It was 50 years ago this month that planning began for what was to become the Wontama nursing home in Orange.
In August 1962, a committee chaired by Orange’s Methodist Church Minister, the Reverend Eric Clancy, held its first meeting to begin the planning process.
The formation of the committee followed a decision earlier that year by the Western District Synod of the Methodist Church to establish an aged-care home for elderly residents of western NSW. At the time, such a proposal was not quite radical but it was still fairly new.
It was only during the mid-1950s that the idea of establishing nursing homes to care for the elderly started to gain traction in Australia.
In 1954, the federal government passed the Aged Persons Homes Act, which included provisions for grants to be made to charities that built or bought homes for needy older people.
This legislation contributed to a significant social change in Australia during the next decade or so, as the emphasis in the care of the elderly shifted from home and community care towards nursing homes.
The Western District Synod’s decision to steer the church into aged care was prompted by the receipt of a substantial bequest from Laurence Askam. Mr Askam, who had lived in Wellington and was a former chairman of the Synod, left the church 27,000 pounds to provide a dedicated aged-care service for western NSW.
Rev Clancy’s committee included the mayor of Orange Clive Hamer and various church officials and members.
The committee’s first task was to choose a town in the state’s west in which to build a nursing home.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given several key committee members were from Orange, within six months Orange was selected to host the new facility. The committee made its choice known publicly in February 1963. The next task, which was to take 12 months, was to identify a suitable site on which to establish the facility.
Another generous church supporter was to play a key role in this process. Fleurette Weston offered the committee a gift of 0.3 hectares of land at the rear of her Summer Street home. The committee welcomed the offer, Miss Weston’s home was located opposite Cook Park and close to all the town’s major services and facilities.
With this land secured, the committee used some of the funds from Mr Askam’s bequest to purchase some adjoining blocks and two semi-detached houses. This ensured access right through to Byng Street, a full block north of Miss Weston’s Summer Street house.
By early 1964 the project was gaining momentum and the committee launched a fundraising appeal for the building work. It was overseen by a separate committee headed by Eric Dukes (chairman) and Wilfred Roden (treasurer). A substantial gift from Orange solicitor, Mr JB Wilson helped boost the appeal.
By the end of 1964, Rev Clancy stepped down from the organising committee and Rev Arthur Buxton was appointed chairman.
During 1965 there were moves to form a board to oversee the design and construction stage of the project. A 15-member board was established in early 1966.
Executive members included Rev Buxton (chairman), May Haines (secretary) and Mr Roden (treasurer).
Construction of the first stage of the village, a low-care hostel, took place throughout the second half of 1966. It was finished in early December and the first 30 residents moved in just before Christmas.
Six staff members were employed to care for the residents. The then Governor of NSW Sir Roden Cutler officially opened the hostel in March 1967.
From the middle of 1967, the Board began planning the next phase of the village, a 42-bed high-care nursing home.
But it was three years before it decided to build the nursing home.
At the same time, it decided to build a three-storey, 43-unit self-care facility. Both facilities were completed in 1972.
The name ‘Wontama’ came from a suggestion by the foundation board secretary, Mrs Haines. It is an Aboriginal word meaning “to provide for”, reflecting the original vision of the church to provide a service to care for aged people in the state’s west.
Wontama has expanded significantly during the 45 years since it opened. And a new phase is starting, after approval was given earlier this month for a $23 million redevelopment. Interestingly, this approval was granted 50 years to the day after the first committee meeting to begin planning for the original facilities.