- Book reviewer
- History - general, Book reviews
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A History of the Naval Chapel, Garden Island
Author – Norman C Rivett
Reviewed by LCDR Ron Robb, RAN, Rtd.
A detailed history of the Naval Chapel on Garden Island from its genesis as a rough sail repair facility in the 19th century to a beautiful place of worship in the 21st century.
The Naval Chapel on Garden Island is by no means the most important historic place of Christian worship in Sydney, but it certainly ranks as one with plenty of history. It is the highpoint of regular tours conducted on the Island by the Naval Historical Society and few fail to be enchanted by its magnificence. Although not now use for regular worship it is nevertheless highly popular for naval christenings, weddings, funerals, memorial services, and as a place for quiet meditation or group meetings. It contains unique memorials of all kinds and provides a virtual panorama of the RAN history.
The place had humble, albeit important, beginnings. The building in which it is found was one of the earliest main buildings on Garden Island, dating from 1886, and was erected as a rigging house. The upper floor was intended as a sail loft and the large hook for holding sail peaks can still be seen today as the top of the wall over the rectilinear staircase. However, by the time the loft was commissioned it was almost redundant, as steam was rapidly replacing sail as the motive power for Her Majesty’s men o’ war. Use of the space was somewhat haphazard and intermittent for some time until the suggestion was made in 1902 that it be turned into a chapel, since prior to that date church services were held under makeshift arrangements in a dining room elsewhere.
Initially, the new chapel was a rather plain and austere place but gradually it began to take on a more dignified aura. The installation of gelatine windows over the existing glass gave an illusion of stained glass until eventually real stained glass was fitted. Now, every window is a superb stained glass memorial of some kind. The history of the staircase is a saga of note and the present one was not the first. At one stage there was an external staircase and a reminder of it still exists in what at first would seem strange – a large door on the upper level of the building in the western wall, with a bell adjacent. This was the top of the external staircase. There have been a number of sets of stairs to reach the chapel and the present one is the fourth. The rectilinear design presents a grand sweep as it ascends.
In 1996 the small Chapel of Remembrance was opened on the ground floor of the building, adjacent to the main chapel entrance. Despite being so recent this place has an interesting history of its own. It was created in an old bookshop to provide a place for anyone to have a memorial plaque affixed on the walls for a naval relative. One can find a plaque for an ordinary seaman alongside that for an admiral.
Two other small chapels have also recently been made on the southern side of the main chapel. One is for Roman Catholics and the other for Protestants and they can be used by the base chaplain for special small meetings. Some of the furniture comes from the chapels of well known large ships of a bygone era.
The book lists and gives brief details about every memorial in the entire complex and one could easily spend a whole day studying those memorials. Illustrations of most of them are in the book in colour. Three of the RAN’s Sovereign’s colours are on display (George V, George VI and Elizabeth II). An interesting observation in the book is that, unusually, the chapel has no name. There is also a discussion as to why ‘chapel’ and not ‘church’.
The author is Norm Rivett- the undisputed history encyclopaedia of Garden Island and in particular the chapel. Originally a member of the British Merchant Navy, he came to live in Australia in 1955 and began employment in the engineering department in Garden Island. He has been there ever since, albeit retired for many years and now highly active with the Naval Historical Society. A gentle and cheerful man, all who meet him are soon aware of his passion for the Island’s history and particularly his love for the chapel. He is easily the most knowledgeable person on the chapel and that deep feeling for it comes through in this work.
An uplifting read.
Naval Historical Society Inc
24 colour plates