ST THÉRÈSE’S, BALLARAT

(ROMAN CATHOLIC)
WENDOUREE PARADE, BALLARAT

The church of the Little Flower, St Thérèse’s on Lake Wendouree, has been sold and is used for non-religious purposes.

Built in 1938, the church of St Thérèse of the Little Flower in Ballarat was designed by Melbourne architect
P. J. O’Connor in the Italian Romanesque style at which he excelled. (TEMPORARY IMAGE)

Here’s another Ballarat church – really, the number is remarkable, such was the church-building prolificity of nineteenth-century piety. Zeal for the Lord’s House plus vast sums from gold-mining filled this provincial city with churches, too many of which are now surplus to the spiritual requirements of our age.  

This one, though, is a later addition, an afterthought from the 1930s. Though more like a chapel than a church in size, St Thérèse of the Little Flower is one of the best churches in Ballarat. It was designed by the prolific Melbourne architect P. J. O’Connor in the Italian Romanesque style at which he excelled and which was much in demand for RC churches up to the 1960s (St Columba’s, North Ballarat; St Roch’s, Glen Iris). Its square tower, chamfered at the corner with buttresses, has just a soupçon of Hollywood Art Deco in the filigreed bell openings, just as its gable has a Spanish Mission touch (O’Connor was good at these stylistic juxtapositions). The round floral window in the main façade is worthy of note, as are the tympana in bas-relief over the main door and west windows.  

A blind arch surrounding triple square-headed windows with a decorative bas-relief in the tympanum exemplifies the Romanesque detailing of the original design.  

St Thérèse’s was built in April 1938 on a narrow site amid fashionable houses overlooking Lake Wendouree. The plan is a simple basilica without transepts. The construction is brick, cement-rendered. Unsightly and unsympathetic additions, including an unnecessary and spindly flêche in the then “contemporary” idiom, were made in 1965 and the interior was mishandled in the kind of post-Vatican II “wreckovation” inflicted on thousands of Catholic churches everywhere, and nowhere more so than in Ballarat – removal of pulpits, altars, altar rails etc. 

Part of the dreary extensions of 1965. The meagre flêche which unnecessarily competes with the tower was also added.

St Thérèse’s was closed in 2002, not because of a shortage of attenders but a shortage of priests. Indeed, St Thérèse’s was a thriving parish for its first forty or so years. A correspondent who lived around the corner recalls it in the 1960s and 1970s as having “well-attended weddings every Saturday, as the priest did not insist on the full RC rigmarole for couples, especially if one of the couple was non-RC.”

Those days are gone. The Ballarat Catholic diocese, battered by child sex-abuse scandals, is at a low ebb. Weddings and congregations are down and there are few if any vocations. St Thérèse’s has been sold to the nearby Loreto Convent school, which apparently uses it for music practice and for storing sports equipment. A rowing scull is stacked incongruously on the strip of land alongside. There is an air of neglect and dispiritedness about the whole place which well represents the current morale of once-flourishing Ballarat Catholicism. 

Update at 20 June 2020. A proposed use that would bring St Thérèse’s to life again is for it to become the church of the Ballarat Latin Mass community. This growing congregation is in search of a home and would put St Thérèse’s in good order again if the school were to make the church available.

The west end of the church was divided off and given its own entrance in 1965. Road signs are among the miscellaneous clutter in the grounds around the church.

Footnote. Christianity seems to be in steeper decline in Wendouree than anywhere else in Ballarat. The ugly concrete Wendouree Uniting Church “precinct”, begun in 1964, closed last year. The chapel part of it dates back only to 1999. Twenty years from opening to closure must be something of a record. The building will be no loss if it goes, except to the extent that the demolition or secularisation of any church building is a loss in our de-Christianising society.

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