Jenolan Caves

Bats in our Belfry – Jenolan’s Underground Church

April 16, 2020

In 2020, due to COVID 19, the most important date in the Christian calendar, Easter, has come and gone, with most church services delivered via YouTube.  So unfortunately Jenolan’s popular Underground Church Easter Service was cancelled.  What? You didn’t even know that Underground Church was a thing?  Underground Church has been a thing for many years, and is a little-known part of Jenolan’s quirky history. 

Imagine ascending deep into the heart of the mountain. In the sepulchral atmosphere of the Lucas Cave’s Cathedral Chamber, worshippers speak in low whispers, awed by the silence. Subtle lights slowly swell, to blaze behind massive crystal formations, wilder than the imagination. Shadows seem to shift, just outside vision. Tiny bats flicker and vanish far overhead. Initially hesitant, voices slowly rise in worship. It’s cool – in more ways than one, since due to the amazing insulating properties of Jenolan’s limestone, whether it’s snowing or roasting outside, it is always a cool 16 degrees’ Celsius underground.

In Christianity’s early days, on the other side of the world, caves often concealed secret worship. But there are other reasons why the Cathedral Chamber is an ideal church venue.  It is acoustically perfect, and so cavernous that it can hold 100 people seated, easily, and many more standing – making it perfect for weddings also.

The early cave explorers were religious men and women.  As they mapped their way through unfamiliar passages and caverns, they named a multitude of formations after familiar stories from the Bible.  Jenolan’s Cathedral Chamber was named not only because of its huge dimensions (54 metres high), but because its massive formations reminded explorers of church features, such as The Belfry, and also the 'Baptismal Font', the 'Pulpit', 'the Organ', 'the Organ Pipes' and 'the Cathedral Windows'.

Like other early Australian rural communities, Jenolan’s residents were churchgoers.  It seemed natural to hold services in the caves.  In the 1870s, Jenolan’s church services were Methodist. Clippings from the Sydney Morning Herald, 1936 and 1938, show that Methodist and Presbyterian services, including bands, organs and choirs, were being broadcast from the Cathedral Chamber. Amazingly, in the 1960s, services were broadcast regularly from the Cathedral Chamber and aired live on Sydney radio station, 2GB! Underground services were held every Sunday, until the late 1960s. 

In doing this research, I discovered that both a Church of England minister and a Catholic priest used to hold services regularly, in Caves House, in the ballroom, possibly from the late 1960s, for accommodation staff. 

At an interview in 2001, the late Joan Harman reminisced, "The Catholic priest used to come and say Mass very early in the morning, so my house maids, if they were that particular denomination, they could go to Mass, and be on duty very quickly afterwards, and I thought that was rather good. And then the Church of England minister used to also come out. These priests and ministers came from Lithgow.  It was really good, because we always used to make them feel so much at home, and it didn’t matter what religion we used to belong to. I thought that was rather nice. You’d see some of the Church of England girls in the Catholic section. We always used to go to the Church of England, and then one year we couldn’t get anybody to come from the Catholic section in Lithgow. Oh, I don’t know why it was…there was no priest to come or something, so "Let’s go to the Church of England one", I said, "It’s going to be terrific." And we had just a lovely service, and we sang the hymns (not that we knew them all), but they were very similar. It didn’t matter what were the words we didn’t know. We hummed and it sounded pretty good. It was good, so that’s what we did for a church. You can always improvise."

In 2008, World Youth Day saw the Cathedral Chamber used for Catholic Mass, approximately 50 times, over 8 days - each Mass accommodating a full busload of pilgrims!  The success of World Youth Day inspired a group of Christians on Jenolan’s staff to hold non-denominational church services, from 2009, on Easter and Christmas only.

Hopefully by next Easter, we will be able to resume our quirky underground church tradition.

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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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