis organ is also played on a voluntary basis both for the weekly services and for occasional recitals.

St Barnabas’ Chapel is far more than an historic landmark or a museum. A congregation of both locals and visitors gather there to worship each Sunday morning. For generations of Norfolkers, it has provided an ambient setting for family milestones such as christenings and weddings, and also for many musical occasions and special commemorations.

There is no doubt that the Mission Chapel has played a meaningful role in the religious, cultural and social heritage of this island. As a memorial to Bishop Patteson, it has fulfilled his original vision in ways he may never have imagined, and continues to inspire all who come to visit.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 02 Issue 02, 2012. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.



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