FIRST there was the small matter of the nine termite nests that laid waste to the historic building.
Then came the problem of the broken windows — a welcome gift from the local vandals — combined with a ruinous economic climate that was putting every other shop on the St Arnaud street out of business.
Australia’s first Bible museum — and the world’s only Bible museum to be run by women — was off to a rocky start.
“We bought the shop in 2008 the week the global financial crisis hit and it was in a street full of empty shops,” said Ellen Reid, 72, who runs the museum with daughter Jean Reid, 42. Quite often we found ourselves wondering what on earth we had done.”
But the pair need not have worried. By some small miracle, the museum has grown to become one of the great tourist draw cards of the region, with regular visits from car clubs, the Country Women’s Association, scout groups, and even a women’s motorcycle group.
Naturally, some of the more secular of the townsfolk were cynical about a Bible museum taking up residence in their town.
“The locals at first thought we were the weirdos at the end of the street. They considered us Bible bashers,” Ellen said. “But now they know us, they are happy that we have become popular with tourists.”
The pair renovated the shop — which dates back to 1900 — and officially opened the doors in 2009 with more than 1400 Bibles from across the world.
It spelt the end of a long hard slog for Jean and Ellen, who had spent the past five years nursing Ellen’s husband, Jim, who eventually died from a long illness.
Ellen — who has long collected Bibles and old maps as a hobby — decided to make a fresh start by recruiting Jean to set up the museum as a way of celebrating the “world’s most popular book”.
“We allow people to touch the Bibles and turn the pages, which is probably not great for the books, but at most museums you only see the two pages displayed,” Jean said.
The pair started off with about 600 Bibles, gleaned from Ellen’s collection, but that number swelled as Ellen tracked down more and more rare books and artefacts.
The Bibles range in size from large Victorian “family” Bibles to miniatures that require a magnifying glass to read. Their covers are made from vellum, velvet, olive wood, mother-of-pearl and tin, as well as the more common leathers. Some were printed 400 years ago.
The collection also includes 300 foreign language Bibles, including a full facsimile of the Codex Sinaiticus, which is the Christian bible in Greek.
There are also models, including a large-scale Ark of the Covenant, temples, musical instruments, oils, models, maps and lamps.
“People come from all over the world to see the books,” Jean said.
“We had a group of Coptic Christians from Egypt visit and they looked quite intimidating. At first we thought they were ISIS, but they were lovely.”
While Ellen and Jean are both religious, they stress the purpose of the museum is not to convert anyone. In fact, they regularly receive visits from atheists who have a similar passion for books and manuscripts.
The Bible Museum is open from Tuesday to Saturdays, 10am-5pm; 125-133 Napier St, St Arnaud. Visit thebiblemuseum.com.au