Lake Macquarie History

Morisset Reminiscences 1970-1975

by Fr Gary & Benita Parker

In 1970 we had just returned to Australia from Papua/New Guinea and the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle didn’t know what to do with us so he appointed Fr Gary as priest in charge of the small struggling parish of Morisset. As our son had drowned in New Guinea and the Rectory for this parish, at that time, was by Dora Creek it was decided that the parish would purchase the home of Ping Murrell opposite the church of St Laurence in Morisset for our new residence. We moved in mid 1970 and set about making it home. The parish covered all the settlements between Wangi and Wyee and out to Cooranbong including Dora Creek, Morisset, Mannering Park, and the Morisset Hospital. It was a busy life with three preschool aged children.

One of the first ‘jobs’ we undertook was having the name of the parish changed from Morisset (Mentals) to the parish of South Lakes , a much nicer sounding title. When Gary’s father, Merv, told one of his mates that Gary was going to Morisset the fellow gave Merv a hug and a handshake and said “So sorry old man. Did Gary go ‘Troppo’ or just have a nervous breakdown that they stuck him out there?” Yes, Morisset had a sad reputation at that time as, although it had begun life as a timber town, its biggest employer had become the Psychiatric Hospital.

The Hospital was an immense site and provided care and accommodation for a huge variety of patients from those short-term patients suffering from nervous breakdown or alcoholism, the congenital defectives to the criminally insane and all conditions in between. Fr Gary’s job with regard to the hospital, was to minister to the needs of the staff (marriages, baptisms, counselling and funerals etc) and tend the spiritual needs of the patients by holding regular services in the beautiful chapel built in the grounds. The one most redeeming feature of the hospital was its magnificent setting on the shores of Lake Macquarie and nestled in a well maintained parkland surrounded by natural bushland. A chapel service would consist of a simple service with many old choruses such as “Jesus loves me this I know” or “I’m HAPPY, I’m HAPPY, I know I am, I’m sure I am .”. Often the staff would comment with surprise on how the patients seemed to enjoy it. Our time in association with the hospital brings back many wonderful memories of the people who lived and worked there.

At Christmas 1971 Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin and the people in the community of Morisset wanted to help in some way so a fund was set up and the Church asked to contribute. As the parish was poor someone laughingly suggested they dance for their money. So it happened that Fr Gary (Anglican Parish priest) and the local undertaker, Barbara King, an attractive and vivacious member of the congregation, went down to the Morisset Golf Club and said they would jive on the dance floor while ever people were prepared to throw money into the bucket placed there. Well, they danced for hours and the town raised hundreds of dollars which was sent off to the Cyclone Tracy Appeal. Well done, Morisset.

Apart from the Golf Club (later called the Country Club) there was no venue other than the Morisset Memorial Hall which was located in the middle of the main street for functions to be held. The Hall was built in 1927 on Crown land to commemorate the Fallen in World War 1. A board of Trustees consisting of local identities were present for the official opening on Remembrance Day, 11th November 1927 at a gala function. It was a magnificent old hall built with a great hardwood floor suitable for dancing or almost any other indoor pursuit including roller skating. In 1953 it mysteriously suffered extensive fire damage, but the Hall Committee and a band of volunteers worked tirelessly to restore it to its former glory. During World War 2 the Hall was used many times either to farewell young men off to war or welcome them home.

In the early 1970’s a rumour went around town that the Council planned to have it demolished to make way for more modern shops and buildings. The townspeople were irate as it served for meetings, wedding receptions, Lodge, town dances and balls, Junior exercise groups and martial arts as well as jazz ballet classes and other activities. A sub committee of the Progress Association was formed, and I (Benita) became actively involved. Letters to the Newspaper and Council, poster and brochure drops all seemed to fall on deaf ears in Council. To prove its usefulness teenage dances were organised and held every month. Dance bands from Newcastle and Sydney were contracted to play in the Hall. Some came willingly and used it as a promotion and practice time while others came only because we could pay for their services. One band which travelled up from Sydney was AC/DC in the very early days of their existence. Playing in a little hick town meant they thought they didn’t have to “perform” However they were set to rights when one of our old volunteers and a bushman from way back told them what would happen if they didn’t ‘get back on stage and play’ They did and the night was a great success. Eventually the town won the battle and the Hall has continued to serve the community for almost 100 years. So many memories for so many people in town.

photo: st laurence anglican church morissetl

My final memory of Morisset, dates back to May 1974 when the cyclone drove the Sygna ashore on Stockton Beach. Back in Morisset we had all gone to bed with the wind and rain outside then about 2o’clock I woke up to the sound of metal and timber crashing into things out there in the dark. When something hit the bedroom wall and scraped all the way down to the ground I screamed and woke Gary. He listened for a minute then told me to go back to sleep. Sleep was impossible so I lay there listening to the howling wind and the noises of things flying through the air and crashing around. When daylight finally arrived and Gary woke, we had a look outside and there was rubbish everywhere. Then we looked at our lovely little old wooden church of St Laurence and it was like a drunken sailor, half on and half off its foundations and leaning at an angle of about 45degrees.

We got dressed and went outside and there was already a gathering of people each with a story to tell but also looking at the church. “Well” said some of the men “we’ll have to do something about it before someone gets hurt”. While a couple of the young blokes crawled inside the church they started retrieving vestments, books and communion vessels as well as anything else they thought might be useful. Then Jack Brown, who lived next door, strode down to his timber yard next door and returned driving his huge tractor and dragging chains. Before breakfast these country men had snitched a chain around the building and with a couple of tugs from the tractor the dear little church of St Lawrence rolled over and played dead. What a sight! What a memory. For the next year church services were held in the old Nissan hut which had served as the parish hall. Out of the ruins a new church was constructed, and life went on in Morisset.

As I sit here and reflect on those days names keep coming to mind, Mrs Murrell, Barbara King, Fangs, Bernie Goodwin, the Nylands, Cowboy, the Hawke family, the Frosts and Max Coggan just to name a few.

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