Gabriel Frømyhr, a local cellist and viola da gambist currently studying at ANU School of Music, is giving new life to the historic 1911 St Mary’s Anglican Church on Yass River Road. With ties to his childhood and historical significance to his music making, the formerly unused church has become a valuable space for Gabriel to practice and record in.

With friends also interested in alternative performance spaces, Gabriel is encouraging colleagues and other musicians in the area to take the same opportunity to give St Mary’s a much-needed purpose. St Mary’s church is a small but beautiful building, officially seating forty-eight, with a little standing room at the back. 

“It’s only a 45-minute drive from Canberra,” he emphasised. 

“If I hold a concert there, I’m not expecting huge numbers to come and that’s not the point. It’s an intimate space to perform in, and that has its own appeal. Not everything was written for huge concert halls. Making use of a smaller space has its appeal to me and hopefully to others as well.”

Gabriel Frømyhr inside St Mary’s Church on Yass River Road

Gabriel also sees the potential to maintain and repair the church through donations raised at musical events. 

When a notice came in the mail from the Anglican Parish that St Mary’s Church was no longer holding services, Gabriel was inspired to give the church a new purpose through his music.

“I knew this church, as a kid it was one of those nostalgic experiences, coming to the little church on the fifth Sunday of each month. First thing in the morning it was freezing, I would have been anywhere from six or seven years old up until around nineteen, that’s when they stopped holding services there.”

Churches like St Mary’s have wonderful acoustics, especially for the cello and viola da gamba, a ‘historic cousin’ of the cello with a gentler sound. Gabriel explained that there is repertoire written for cello, most famously the cello suites of J. S. Bach, that is written without accompaniment by other instruments, often with a self-sustaining, single line. The resonant acoustics of churches like St Mary’s help bring this music to life. 

Historically and traditionally, churches have always been a place of music-making where many composers wrote and performed. There are historical records of music making in the nearby St Clement’s Church. 

“In a sense, it’s restoring part of history that has been lost. It also gives me a connection with the local area that I grew up in,” said Gabriel. 

Gabriel’s grandmother Rosemary Bear was the St Mary’s organist since the family came to Yass in 2008. Now, impressively in her 90s, Mrs Bear is the matriarch of the musical lineage in Gabriel’s family and has taught many prominent pianists. With both parents also professional musicians, Gabriel and his siblings are continuing the tradition. 

“We’re trying our best, in our own individual ways.”

Not only is music making in St Mary’s relevant to the church’s history and Gabriel’s family history, it honours the former use as a place of Christian worship. 

Gabriel tunes his Viola da Gamba

“I think God intended for music to be made. Case in point, J. S. Bach was more than anything a very loyal servant of God, and most of his music was written for church services. Even his music that isn’t explicitly written for the church, the music speaks for itself, and there is a Christian element,” Gabriel explained. 

“I feel if I am playing that music in a place of worship then I am also serving in some way.”

Gabriel is currently recording new works, and values St Mary’s as a recording space. Gabriel explains his teacher, the award-winning classical cellist David Pereira has also made use of churches for their acoustic properties, as have many others. 

On October the 1st at 7:45PM, Gabriel will be performing at Yass Memorial Hall as part of the concert ‘David Pereira, Ronan Apcar and very special friends,’ which will feature piano and stringed instruments.

Challenges in making St Mary’s accessible for musicians and audiences include lack of power and bathroom facilities.

Gabriel explains cold fingers while playing is a burden for cellists, so power to run heaters would be a nice addition. If he were to hold a public performance at St Mary’s, he would also need to hire portable toilets. 

Due to the generosity of St Mary’s’ neighbours, Gabriel uses an extension lead run across their fence, as they are happy to provide power to heat and light the building. Gabriel suggests that in the future, there might be an avenue for solar power at the church. 

“I’m very thankful for members of the parish, particularly Peter Rose, who had a key cut for me. They jumped straight on board when I came with the idea to use the space rather than let it sit. I think the worst case scenario would be if someone bought it and used it to store junk, or if the building fell apart,” he said.

Alongside Peter Rose, Anglican parishioners John and Margaret Buckmaster are St Mary’s caretakers. John is a lifelong parishioner whose family history is well intertwined with the little church. When his wife, Margaret, was appointed parish treasurer, she also became St Mary’s Warden, continuing the generational Buckmaster family tradition of caring for St Mary’s.

“It’s been my family responsibility— mine, my father, and my grandfather did the same thing over the many years. In those days, there were four or five families of Buckmasters living within a mile or two of the little church and all attended,” said John.

Although there are a few cracks in the walls, there is nothing serious that could jeopardise the structural future of St Mary’s.

John remembers baptisms being held at St Mary’s, as well as a large Centenary celebration in 2011. 

“We had a very big service where about 170 people turned up. We brought the little altar under a gazebo and had the service outside. The Rector and the Bishop of the diocese were there.”

John is happy to see the church so close to his family being used for music, and welcomes those in the community with ideas to keep St Mary’s a valuable space. 

“If Gabriel can make use of it at the moment, that’s very good,” he concluded. 

Southerly Jones