OLD WESTERN HIGHWAY, PENTLAND HILLS
Closed as unsafe, though its congregation wants to repair it.
“Position, position, position,” as estate agents used to say and perhaps still do. This tiny church occupies one of the best positions of any church anywhere. That will be its attraction when it’s sold to someone wanting to convert it into a house with “divine panoramic views”, as the agent’s blurb will no doubt say.
The Myrniong Uniting church stands outside the town high on a brow of the Pentland Hills, looking down on a spectacular landscape of valley and plains, with the Werribee Gorge cutting a deep gash in the middle distance and the You Yangs dark and jagged against the thin blue line of far-off Port Phillip. It’s the kind of location chosen by Mediaeval fortress builders to command a strategic pass. The main road from Melbourne to Ballarat used to run right past the front gate, but is now a secondary route and the church gazes out instead over the speeding traffic on the Western Freeway below, climbing and descending, usually too fast, the steep gradient from Bacchus Marsh.
The church was built during 1861 and 1862 for the Presbyterians of the district when Melbourne was a mere quarter of a century old. It is a plain building typical of an era when wool and gold had not yet injected the fulness of their wealth into the colony of Victoria. The congregation joined the Uniting Church in the 1970s.
The Pentland Hills church is built of rough-cut freestone of a lovely tawny colour, as though the stone blocks were honeycomb. The architect was William Douglas (or Douglass) of whom little is known except that he designed a substantial Congregationalist church, now also secularised, in his home town of Kyneton. The plan is a simple rectangle of four bays and at the eastern end a vestry. The main façade, sides and vestry are buttressed, with angled buttresses at the corners. The slate roofs are gabled. The vestry gable is capped with a chimney, a vestry or sacristy fireplace being an almost universal feature in nineteenth-century churches where clergy would arrive after a long ride on horseback, feeling the winter cold and perhaps wet through as well.
This is a well-crafted, satisfyingly solid-looking and well-proportioned church, Gothic in style, if by that one means it has pointed windows. The west-facing façade is plain, with a central door and flanking lancet windows and a roundel above. There are some rather odd details. The pinnacle on the front gable (there is no cross) is matched by pinnacles on either side, but instead of rising from the parapet as you would expect, they are perched on corbels projecting from the top of the wall. The east end has lost its side pinnacles. The lancet windows on façades and sides are edged with quoins, that is, raised stone blocks that stand out from the wall. These are in ashlar, smooth blocks of dressed stone cut to fit closely together. Lewis suggests that it was originally intended to stucco the rough-cut walls externally, covering their outer surface to be level with the quoins.
This church is now closed and locked with windows boarded up and security mesh all around it. So is the newish hall at the back, which was used for a mix of congregational and community events, as rural church premises should be. The Uniting Church authorities put the property up for sale in 2019 after the local council declared the church unsafe. Restoration was said by a Uniting Church spokesman to be “beyond the financial capacity of the small congregation”. The small congregation disputes this, a representative saying that they had been “in the process of sourcing funding” to carry out the repair works before the Uniting Church’s decision to sell. There are two sides to every story of course, but this is not the first time the Uniting Church has been accused of disposing of a small country church over the heads of its congregation.
“We felt very in the dark about it,” the Moorabool News quoted congregation member Emma Muir as saying. “and we felt sad that we couldn’t celebrate the 160 years of the church.” She said the closure was “like losing a friend.”
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY