CORNER BRIGHTON ROAD AND CHAPEL STREET, BALACLAVA
Palms give this substantial church the exotic air of an
English expatriates’ church in the Mediterranean.
“We’re asset-rich but people-poor,” announced an elderly lady I encountered when I looked inside Holy Trinity, Balaclava, and asked what the attendance was like on a Sunday. She might have spoken for many an old-established church all over Melbourne. The older the building the more likely the church will have substantial assets, usually in built-over land that was part of its original grounds (what is called in England the glebe). Rents from land and invested income from land that has been sold can keep large churches going when their congregations are small. This is evidently the case with Holy Trinity, Balaclava.
This capacious, rather cavernous church is certainly not in imminent danger of closing but its long-term prospects don’t look exactly rosy. It stands on a triangular island site cut off from residential areas on two sides by busy roads and tram lines, and with no houses, only a state school, across the road on the third side. It is a difficult parish for an Anglican church, not least because half the parish is flats, and flat-dwellers, notoriously, tend not to be Anglican churchgoers. The eastern part of the parish is historically Jewish and Eastern European, in other words, ethnically not white Anglo-Saxon Anglican. The large parish hall has been let for years to various tenants, among them a plant nursery and a used-car dealer. Such halls were built for Sunday Schools and other parish activities; letting them out brings in income but usually signifies that parish life is at a low ebb. It might also be inferred that the future of Holy Trinity is not made safer by the presence a few blocks to the north of another Anglican church, the huge All Saints’, East St Kilda, to which its congregation could migrate if it were closed.
On the other hand, the parish of Elwood was added to Holy Trinity when its pretty little church, St Bede’s, was sold some years ago (and suffered the indignity not only of being turned into “town houses” but of being swallowed up into a “development”, thus losing its structural individuality). The closure of St Bede’s means Holy Trinity is probably safe for the foreseeable future because of its strategic value. If it closed too there’d be no Anglican church between St Kilda and Gardenvale.
Holy Trinity was designed by the well-known firm of Reed & Barnes, architects of, among much else, Scots’ Church in Collins Street, the Royal Exhibition Building and St Mary’s, Caulfield, east of Balaclava and now also a ghost of its former self because of demographic change. Joseph Reed (1823-1890) travelled in Italy before returning to Melbourne as a pioneer of local versions of the polychromatic brick architecture of Lombardy, as in his design for the Collins Street Independent (now St Michael’s Uniting) church. But he designed Holy Trinity as a straightforward exercise in Gothic Revival.
The foundation stone of this imposing and substantial church, built for what was then a large and prosperous congregation, was laid in 1882 and construction was complete by December the following year. The building materials were Barrabool Hill stone with Waurn Ponds freestone for the dressings. They make a nice change from the ruggedly Australian bluestone, so widely used for nineteenth-century churches in Victoria.
Holy Trinity is cruciform in plan with nave, chancel, transepts, organ chamber and vestries. The nave has arcade aisles above which are circular clerestory windows with quatrefoil lights. There is a wide three-sided apse with a three-light east window with English Decorated tracery in the upper section. This window is set into its own gable which rises above the wall level like a dormer, as at St Martin’s, Hawksburn. On the south-western corner of the façade there is an apsidal baptistery with an elegant conical roof. At the north-west corner there was to have been a soaring tower with a tall intermediate belfry stage and a spire. It is a pity this was never built: apart from completing the church it would have been the tallest spire in southern Melbourne and a striking landmark in a flat section of Brighton Road.
Palms around the east end give Holy Trinity a touch of exoticism, as of an English expatriates’ church in a Mediterranean city, an effect reinforced by the warm-coloured stone walls. Inside, a marble reredos frames the lower part of the east window. The original Fincham organ installed in 1883 and rebuilt in 1960 has pipefronts opening onto the north transept and the chancel (see Organ Historical Trust of Australia gazetteer entry on Holy Trinity for further details and some good interior photographs of the church). The chancel itself looks rather empty without the choirstalls, long since removed, but the interior is very well maintained, in part, no doubt, by the lady I encountered. Holy Trinity has some good stained glass, both recent – there are windows by Alan Sumner and Hungarian-born Bela Kozak – and nineteenth-century. Among the older glass is a Crucifixion window in the south transept given by officials of the Victorian Post and Telegraph department in memory of Samuel Walker McGowan, the pioneer of Morse telegraphy in Australia, who died in the George Hotel, St Kilda, in 1887. He was a member of the vestry at Holy Trinity and a distant relative of mine.
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY