Reformed drunk builds a church
This is a very personal story for me as it is about a man called John Lees. His grave lies in the land he owned and donated over 200 years ago to the Wesleyan Church. His story is one of redemption, second chances and most importantly hope.
John arrived in Australia as part of the infamous NSW Corps in 1797 and when he left their service, he finally chose to settle and farm land offered to ex-soldiers at Castlereagh on the Nepean River. He married convict Mary Stevens and between them they had a large family of 10 children. The youngest, Cornelius is my direct ancestor.
The grave of John and Mary Lees, where they were re-interred in 1921 in the Castlereagh Cemetery. Photo: Samantha Elley
John had picked up a number of bad habits while in the Corps, nicknamed the Rum Corps and it was his drinking that nearly caused him to lose his farm and possibly his family. As he contemplated selling the only last asset he had, a fatted pig to continue his debilitating habit, a strange event took place.
There are two versions to this event. The first is that it was only a dream while the other is that it actually happened. Both versions agree that one night as he went to get firewood to feed the family hearth, a snake attacked and bit him. Fear of death drove him to see the minister in nearby Windsor who tended the bite and also his soul.
From that day on John was a new man, born again and free from his sin. His drinking days were over and his focus was on his farm and family and a desire to see a missionary come to the small settlement.
His prayers were answered in the form of Reverend Samuel Leigh who stumbled upon the Lees family home, when he was refused lodging by one of John's neighbours. A deep friendship was forged. John's commitment went further when he dedicated an acre of land, known as 'the sacred acre' and built a small chapel for the community to meet on a regular basis. It was opened on 7th October, 1817 by Reverend Leigh. It was the first Wesleyan chapel built in the country, in fact, in the southern hemisphere.
The commemoration plaque of all that John and Mary achieved, located in the church that stands on what was called 'the sacred acre'. Photo: Samantha Elley
John continued his dedication to the church and the small flock in Castlereagh, until he moved the family to Sydney. When he suffered a stroke, the family moved back to Castlereagh where John was bedridden for the last seven years. Unfortunately his doctor prescribed him brandy every day, reawakening his craving for alcohol. John's final years were spent suffering both physically and mentally, though he still continued to teach Sunday school as well as he could.
Inside the church that was built in 1847, replacing the small weatherboard chapel John Lees built. Photo: Samantha Elley
John eventually died on 28th August, 1836. The small chapel fell into disrepair but the community rallied and a new church was built in 1847 on the same site. In memory of this humble man, the John Lees Christian Centre was opened in Penrith in 1975.
M Kavanagh, John Lees, The Chapel Builder, Sutherland: Merle Kavanagh, 1987
The John Lees Christian Centre, Evan Street, Penrith ; Official Opening 13th September 1975, url=https://books.google.com.au/books?id=E0rysgEACAAJ
'John Lees, 1771–1836 (aged 65 years)'. Australian Royalty, accessed 9th July, 2021, John Lees 1771–1836 – Australian Royalty