RAGLAN STREET, PORT ALBERT
Township’s sole surviving church of four is now threatened with closure.
Little country churches like St John’s, Port Albert, are the bane of the ecclesiastical bureaucrat. They have tiny congregations, require regular maintenance, and are too small and poor to maintain their own incumbent. The priest or minister from the bigger town some distance away, whose parish generally includes two or three other small churches as well, must build into his schedule a fortnightly or monthly visit. It’s a long drive there and back, and all to minister to a congregation of six. Why, thinks, the bureaucrat, can’t they get in their cars and drive to the main church?
And in many, many cases now they do, if they don’t give up going to church altogether when their little church is closed by order of the distant authorities. St John’s, Port Albert, is an exception to this trend. The Anglican diocese of Gippsland wants to close it. The congregation wants to keep it, and have so far succeeded. As long as this dispute remains unresolved, St John’s is a church at risk.
Port Albert is a straggling township that was once a port of some substance but is now peopled mainly by a few fishermen and weekenders. It used to have four churches. St John’s is the only one left.
It was built in 1884 after fire destroyed an earlier church. Parishioners managed to save the simple timber furnishings, which remain in St John’s today. The style of the building is basic Australian rural church: a hall of timber construction with a porch and chancel, ironwork bell tower and pointed windows in emulation of Gothic. There is some pretty local craftsmanship in the form of decorative bargeboards on the roof and porch gables. The three-light window at the east end, installed in 1885 and restored in 1999, is a fine example of the work of celebrated Melbourne stained-glass designers and manufacturers Ferguson & Urie, who were in business between 1853 and 1899. The central light shows the women at the Empty Tomb on Easter morning. This is believed to be the only window by Ferguson & Urie in a timber building.
Like most nineteenth-century coastal churches St John’s contains shipwreck memorabilia, in this case of the paddle-steamer Clonmel which went aground not far away in 1841, happily without serious casualties.
St John’s was on the point of being deconsecrated when some enterprising parishioners decided to save it. They formed the Friends of St John’s in 2014 and say they now have a growing congregation. They have been without a vicar for eighteen months and have been helped out for services by clerical volunteers. The Friends have raised money through a variety of social and other activities and from the sales of a history of the church by local historian Melva James. This has allowed them to renovate the church, repaint it outside, build a new picket fence and replant the gardens. St John’s is now in good condition for its continued use, if the diocese of Gippsland relents on its wish to close it.
Readers who would care to help the ongoing maintenance of St John’s can contact Peter Coates at email@example.com