Church mystery laid to rest

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Church mystery is laid to rest with the exhumation and reinterment of grazier Charles Shepherd in the Proston Cemetery

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An 83-year old mystery was laid to rest in July with the exhumation of the remains of grazier Charles Shepherd from St Peter’s Anglican Church, Proston, before being reinterred in the Proston Cemetery, near Kingaroy.

Bishop of the Western Region The Right Rev’d Cameron Venables and Archdeacon The Ven. Mark Carlyon presided over the historic and solemn ceremony for Mr Shepherd, who died in 1935.

The remains were carefully exhumed from under the church floor over a two-day period, with the casket having been mysteriously moved at some point in 1937 after his original burial in the local cemetery.

Anglican Church Southern Queensland Senior Property Officer Nicole Ham said that the church had to call in high-tech experts and equipment in a bid to confirm and pinpoint the burial site after the coffin and body were not located in the church crypt.

“As part of my diverse role in the Finance and Diocesan Services Commission Property Team, I coordinated the search for and exhumation of Mr Shepherd’s coffin and remains by engaging a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) company to conduct a survey last December,” Ms Ham said.

Mr Shepherd was a wealthy reclusive grazier in the South Burnett region with no living descendants and his 1935 will directed that the sum of three thousand pounds (over $210,000 in 2018 dollars) be dedicated for the construction and furnishing of a new Anglican Church in Proston.

Although newspaper reports from the era indicate the church gift ended up being around ten thousand pounds from the Shepherd estate.

He was buried in the local cemetery in 1935, although his body was exhumed for the first time two years later – which is where the mystery began.

“When we first made plans to move Mr Shepherd’s casket in 2015, we had no reason to believe that it was anywhere other than in the St Peter’s Church mortuary chamber because that was what the church records indicated,” Bishop Venables said

“So, it was a surprise and mystery to us in November 2015 when we discovered the chamber was empty; however, soon after that became public knowledge, an elderly local man got in contact with the church explaining that he had been present at Mr Shepherd’s original reinterment service on the church site back in the late 1930s.

“There is a plaque mounted on one of the church pews, which indicated Mr Shepherd was buried in the ground below the aisle.

“So, once we eliminated the mortuary chamber as the burial place, we focussed on the place beneath the church and called in the expert team which used ground-penetrating radar equipment that indicated an underground ‘anomalism’ consistent with a formal burial site.

“This gave us the confidence to proceed with the exhumation.

“We were relieved that we found some evidence of a casket and remains as it proves we were thorough in our search and we were correct in our quest to solve the mystery.

“The discovery of the handle conclusively proves that it came from his casket.

“We are thankful that the remains of Charles Shepherd have been found, as he is very dearly thought of in the Proston community and is considered by some to be the unofficial guardian of St Peter’s.

“It was appropriate that we exhumed his remains and reinterred them in the Proston cemetery with due reverence and a fitting ceremony.”

The exhumation and reinterment of Mr Shepherd’s casket was necessary because the Anglican Church decided in 2015 to close the St Peter’s Church, and has plans to sell it in the near future if the right buyer can be found. The church was deconsecrated in November, 2015.

Ms Ham expressed her gratitude toward local community members who assisted with the exhumation and reburial of Mr Shepherd’s remains.

“I would like to extend my sincere thanks and appreciation to Barambah church warden, Barbara Hockey and Darling Downs businesses, including Trevor Burstow from Burstow’s Funeral Care and building contractors Bob and Donna Shanks, who were integral to the co-ordination and successful exhumation and reinternment of Mr Shepherd’s remains,” she said.

“Locating, exhuming and reinterring Mr Shepherd’s body and coffin gives closure to the tight-knit Proston community, solving an 83-year-old mystery and providing locals with a place and headstone where they can pay their respects.”

“Unfortunately, St Peter’s Church has become a casualty of the significant population movement away from rural areas, and ongoing economic downturn, that faces many regional parts of Queensland,” Bishop Venables said.

“But Proston has been especially hard hit over recent decades, which started when the railway line was closed in the 1970s.

“It now has a population of around 300, with the congregation dropping to just a few people each month, which left us with little choice but to close the church and we will soon put it up for sale.

“St Peter’s Church is a wonderful example of 1930s architecture and we’re hopeful that we can find a buyer who will be able to use the church with the local community in mind.”

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