Historical evidence suggests that there has been human habitation in the area now known as the Australian Capital Territory for at least 21,000 years. Indigenous peoples have made this area their home for generation upon generation and their connection to the land, despite the impact of European settlement and attempts made to disturb tribal affiliations, remains an integral part of indigenous spirituality and identity.

With the arrival of European settlement to the region came European religion. Shortly after Joshua John Moore took up the first land grant on the Limestone Plains in 1824, the earliest church in what is now Canberra, the Church of St John the Baptist, was begun and then completed in 1845.

In 1836 The New South Wales Church Act made available land grants for church construction in the developing colony and a variety of Christian denominations were able to build their own places of worship. Today the ACT Church Lands Leases Ordinance of 1924, continues to allow religious groups the opportunity to take up leases of government land in perpetuity.

In May 1938, the foundation stone for Canberra’s first Catholic Church was laid and in 1973, St Christopher’s was raised in status to become Canberra’s first and only cathedral. For many religious groups, such a slow pace of development was a common experience. With only limited numbers originally, it took some time for the different groups to form community associations and thereafter to raise the funds to build their own places of worship. Originally worshipping in private homes, then when numbers increased, moving to rented premises has been a feature of the development history of many of the faith groups in the ACT. The ACT Jewish Community, for example, was established in the early 1950’s but it was not until 1970 that building began in earnest for what is now the National Jewish Memorial Centre in Forrest.

Post-war migration saw an increase in the number of Canberra residents from Europe who brought with them their own religious and cultural practices. With many unable to speak English, these migrants worshipped initially in the Catholic and Protestant Churches already established, before founding their own communities and raising funds for their own places of worship.


As Canberra developed into a diplomatic centre even greater diversity of religious practice and belief became a feature of the city. The diplomatic missions of Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia built Canberra’s first mosque in Yarralumla in 1960, which is now the second oldest continuously used mosque in Australia. An influx of Indo-Chinese refugees in the 70’s and early 80’s saw the establishment of a number of Buddhist temples, the first being the Vietnamese Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre and Van Hanh Monastery in suburban Lyneham.


The arrival of skilled migrants from the Indian sub-continent also changed the face of religious practice in Canberra. Today there are two Hindu temples in Mawson and Florey and a Sikh gurdwara under construction in Weston Creek catering for a growing number of Indians who have made Canberra their home. More recently formed religious groups have also found a place in Canberra, among them followers of Sukyo Mahikari, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.


The contribution of all these diverse faith groups to the life of the Canberra community has been significant. By maintaining their own intangible heritage – the heritage of faith and belief – they have enriched and enlivened the life of the ACT. In a city that was once seen as nothing more than a bureaucratic centre, Canberra is fast becoming an example of religious tolerance and religious integration, not only Australia-wide but also on the international stage.


- Ardeshir Gholipour