HERE TODAY…

A record of vulnerable churches around Melbourne and beyond.

In every Melbourne suburb and in country districts beyond there are churches that are at risk of being demolished – or seriously altered, which architecturally is often worse. The purpose of this blog is to record some of them before they disappear. No demolished building is more completely gone than a demolished church. From landmark in the streetscape – here today – it becomes the anonymous site of a block of flats or offices when it is gone tomorrow.

First, a short introduction.

All buildings are vulnerable – to fire or dereliction, but chiefly to deliberate demolition because they’re out of fashion, no longer suitable to their original purpose or their sites have become valuable enough to attract the attention of “developers”. But churches are especially vulnerable, for any of the above reasons, but additionally because there are not enough people using them. There are too many churches for today’s reduced number of churchgoers.

There was never a golden age of churchgoing in Australia, but even a generation or two ago congregations were larger, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most of Melbourne’s churches were built, vast edifices with seating for hundreds were filled every Sunday, and not just one church per suburb, but five at least – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist and perhaps Baptist and Church of Christ as well, together with some other denominations that have ceased to exist. Those churches were often of great architectural merit. Indeed churches are not uncommonly the finest buildings in their community.

The churches that survive from earlier eras are generally less vulnerable now than they were in the 1950s, when more than a few were pulled down, despite their architectural and aesthetic merits, because they were considered too big or too expensive to maintain. The churches most at risk now are those that were built in the two decades before the Second World War and the three decades after. Those were times of great suburban expansion, when, as earlier, all denominations wanted a local place of worship in each locality and the congregations were there to go to them, since most families still maintained some sort of church connection. Catholics went to Mass in large numbers and sent their children to the local RC school, and Anglicans and Protestants, even if they didn’t go to church much or at all, usually sent their children to a Sunday School.

In those same suburbs, such customs and habits have all but vanished and it is there that churches, some no more than fifty years old, are most seriously threatened. The young parents who took their children to them when the buildings were new are old now or dead. The new generations that buy their houses (and double them in size, a house that was once home to a family of six being considered too cramped now for a family of three) don’t go to church. Many of these post-war churches are buildings of architectural quality and emblematic of the taste of their time.

This website is intended to record some of them, along of course with redundant older churches, before they go. No demolished building is more completely gone than a demolished church. From landmark in the streetscape – here today – it becomes the anonymous site of a block of flats or offices when it is gone tomorrow.

Anglican churches built in the 1960s remain the churches most at risk, along with Uniting churches of any era, some of which were already on the edge of redundancy or were disposed of over forty years ago as a consequence of the formation of the Uniting Church of Australia by the amalgamation of three denominations, Methodists, Congregationalists and most Presbyterians. Roman Catholic churches are much less at risk, and though a few fringe ones have been sold off, no Catholic churches in Melbourne have been demolished because of declining use (convents have, in considerable numbers, but they are outside the scope of this blog). But Catholic congregations are growing older and smaller, parishes have been amalgamated and some RC churches are thus inevitably more vulnerable than they have hitherto been.

Most churches, however modest, have at least several fittings such as pulpits, lecterns, organs and stained-glass windows of aesthetic and historical value. What to do with them when a church closes is invariably a headache. Cases are known where they have been installed in another church nearby and then that has been demolished or secularised too. Handing fittings back to the descendants of whoever donated them is seldom a practical option. Occasionally fittings can be reused in the few new churches being built. Most are destined to be dismantled or to end up in antiques and “collectables” shops, whence they will find their way into cafés or bohemian homes as objects of whimsy. 

It is sometimes argued that it is better for a church to be converted to another use instead of pulled down, but unless it is adapted for worship by another denomination, usually one of a different tradition and ethnicity, as many inner-city and a growing number of suburban ones have been, this is not true. Part of the function of a building’s design is to express its purpose, and to see a church that turns out on closer inspection to be apartments or a performing arts centre is an offence against aesthetics and logic. (The same applies to public buildings such as town halls and post offices.) Besides, such conversions are impossible to achieve without radical internal alteration and usually all-too-visual external changes out of harmony with the original design. Better that the unrequired church disappear, and that photographs of it be preserved, than that its shell linger on, a mutilated and mute witness to our society’s rejection of Christianity.       

A NOTE ON SELECTION

This blog is a product of personal judgment. Unless noted, entries are not based on statistics or other information supplied by church officials or denominations. Inclusion of a church does not imply that the church is scheduled for closure or demolition. Churches will be listed here because my observation of such factors as the architectural quality of the building, its condition, the size of the congregation, the character of the district (for some reason, churches are less attended in “gentrified” suburbs than in less prosperous ones) and the relevant denomination’s known policy on the care of its buildings, has convinced me, when measured against cases where similar churches have been closed, that a church is at risk of closure.  

Some churches that have already closed but still retain their original external appearance will be included where architectural quality or historical associations justify it.

Further information about some of the churches listed in the blog will be found in Victorian Churches: Their origins, their story & their architecture edited by Miles Lewis and published in 1991 by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria). References are given as “Lewis”. 

Christopher Akehurst

Note: the ruined church in the masthead photograph is the former St Luke’s, Gladstone Street, South Ballarat, closed and sold by the Anglican Diocese of Ballarat and gutted by fire in 2019. (Photograph by Anthony Bailey.)

CONSULTING THIS WEBSITE

Posts on individual churches can be accessed by means of the search function below or through the index at the top of the page.

ABOUT ME

I am a journalist and have been visiting and writing about churches for many years. Most recently I have written architectural profiles of more than fifty Roman Catholic churches in Melbourne in the archdiocesan magazines Kairos and the Melbourne Catholic. For a general survey on the vulnerability of churches I refer readers to my article “The Decline Of The Suburban Church” in Quadrant, December 2013.

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