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St John's Ballarat - church of 'lost' souls?

Ballarat Courier 31 March, 1998, pp 1, 7-8
By Stuart Howie

Drew SintonChurches are a sanctuary of peace and retreat for people. Are they also a home for the dead? Stuart Howie visits Ballarat's most haunted church property...

What is it about dead ministers of religion? They seem to love hanging around.

Among Ballarat's supposedly haunted buildings are the St John's Anglican Church at Soldier's Hill (Ballarat North) and the nearby old vicarage.

In both cases, former ministers have reportedly been responsible for a string of incidents - strange apparitions and shafts of light, slamming doors and footsteps at night.

Canon Denys Tonks, now at Warrnambool, spent 12 years in the old vicarage. He had heard stories of the residence being haunted, but it was not until he experienced continued late night disruptions that he became a believer.

"There was scratching every morning at about 3 o' clock. It sounded like a crab on the floor," Father Tonks said. Unaccounted-for footsteps, the constant ringing of the door bell and opening and closing of doors also suggested to Father Tonks a ghost was in the house.

His children became so annoyed they demanded he sprinkle holy water around the house, and the disruption stopped.

But he was not the first or the last resident to claim connection with the spiritual world.

The church sold the vicarage in the 1980s, but residents continued to report strange occurrences.

The current occupants, a family who bought the house 12 months ago, declined to comment about their experiences.

Whose ghost could it have been?

Parish legend points to Canon Rigby Johnson Mercer. A previous resident reported seeing a ghost of Canon Mercer in the vicarage, identifying him by an old photo in church records.

Canon Mercer was a tireless worker for the church, well and truly fulfilling the notion of a strong Protestant work ethic. Canon Mercer was often referred to as "a man of iron" and revved up community life as the vicar from 1875 to 1892.

Ballarat's temperance movement, aggrieved by the increase in public houses in the district, also found a home at the church under him.

He never married and lived with his two spinster sisters.

In 1892, suffering failing eyesight, he was forced to relinquish his position.

He died in 1899 and was buried under an impressive Gaelic cross in the Old Ballarat Cemetery.

Mrs Lois Reynolds, a parishioner of St John's and life member of Ballarat and District Genealogical Society, said it was Canon Mercer's wish that no memorial be installed in the church on his death.

Is he now regretting the decision? Is he making his presence felt in another way? Or has he just had trouble letting go of the parish he did so much for?

If it has been Canon Mercer who has haunted the vicarage, he is in good ghostly company.

Rev Henry Hannaford is said to haunt the nearby Armstrong St church. Father Hannaford was inducted in January 1952 but, close to the centenary of the laying of the church's foundation stone, he became ill and died.

Malcolm Willsher, 68, is among those who say they have experienced Father Hannaford's presence in the church.

"I was praying alone in St John's and heard someone come up behind me and the seat creaking as someone sat down," Mr Willsher told The Courier.

"I was really annoyed because the person had the whole church and for some reason decided to sit right behind me.

"When I turned around the seat was empty and the door to the church was closed. I felt it was Reverend Hannaford.

"Last year a female parishioner came to Mr Willsher in terror after a similar experience in the same area of the church.

And Mr Willsher said that about 40 years ago he watched incredulously as a dead bishop made his way up the aisle in full regalia.

"Bishop Murray from the Riverina came to St John's for a mission," he said.

"But soon after, as he was flying from Melbourne to Perth, his plane crashed and he was killed.

"The next Sunday, with the church packed, I saw Bishop Murray walk down the aisle in his bishop's robes and with his mitre on."

He said Bishop Murray appeared as real as he had the day he visited Ballarat.

He lost Bishop Murray in the sea of heads as he walked to the front of the church.

"I was shocked. As far as I know, I was the only person who saw him on that Sunday," Mr Willsher said.

But he said that, on reflection, he felt privileged by the experiences.

"I do not class them as hauntings," Mr Willsher said. "But I do believe they were a communication between this life and the next".

Front line troops battle unseen foe

They don't wear flak jackets but they do carry their own weapons of war.

Holy water, the Eucharist a crucifix, prayer and spiritual strength are the tools of the trade for the churches' ghostbusters.

The Anglican Church's Ballarat diocese has a crack team of clergy, sometimes assisted by professionals such as psychologists, who analyse and may act on reports of hauntings and possession.

The Catholic Church also has particular priests in the diocese who examine hauntings and spirits.

The first contact a church usually has with a haunting is when a resident seeks help from the local parish priest or vicar.

Depending on the circumstances, they may advise the resident to seek counselling or medical advice - or they might decide to take the case on. In most incidents the churches take on, a house blessing stops further complaints of ghosts or spirits.

But, if there are recurring problems, or something more sinister is thought to be at hand, the diocesan priests most versed in the area of ghosts and the occult are brought in.

Canon Denys Tonks, two other priests and a psychologist, form the Anglican's team in the Ballarat diocese.

Father Tonks has been a part of the team for two years but has dealt with more reported cases of hauntings and spirits in this diocese than he did in 28 years in the West Indies.

What's so spooky about Ballarat?

"I get the feeling it is because of the violence of the gold mining days," he said.

The Anglican team recently attended to four hauntings in Ballarat, in each case noisy ghosts the target. In one case, cigarettes could be smelt, despite no resident claiming to smoke.

Anglican priests work to a set service, blessing the housing and asking that evil spirits depart and that guardian angels take their place.

The Catholic procedure is similar.

"There are times where the Eucharist might have to be celebrated because dreadful things have been handed down from one family to another, say in the case of murder or an abortion, " Father Tonks said.

Sometimes it is a case of people letting go of their lost ones rather than the lost ones letting go of their earthly connections.

In one case, a woman appealed to the Anglican church for help after the death of her young child. She could feel the child clinging to her side.

"Once she was told the child was sending her a message that everything would be okay and she let go, the problem was solved," Father Tonks said.

He's had his own hauntings as well. For 12 years, Father Tonks lived in the St John's church rectory at Ballarat North which he believed was haunted.

Father Tonks said he and his family were constantly disturbed at night by a scratching noise.

The disturbances stopped after he sprinkled holy water in the house.

Now based at Warrnambool, he has served in the diocese since 1976. While religious ghostbusters and secular ones differ in their approaches they do agree that dabbling into the occult can be dangerous.

Father Tonks said occult activity was common around Ballarat because of university students' fascination with the "other side".

But he said professionals, academics and many others with "money but who are bored" also conjured up spirits, sometimes with catastrophic results.

In religious terms, that might mean "diabolical possession".

Officially, the Catholic Church is reluctant to talk about exorcisms and its team of ghostbusters.

For a start, it does not want so-called copy cat exorcisms. The ill-fated Horsham exorcism where a woman died is a case in hand.

The Catholic and Anglican churches' teaching on dabbling into the occult is simple. Don't.

As for practising exorcisms to eradicate the demons that possess, the church s instructions are rigid.

Canon 1172 of the Catholic Church's Canon Law states:

"No one may lawfully exorcise the possessed without the special and express permission of the local Ordinary (bishop). This permission is to be granted by the local Ordinary only to a priest who is endowed with a piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life."

Get rid of your own ghosts

In this age of do-it-yourself programs on TV, comes do-it-yourself ghostbusting.

Ghost hunter Drew Sinton and Buddhy Eldridge, a spiritualist minister, have devised a prayer they say will make a ghost disappear.

"It has been used 15 to 20 times and worked most times," said Mr Sinton, who runs Melbourne's Haunted Bookshop.

He said the prayer helped recurring ghosts who may be lost or troubled to "progress" to the next life.

It also pushed on spirits - "ghosts with intelligence" - who may not be so willing, he said.

Prayer of Progression

Dear Lord,
We ask for progression
For all the souls,
Seen and unseen
In this place,
Who may be lost or bound,
And who seek to find peace.

In particular we ask for progression for (Name if known)

We ask, Lord,
That you help us to lift our minds,
And our hearts,
To help them in their need;
That your hands
Shall gently guide them
Into your light,
And into your loving care,
So that they may find peace
And tranquillity.

We ask also,
That their loved ones
Be there to greet them,
To help release them
From their earthly cares.
All this we ask
In your glorious name.


Haunted Bookshop email received 10 Dec, 1998

"Hi Drew

I saw, or rather felt, a ghost and said that prayer of progression you put in the Ballarat newspaper - and it left!

How did you come up with it?

From Chris"

Haunted Bookshop reply posted 11 Dec, 1998

"Dear Chris

This prayer evolved after my spending many years 'out in the field'.

While some churches claim 'do-it-yourself' blessings and exorcisms contravene Canon Law, my defence is that it was Christ who, in Mark 16:17, told believers that "in my name they will drive out demons".

Nowhere did he say, "in my name shall you call your local priest and get him (or her) to do the job for you ..."!

And that's precisely what I tell (Christian believers) who come to me for help: that they do not necessarily need the church to help move on a spirit.

They just have to have the confidence to do it themselves.

As you discovered for yourself!

Hauntingly yours

Drew Sinton"

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