The Ashfield congregation of the Uniting Church in Australia traces its gathering back to the initial (formal) gatherings of Tongans in Australia for self-support. This group has also been the parent to many other communities of Tongans who have grown in size.
The move to use the Ashfield Uniting Church began in late 1980. Soon thereafter many other Tongan communities developed with former members of the Ashfield community as prominent leaders. Auburn, 1981; Cronulla, 1981; Fairfield, 1982; Mascot, 1980; Newtown, 1981; Ryde, 1982; St. Marys, 1983; Wollongong, 1981.
The Ashfield congregation centers its gatherings at the Uniting Church in Australia facilities on Liverpool Road, Ashfield. With the Tonga Parish’s acquisition of property for the minister near the church building, the Ashfield stalwarts have ensured themselves as the center for many Tongan activities. The most recent coup by the Ashfield congregation was the announcement in 1998 by the FWC in Tonga President that formal communications between the FWC in Tonga and all Tongan congregations in Australia would be through the Tonga Parish minister, residing in Ashfield.
The 1961 Tongan Fellowship group grew and eventually moved its gatherings to the Wesley Chapel, later to George Brown House in Haberfield, and now continues at Ashfield. During this extended period many sub-committee organisations grew to assist Tongans develop in Australia:
Mele Havili Waverley, Mele Fuaka, Moala and ‘Amelia Simiki, Fane Finau, ‘Alisi Heimuli, Valoa Fusimalohi, Lusi Wolfgramm, Sela Vainikolo, Samiu Tupou, Sione Mafua, Sione Niumeitolu, Ita Koloamatangi, Setiveni Tu’akolo, Tevita Mo’ungaloa, Kelepi Tupou, Siaosi Naufahu, Tu’a Taumoepeau, Lola ‘Alipate, Setiveni Finau, Setiveni Vete, Mosese Misiele, Mrs. Lammercroft, Mele, Toe’umu Misiele.
List of names obtained from the diary of the late Rev. Colin Harkness showing some of the members of the original Tongan Fellowship group.
Members of that early group included: Taniela Vaotangi, Samiuela Toa Finau, Taani Taufa, Toutai Tupou.
The Tonga-Australia Association, formed in Sydney (October 1969) by Tongans married to Australians with Association President: Mr. Toutai Tupou and trustee Rev Cecil Gribble. The Association raised funds for charity, especially in connection with Tonga, including financing students such as Rev Mosese Latu while on his first visit to Sydney and looking after the Tongan Fellowship group.
In early 1971 the South Pacific Advisory Council was formed to assist people from the Pacific Islands in Sydney. Mr. John Slender, still an active member in the Tongan community was secretary to the Tonga-Australia Association, and active in the South Pacific Advisory Council, stated in his report to the Tongan Chronicle:
Conscious that many Islanders arrive in Sydney with little or no knowledge of the place they are going to live in, or the type of problems they might have to face, the council has prepared a comprehensive plan of services available to its members.
One thing the council does emphasise is that intending visitors to visit Australia should be thoroughly briefed about the country they intend to visit.
The Wesley Chapel, a part of the Central Methodist Mission (later renamed Wesley Mission) complex stradling Castlereigh Street and Pitt Street was a center for worship for many years for both Tongans and other Pacific Islanders. Tongan Fellowship students were supported in their use of the complex for worship by Rev Alan Walker, Rev Cecil Gribble, Rev Stanly Cowled, and Rev Wesley Pidgeon. The chapels vicinity for students (some housed at the church hostel at Francis Street across from Hyde Park) grew the association Tongans would continue to have with the Wesley Mission and their leaders, especially the Rev. Alan Walker.
Initially the inter-denominational services also included inter-island services as English speaking guests would address not only the Tongans but also other islanders who felt a kinship to the differences in Australian society to Pacific Island society. In this way, the Rotumans, Samoans, Fijians, and Tongans would meet together in fellowship at the Wesley Chapel.
The George Brown House, formerly a Methodist Missionary Training College, in what at that time was a far distance from the city. The Methodist church, in a show of commitment to the Pacific Islanders, granted use of this large facility to Pacific Islanders as a space for worship, acclimitisation, and preparation for integration into the Australian society.
At the George Brown House, Tongans and other Islanders, were provided with reduced rental charges while in the safe haven of people with whom they shared a common language, common faith, and understanding. The Methodist Church provided a Minister from the Islands as the pastoral leader while the lay members of each island group prepared and continued development of programs for worship, as well as programs for assisting in the integration into Australian society.
With a chapel of its own, George Brown House became the focus for the Tongan Community. A monthly fellowship program involved Tongans and other Pacific Islanders at the Wesley Chapel, a travel into the city.
Prominent personalities, lay leaders, during this time included: Taani Taufa, ‘Ofa and Soni Miki, Sione Niumeitolu, ‘Ana Sinclair, Matafonua Fotofili, Don Hones, Sisi Taufa and Lisiate Prescott.
As the congregation of Tongans grew, the church services were moved from the smaller chapel at the George Brown House, to the larger St. Davids Church in Haberfield. Although all other activites were held at the George Brown complex, the move to St. Davids initiated a later move to Ashfield.
Again, the growth in the Tongan community necessitated movement from St. Davids to another worship complex. Greater changes occurred as a growing number of church goers adhering to other denominations decided to develop their own traditions. Members of other denominations, such as Catholicism, Free Church of Tonga, began to actively develop their own worship programs and left the Tongan Fellowship.
Ashfield soon became the focus of worship for adherents to the Methodist denomination, more specifically Tongans from the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. Many lay leaders from the Ashfield congregation left with the continuing dispersement of Tongans around the Sydney Metropolitan and the need grew for geographically dispersed worship services.
The closure of the George Brown House to Pacific Islanders in 1983 propelled the Ashfield congregation into a greater focus of leadership for many Tongans. By this time many other Tongan communities had developed, but as the early bearer of support for Tongans in Tonga, and Tongans in Australia, Ashfield remained in a leading position for the Tongan community.
The Petersham facilities of the Uniting Church was soon requested by the Ashfield Congregation to use for their weekday activities, choir practise, band practise, week-day services. With the increasing growth of the congregation, the Ashfield group purchased the property from the Uniting Church and soon a group within the Ashfield group decided to center all their activities at the Petersham property.
Further highlighting, emphasising the influence the Ashfield congregation holds, the residence for the Minister for the Tonga Parish was purchased within walking distance of the Ashfield Uniting Church. The Minister is an ordained member of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga clergy who is seconded to the Uniting Church at the request of the Tongan congregation through the Uniting Church Assembly.
[ref: The Tonga Parish in Sydney, In Search of a new identity. Tevita Maliepo Siuhengalu]