(FORMERLY PRESBYTERIAN, NOW UNITING)
STURT STREET, BALLARAT
Its spire makes St Andrew’s Kirk the most prominent church in Ballarat. It is now closed and awaiting – what? Conversion into flats?
Most of the churches to be described in this blog will be in Melbourne, but a few will be in other places that can be easily reached by car or public transport.
Ballarat, 116 kilometres from Melbourne, was once a very devout city, judging by the number of its churches, of which the surviving ones are in most cases poorly attended. Two of the most architecturally important and at least four less important churches have been closed and another is, in my judgment, at risk of closure in the near future.
Although it is opposite Ballarat’s large Roman Catholic Cathedral, its tall spire makes St Andrew’s the most prominent church in the city. Only a denomination with the cavalier attitude to its buildings that the Uniting Church displays would decide to close it and to retain as its city-centre church an architecturally inferior building nearby.
St Andrew’s is a symbol of the now vanished Scottish ascendancy of Victoria’s Western District. (Their descendants are still around but as the fate of St Andrew’s shows, they’ve largely given up on their Presbyterian faith.) It was designed (mainly) by Irish immigrant architect Charles D. Cuthbert (1825-1890) who later went to live in Fiji. Lewis described it as “the largest and most complete Norman-style church” in the state. It was built in stages between 1873 and 1890 with a vestry added in 1926. The tower and spire went up between 1882 and 1884 to a design by C. D. Figgis, prominent architect and sometime mayor of Ballarat. Did he realise that, stylistically, the spire was an anachronism on a Norman church, since spires are not a Norman but a later Gothic device? Lewis notes the black bands on the spire pinnacles, “inserted at the time of construction when news was received of the death of the first minister”.
This important church is very much at risk, not of demolition but of alteration and disfigurement. After being unused for several years it was offered for sale in 2013 and passed in at auction at $2.5 million. Four years later it was sold to a property developer. At one point there was a proposal that the Anglican Diocese of Ballarat might buy St Andrew’s as a replacement for its modest Christ Church Cathedral, which would have guaranteed the kirk’s future as a place of worship and secured most of the very handsome fittings and stained glass, which will now be dispersed – heaven knows where to, probably into “old wares and collectables” emporia. This eminently sensible idea was rejected after negotiations, as the Ballarat Courier put it, “broke down over the asking price.” In other words, the Uniting Church asked more than the Anglicans could afford. There’s Christian ecumenism for you.
The developer has not yet revealed what he intends to do with St Andrew’s, though given that the church is protected by heritage listing a radical conversion into flats or offices ought to be out of the question. We must wait and see.