Unfinished but impressive, and sold because no priest was available.

St Thomas Aquinas’s is a four-bay fragment of what was intended to be a much bigger church for the gold-mining town of Clunes. When the gold ran out there was no money to complete it.

The existing building is the nave of what would have been a very imposing church, designed for a town that was a rich centre of gold mining in central Victoria. More than a thousand people attended the opening on 9 March 1873.

St Thomas Aquinas’s was designed by Henry Richards Caselli and W. B. Tappin and built in 1873-1874. The Cornish-born Caselli (1816-1924) is known for many churches and public buildings in central and western Victoria, among them St Alipius’s in Ballarat and Christ Church, Hamilton, with its massive spire. Tappin (died 1905) also worked on St Alipius’s and designed the French Gothic chapel of Loreto Convent, Ballarat. Both architects were masters of Gothic Revival. It has been suggested that for Clunes they based their design on plans by English architect Charles Hansom (1817-1888) for St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat and St Patrick’s, Port Fairy. The façades in particular are similar.  

Solid well-buttressed bluestone construction on the nave and side aisle of St Thomas Aquinas’s church. Builders’ rubbish lying around indicates alterations inside.

When the gold at Clunes ran out, the town – which has a number of handsome public buildings, put up in expectation of its becoming an important regional centre – settled down to a gentle decline embalmed in its own past. It remains a little-changed example of a nineteenth-century small Victorian country town with a main street that is largely as it was a century or more ago. A bit too far from Melbourne (140 kilometres) for the well-to-do looking for weekenders, in the 1960s Clunes began to attract a few sub-bohemian urban arties manqués who established themselves in its run-down cottages, bought for next to nothing, where they could sit around listening to Bob Dylan and drinking rough red. It also acquired a reputation for second-hand bookshops.

In recent years, the building of a country campus for a leading Melbourne school, the reopening of the railway station and the advent of “tree-changers” means Clunes has begun to grow again, which of course is just the moment chosen by the Roman Catholic diocese of Ballarat to close St Thomas Aquinas’s and sell it. The excuse is not enough priests, though you’d think one could drive over from Creswick 18 kilometres away for an hour or so on Sunday, or even from Maryborough, which is all of 33 kilometres away. Country clergy at the time St Thomas Aquinas’s was opened would have thought nothing of riding all day on a horse to say Mass for distant parishioners.  

Once sold in 2018, St Thomas Aquinas’s passed into the usual limbo of churches acquired by private owners. Sometimes they just sit empty while various planning permissions are sought and then get resold at a substantial profit. At one point St Thomas Aquinas’s was to be turned into a commercial art gallery, though it’s not known whether this plan is going ahead. In any event it has been thoroughly gutted inside – not that the furnishings were ever up to much. A French harmonium organ dating from the opening of the church has gone to the Clunes museum. A relic of the Angelic Doctor after whom the church was named has gone heaven knows where.

St Thomas Aquinas’s is built of bluestone, with dressings in what looks like sandstone. In its unfinished state it consists of a nave of four bays with arcaded side aisles and clerestories above and one side porch. The (liturgical) west front, which rises high over the sloping site, has a window of four lights and intricate tracery in the English Decorated style and is further embellished by statuary niches (empty) The church was to have had a tower at its (liturgical) north-west corner – you can see the unfinished angles where the stones would have slotted in – and a proper chancel, but now never will.  

Unfinished stonework where a corner tower was to have abutted the nave of St Thomas Aquinas’s, Clunes. The blocked arch would have opened into the side aisle.

As a building St Thomas Aquinas’s is so obviously a church it should never have been sold for secular usage. Could it not have been mothballed on a care and maintenance basis in case a priest could be found for occasional Masses? The Anglicans still have their large church in Clunes and are restoring the organ. As I have written elsewhere, 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 something else is an offence against aesthetics and logic.

A fine four-light window with English Decorated tracery distinguishes the main front of St Thomas Aquinas’s, Clunes. The picket fence is an attractive piece of old-fashioned rural craftsmanship.


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