High tech, but low numbers force closure

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End of an era: Joyce Steepe, 92, and her daughter Cheryl Nikas have fond memories of the Tongala Uniting Church, which closed at the weekend.

The Tongala Uniting Church weathered the COVID-19 restrictions and introduced modern technology to broadcast its services, but it couldn’t be saved.

In the end it came down to numbers, and there just weren’t enough to keep going.

On the morning of Sunday, April 24, the last service was held.

Last message: Rev Brian Morgan on the screen during the final service, which was broadcast online.

It was a thanksgiving service where the congregation, swelled to 80 for the special occasion, remembered the baptisms, the weddings, the family celebrations, the Sunday school songs and the joy of fellowship and friendships.

But tears were shed too.

The litany of farewell at the end of the service really brought it home when the congregation gathered up the previous symbols of the spiritual life, such as the communion trays, and removed them as the building was released from its sacred commission.

The service, led by Rev Brian Morgan, was broadcast live to people who couldn’t attend, through a camera and microphone, and the stream could occasionally be seen on the large television monitor installed above the sanctuary.

Christian worship has existed on the site for more than 100 years and in the present cream brick building since 1958. But modern life has claimed the church.

Only a handful of congregants remain and as Rev Morgan pointed out, there just weren’t enough to maintain the church.

The church buildings, including the neighbouring manse in Miller St, will be sold, but where they will end up, is unknown.

The remaining congregants have been invited to worship with other churches in the cluster, in places such as Rochester, Kyabram and Echuca.

The oldest member, Moira Pankhurst, now lives in supported accommodation, but has taken the initiative of leading an observance within her own community.

Difficult time: Church secretary Beryl Anderson.

Joyce Steepe, 92, was at the final service. She married Peter Steepe in the former weatherboard church in 1951 and she taught in the Sunday school. Her daughter, Cheryl Nikas, with whom she now lives in Kyabram, also recalled the days when the church was filled with activity and they had to split the Sunday school into three groups to accommodate everyone.

The present Uniting Church brought together by church union in 1977 was originally a Methodist Church, which was established with a timber building in 1921. It was upgraded to a brick building that opened in September, 1958. The buildings were expanded to include a kindergarten, meeting hall and foyer in 1985.

The building, including a large stained glass window on the south end, has been kept in good order over the years, causing one loyal adherent to remark: “It’s such a pity; it’s the best church in Tongala.”

Rev Morgan expressed a theme of “God never gives up” in his final sermon. Drawing on references to the resurrection of Jesus, celebrated only recently at Easter, he pointed to the confusion and dismay experienced by the disciples initially and ultimately the transforming power of God in the face of challenging circumstances.

Sharon Hall (nee Walter) remembered attending youth groups, her wedding in the church and baptism of her two children.

Oldest member: Moira Pankhurst read the prayers of the people.

Lynette Kay (nee Cox) remarked on her fond memories including “the best home-baked sponge cakes” she enjoyed over supper.

“Tongala as a town has been declining over the years and people’s interest in the church has been declining,” Rev Morgan remarked after the service.

Goodbye: Sharon Hall from Shepparton, Jenny Harrison from Benalla, Liz Byrne from Kyabram and Lynette Kay from Kyabram discussed old memories at the final service.

“This congregation was a strong one 50 years ago. But people have grown older, some have died. There were originally four or five very active men who kept the place going.

“But we’ve been having congregations of four or five and that just doesn’t work.

“Then COVID-19 hit and we had to do deep cleaning every time we used the church.”