MIDLAND HIGHWAY, BLAMPIED
Left to the rats and bats.
St Joseph’s, Blampied, well illustrates the kind of church nineteenth-century rural faith was capable of building and twenty-first-century indifference doesn’t want to know about. It is a substantial bluestone building, very satisfying to look at in its solidity and proportions, and stands as a landmark on its hill beside the Midland Highway between Newlyn and Eganstown.
St Joseph’s was built between 1869 and 1874 to the design of an amateur, E. Shepardson, who was a schoolteacher at Eganstown (though Lewis puts an “allegedly” against this attribution). Whoever the designer was, he had a very good model to guide him in the Roman Catholic church at Daylesford, thirteen kilometres away, begun a few years earlier and designed by one of the masters of Gothic Revival in Australia, William Wardell (1823-1899) whose principal works include St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, St. John’s, Toorak and St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney. The influence of the English architect Charles Hansom (1817-1888), who though he never came to Australia devised the design of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat, may also be detected, particularly in the windows.
St Joseph’s consists of a nave of five bays, a large chancel and lateral sacristies with a double gable, not often seen on country churches. There is no porch, probably for economy; quite a few country RC churches are like this, where you walk in straight through the door into the nave – but where did the congregation put their umbrellas and mackintoshes as they arrived for Mass in this district of heavy rains?
The chancel of St Joseph’s has a three-light east window high up with sandstone tracery in English Decorated style; the same style is seen in the nave windows which are of two lights with trefoil above. Several windows contain good stained glass.
Blampied is more a locality than a township. It is named after Swiss-born Louis Blampied, who built the Swiss Mountain Hotel on the highway, still functioning today. The local settlers, many of whom were Catholics from Switzerland and Ireland, exhibited a high degree of piety in commissioning and paying for a church of the quality and size of St Joseph’s.
The church still had about thirty regular parishioners (“with twice that number at Christmas,” according to the Ballarat Courier) when the dead hand of redundancy fell upon it in March 2018. As at Clunes and St Thérèse’s, Ballarat the reason given for the closure was the unavailability of a priest. As the Courier reported, when parishioners were told five years ago that the church was marked for closure, they “tried hard to find another priest to lead their congregation. They said it was an impossible effort as there are simply not enough young priests to replace the older priests who are moving on.” You hear this story over and over again. Large tracts of western Victoria, from the coast to the Mallee, where once there might have been a half a dozen separate parishes, have been bundled together under one priest, with the consequent closure of churches in remoter communities.
At least no attempts have yet been made to sell St Joseph’s and the church is still, officially, available for weddings and funerals. It is also used for a concert or two during the annual Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields festival each January, though as a festival official told me, “we have to give it a good clean first because of the rats and bats.”
Footnote. Many of the early Irish and Swiss settlers of Blampied are buried in St Francis Xavier’s cemetery up the road from St Joseph’s in the Daylesford direction. The small weatherboard chapel, built 1865-1867, is surrounded by graves and is well looked after.