If the Bush Inn is reputed to be the oldest continuously licensed hotel in Australia it is probably fitting that Tasmania's oldest church also exists in New Norfolk. The Anglican Church of St Matthew in Bathurst Street opposite the delightful Arthur Square was built in 1823 and is said to be the oldest church in Tasmania, given that the original St David’s in Hobart was replaced and St John’s in Launceston is four months less venerable.
It was begun in 1823 and opened for services in 1825. The church was built as a response to the rapid expansion of population in the district. By 1822 there were 600 people living in the area. The early Church, which was erected in 1823 by David Lambe was used as a schoolhouse and chapel mainly by the Norfolk Islanders who formed a large part of the congregation. When Robert Knopwood retired as Government Chaplain in Hobart in 1825 he went to live at New Norfolk and it was the inhabitants of New Norfolk who requested that he be appointed to St. Matthews. He was duly appointed but for some reason had restrictions applied to his duties, he wasn’t allowed to baptize children or perform marriage ceremonies. It was left to The Reverend Hugh Robinson who was appointed to administer the parish in 1826, to perform these duties.
The church was consecrated in 1828 by Archdeacon Scott from Sydney. It has been the subject of numerous alterations. In 1833 extensive additions made it a much more impressive building. A tower was added in 1870 and in 1894, after a period of energetic fund raising, the chancel was added and the windows, roof and transepts were altered. It is clearly not the same church which was built on the site in 1823. All that is left of the original church are the walls and flagged floor of the nave and part of the western transept.
St Matthews originally had a peal of 8 bells said to have been on loan from Port Arthur. However, the bells were not very melodious and the bell tower was not very well constructed so in 1900 it was dismantled. At the same time the entrance was relocated, the sanctuary and side chapel were added and the roof realigned to become the building that survives today.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the church is the excellent historical stained glass windows. There are also some original furnishings including the pulpit, the prayer table & the small alter in the chancel. Perhaps one of the most well known marriages in early colonial times was performed at St. Matthew’s and that was between Norah Cobben (ex convict) and Jorgen Jorgenson, convict, naval officer, police superintendent and explorer and self styled King of Iceland.
Today St. Matthew’s with its beautiful stained glass windows would be one of the most well known churches in the Derwent Valley.