8 December 2022

Apprentice races clock to refurbish century-old church for January wedding

| Oliver Jacques
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Natalie Gibbs in blue outside white building

Natalie Gibbs outside the century-old church. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

One of the only female builders in Griffith is working hard to restore a century-old church so it can host a wedding in January 2023.

In October, Region revealed an iconic, 1925-built Griffith Baptist church was being resurrected at Pioneer Park Museum. The edifice was once poised for demolition but is now set to be used as a community asset for weddings, functions, meetings and workshops.

READ ALSO Iconic Griffith church building saved from demolition to be resurrected at Pioneer Park Museum

Upon seeing the Region article, Griffith resident Jessica Glass contacted the museum’s business and administration coordinator Jennifer O’Donnell-Priest to see if she could book her wedding at the church for 15 January 2023.

“That’s probably earlier than we thought it might be used, but we’re going to get this done for her as there is a connection and she specifically wanted to say her vows in such a special place,” Ms O’Donnell-Priest said.

Her husband, David Priest of Priest Building and Construction, is entrusted with the big job. Jenny has been cracking the whip.

“I engage in a weekly nagging event to make sure we have it finished,” she said.

Museum visitors have noted the coincidence of a Priest working to resurrect a church building. Assisting him are his team, including his 20-year-old first-year carpentry apprentice Natalie Gibbs.

“We’ve been working really hard. I’ve been doing a lot of the trimming, replacing floorboards, sanding, painting and exterior work,” Ms Gibbs said.

Ms Gibbs said she was the only female building apprentice she knew in town.

“I decided to get into carpentry because I really liked my woodwork class at school [Murrumbidgee Regional High].”

“My dad Mark Gibbs is a roof tiler. He also encouraged me to go for it … my aim is to start my own carpentry business.”

Wide view of Natalie Gibbs and the church

Full view of the 1925-built Baptist church. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

Ms O’Donnell-Priest said both Ms Gibbs and the Priest Building and Construction team had their work cut out for them.

“The roof was damaged by heavy rains about a year ago and had to be replaced and as with any 100-year-old building, extra work crops up.

“They’ve made great progress. Foxes and pigeons had made the church their home so there was a lot to clean up. They also removed asbestos and made it structurally sound.

“We need the electricity connected and our trusty volunteer Denis Couch will make time to get at least the air-conditioning going, and Luke Farmer from LF Painting will try and fit it into his busy schedule to finish the painting before the big day.”

READ ALSO Griffith’s hermit, his cave and the Scenic Hill lookout

Ms O’Donnell-Priest said it’s fitting Jessica Glass and Michael Johnson, a First Nations couple, will have the first wedding in the newly revamped church.

She said recently deceased Wiradjuri artist Veronica Collins was a strong motivator in her decision to resurrect the building.

“We were struggling with the decision to demolish it and then Veronica Collins came along with her dad, ‘Clarkie’ Collins,” Ms O’Donnell-Priest said.

“Clarkie reckons he and his late wife, Mary Kathleen (nee Bamblett), were the last Kooris to be married here …. when I told Veronica it’s supposed to be demolished she said, ‘Nah’. She went around to businesses and raised about $5000 herself [to save it].”

The century-old building had steadily deteriorated and was scheduled for demolition in the early 2000s before an injection of funds from Griffith City Council, the Community Building Partnership, the Baptist Church community and the Griffith Pioneer Park Museum Committee enabled it to be resurrected.

The white fibro church, first located on the corner of Wakaden and Whitton Streets, was transported to the museum in 1972, just before a larger, new church was constructed on the same site the following year.

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