Brief History

Extract from 'Hahndorf - A Journey through the Village and its History', by Anni Luur Fox (2002)

St Michael's Lutheran Church houses the oldest Lutheran congregation in Australia, being established on this site in March 1839.

On this spot, fifty-four founding families built their first place of worship and named it 'Hahndorf Lutheran Church'.   Until it was completed in 1840, the congregation worshipped under an enormous hollow gum tree by the creek or in wet weather, jammed into a rough shepherd's hut nearby.   This hut became the school and Pastor Kavel's home during his visits every six weeks from his base at Klemzig.  He was the undisputed leader of the Lutheran community, fluent in English and able to advise on a variety of earthly matters including the use of wine and herbs for health.   It was his shrewd foresight that had fostered the building of self-supporting village settlements in South Australia.

Constructed by Johann Georg Boehm in the 'fachwerk' style with bricks filling the gaps between the red gum framework, the first church building was plastered with mud that was whitewashed every year. It doubled as a schoolroom and meeting hall to accommodate a hundred people.   The story of how the bricks were transported from Adelaide has become part of the inspiring legends of the pioneer women.   Too poor to own a horse, they had to become their own beasts of burden.  Leaving their shoes at home to save expensive shoe-leather, at midnight the women of the village set out barefoot to carry their heavy baskets of fresh vegetables and dairy produce 35 kilometres to market.   Some women carried 300 kilograms on their backs.   Their goods sold, they trudged back up the hills with their precious cash, needles, salt, sugar, coffee, a little tobacco and two bricks each for the church building.   No doubt the bricks could have been used as weapons if they were accosted by the notorious outlaws who lived near the track through the Stringybark Forest at Crafers.

The S.A. Register of 4 August 1851 described Hahndorf Lutheran Church as — 'a low building, inelegant but roomy and requires outside repairs' 
Because it was dimly lit by homemade tallow candles making the words in the hymn book almost illegible, it was customary for the pastor to read two lines at a time which the congregation then sang.   In the absence of the pastor, a 'hymn starter', usually one of the women who knew most of the 1,929 tunes in the Breslau Hymn Book by heart, would begin the correct tune.   Lacking musical instruments, worshippers improvised by using a gum leaf held against their teeth to make sounds like a clarinet to accompany the singers.   Eventually, brass instruments accompanied the hymns.

The Lutherans' spiritual life sustained them through those early years of heavy work when reminders of a glorious afterlife lightened the load.  Services were held in the morning and evening on Sundays and Church holidays, and on mornings only on Wednesdays.  Evenings were filled with Bible and catechismal instruction. Men and women sat on opposite sides of the church, even if they were related.  They felt cheated unless the sermon lasted more than an hour on their sole day of rest.  Next day, they were back in the fields.  The hand-held bell at the church announced the beginning and end of each period of back-breaking toil.

St Michaels  in 1920 at the 90th Anniversary of the Hahndorf Lutheran congregation, and the 70th of the church building.In 1841, the Skjold brought another shipload of Lutherans to the colony.  Led by Pastor Fritzsche, they established Lobethal (Valley of Praise), 19 kilometres from Hahndorf on the track to the Barossa Valley.  Like Pastor Kavel, Fritzsche travelled on horseback to minister to his far-flung parishioners who had preferred to settle at Hahndorf, Klemzig and the Barossa Valley.  After a period of co-operation, these two pastors had a difference of opinion over doctrine that split the Lutheran Church into two separate organisations in 1846.

After some years of disruption, the followers of Pastor Kavel built the first St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Windsor Avenue in 1858. Fritzsche's followers, served at that time by Pastor Adolph Strempel, retained the original Hahndorf Lutheran Church on Balhannah Road.  They erected a new stone church around the walls of the old one which was demolished.  This congregation adopted its new name of St. Michael's during the laying of the foundation stone on St. Michael's Day, 24 September 1858.  By that time, many of Hahndorf's founders had left the village to pioneer broader acres in the Barossa Valley, the Murray Mallee and Victoria.  Others pushed northwards.

New German immigrants not entirely motivated by the religious fervour of 1838, moved into the village.  Religious persecution had abated in Prussia after King Friedrich Wilhelm III died in 1840.  In Hahndorf, a tendency to niggardliness, materialism and world-mindedness began to manifest itself in the congregation.  Some complained of poverty and were nicknamed the 'have nodings and give nodings'.  The fact that the various groups spoke different dialects, had different customs and worshipped in a manner that differed from the established format, contributed to the schisms that occurred in the early church.

There were few physical changes at the church until 1908 when the vestry was rebuilt.   In 1931, a porch was added.   To celebrate the centenary of the arrival of the Prince George, two farmers, Benno and Oscar Nitschke built the belltower in time for the dedication in November 1938.   While the interior of the church was being renovated, electricity replaced gas lighting.   A brand new bell was purchased from America.   The old one had been cast from weapons used during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that led to the formation of the German nation after many centuries of loose alliances between Germanic states.   One of several ordered by Germany's first Prime Minister, Otto von Bismarck, to be presented to Lutheran churches in Europe, this bell had somehow found its way to Hahndorf.  In 1946 it was given to the new Lutheran school built opposite the church by St. Michael's congregation.   It proved irresistable to successive generations of naughty boys at the school who loved to annoy the villagers by attaching a billygoat to the bell's rope at midnight.  In 1959, the new gates were dedicated. Some tombstones were removed to make way for car parking.  Many still remain today.  In 2008 the Congregation approved plans for redevelopment which resulted in the opening of the new St Michael's complex.

Today, St. Michael's church bell still calls the faithful to worship, to weddings and funerals.   When a parishioner dies, it tolls at noon for each year of the person's life on earth.   We stop to count the dongs and wonder who has left us.   In the churchyard, tombstones left standing amongst the cypress trees in the car park remind us of the people whose toil established the village.   The typhoid epidemic of 1882 prompted the closure of this cemetery and the establishment of a township cemetery on Echunga Road.   Before the Country Fire Service installed a siren, Hahndorf's church bells warned of approaching floods and bushfires that regularly threatened the village.   The oldest Lutheran congregation in Australia, St. Michael's remains an active church community with a thriving school and much to celebrate.   The two major Lutheran organisations formed in 1846 when Kavel and Fritzsche's disagreement became official, amalgamated in 1966 to form the Lutheran Church of Australia.

150th Anniversary of St. Michael's Lutheran Church - Historical Presentation Service (July 2009)

The reason for this special service is to give thanks to God for this church building in which we, and the members of St. Michael’s over the years, have gathered for worship continuously, Sunday after Sunday and year after year for the past 150 years.  The people who established this congregation 170 years ago loved to worship their God.  It was for this reason that they left home and family in Prussia so that they could have freedom of worship.

In 1840, the year after they arrived, they built their first church which was a low mud-walled building, similar to this artist’s sketch.  By 1857 the old pug church had become so dilapidated that the congregation resolved to build a new church.

They built the new church of solid stone with walls which would not crumble – one metre wide at their base tapering to half a metre at the top.  They built it around and above the little old church, so that they could continue to worship their God.  When the new church was ready, they demolished the little old church, carted it out by wheelbarrows, levelled the floor, hung the kerosene lights and dedicated their new church on July 3, 1859.

Few changes took place in the building until 1908 when the vestry was rebuilt to provide more space.  In 1928 the pulpit was removed from high above the altar and placed to the left.

There is a legend that on Palm Sunday in 1928 the pastor had preached his sermon from the pulpit as usual and made his way down the staircase in the vestry to reach the altar to offer the prayers for the day—but he did not appear.  The organist continued to play and the congregation waited --- until an elder went to investigate only to find that the pastor had slipped on the bottom steps of the rather steep staircase and had fallen into a crown of thorns which lay ready to be placed on the altar on Good Friday.  He was not seriously injured but was bleeding quite badly and was trying to stop the bleeding so as not to alarm the congregation.  Almost immediately, I was told, the congregation decided to lower the pulpit to its present level so that the pastor would no longer have to make this hazardous journey.  Whether or not this legend is true I do not know, but I do know that history tells us that the position of the pulpit was changed in 1928.

The staircase has been removed but the platform has been retained for historical reasons and can still be seen in the vestry.

Pipe OrganIn 1931 the porch was added to the entrance of the church and in 1938 the bell tower and steeple was built to house the new bell from USA which was a centenary gift of four members of the congregation.  The tower was constructed by a member of the congregation, the intrepid farmer Benno Nitschke assisted by his brother Oscar.

A legacy from Hulda Ey enabled the congregation to install a beautiful small pipe organ with a total of 605 pipes built by JE Dodd & Sons of Gunstar Organ Works, which was dedicated on December 4, 1977 and which replaced the reed organ previously used.  It has enhanced our worship and has encouraged musicians and choirs in their service to God and the congregation.

The special project of the Women’s Guild to mark their centenary on August 18, 2002 was the lead lighting of the three windows in the porch at the front of the church.  Designed and made by Pam Zander, a member of the congregation, these stained glass windows are a constant reminder of the importance of God’s Word in our worship and in our lives.

We love this beautiful church, have regarded it as great privilege to worship within its hallowed walls in the past, and we pray that we will be able to worship and praise our God here for many years to come.

To God be all glory!
Guest Preacher - Pastor David Paech;   Liturgists - Pastor Stephen Schultz (present Pastor); and Pastor Gordon Mibus (past Pastor)

St Michael's Cemetery

In the early days members of the congregation who died were buried in the church cemetery in the church grounds.  This arrangement continued until 1885 when the cemetery was permanently closed due to an outbreak of typhoid fever.  A new cemetery was opened just out of the town.  In the 1950's the congregation levelled most of the area which forms the present car park and placed the names of those known to be buried in the church cemetery on bronze plaques which were fixed to the new memorial arch in 1959.  A few graves in relatively good condition were preserved, the earliest date on a tombstone being 1796.   (Extract from St Michael's website)