MIDLAND HIGHWAY, BLAMPIED
Left to the rats and bats.
PLEASE SEE UPDATE BELOW
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.”
UPDATE 23 JUNE 2021
The final paragraph above no longer applies. St Joseph’s has been put up for sale against the wishes of the parishioners who were hoping to keep it open. You can see the ad at https://www.jelliscraig.com.au/property-details-3478-Midland-Highway-Blampied/ complete with a more than usually fatuous piece of estate agent’s “church sale” humour: “Blessed at Blampied” reads the heading. How long did they take to think that up?
The manner in which St Joseph’s is being – let us not mince words – flogged off is cavalier and insulting to the dignity of a fine building. With two acres of land the asking price for the church is $780,000, all earmarked no doubt for the abuse “survivors” whose demands are reducing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ballarat to penury. At that price you might as well give the church away. Along with the church go altar (and apparently altar cloth!), stations of the cross, stained-glass windows, the lot. Is the Diocese of Ballarat not aware that these are consecrated items, not chattels? Probably not. They unloaded St Thomas Aquinas’s, Clunes, with a rare first-class relic of St Thomas somewhere among the contents and now of course lost.
With the sale of St Joseph’s the Diocese of Ballarat will have divested itself of two churches this year alone. From now on this landmark on a hill will testify not to the the faith that built it but to its absence. You might as well put a notice on the front: “We’ve shut up shop here. If you want religion go and find it somewhere else.”
Actually, they could have given St Joseph’s away. There had been suggestions that a monastic community from Europe might establish a branch in the Diocese of Ballarat, and St Joseph’s with its land would have been an ideal site. What with COVID that idea has so far come to nothing. Besides, the dying embers of the “spirit of Vatican II” still flicker in Ballarat and traditionalists are not welcomed. Yet Ballarat and the Western District need the kind of mission and encouragement a religious community can offer if Christian faith and practice are ever to be revived in what is, frankly, a dying diocese. In not retaining St Joseph’s for a purpose more suited to its purpose and history the Ballarat Catholic authorities have shown themselves to be utterly pusillanimous and philistine and, since the church will now be ruined with various accretions inside and out, complicit in vandalism as well.
At least whoever buys it will banish 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.
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY