HIGH STREET, PRAHRAN
Melbourne’s first “Vatican II” church, now much altered.
Here we have a classic illustration of the principle that drives the wheel of fashion, at least in the realm of architecture. Forty or so years after its zenith of popularity, a building that was admired and lauded by all is dismissed and derided as unattractive and out of date, and therefore at risk of “modernisation” or worse.
St Francis Xavier’s in Prahran is one of Melbourne’s best post-war churches and ought to have been protected and preserved in its entirety. But it was built in 1964, and by the end of the twentieth century its virtuosity appeared jaded to postmodern tastes. Its parish had fallen away from it and the church building was evidently regarded as dispensable.
Why the church was built at all is something of a mystery. Prahran is one of those inner-city suburbs that in a generation were transformed from working class to yuppiedom. It is an axiom of this website that “gentrification” drains a district of its churchgoers, and that this was happening in Prahran must have been at least distantly glimpsable when St Francis Xavier’s was planned.
Sure enough, by the 1990s the parish could run to only a part-time priest and by 2003 it had ceased to exist independently and been divided between two neighbouring parishes. The church, which had been shared for some time between the parish and the Catholic deaf association, was taken over entirely by the association, renamed the John Pierce Centre after a former chaplain to the deaf, and “refurbished” in a manner that was wholly destructive of its integrity.
St Francis Xavier’s was designed by the firm of Smith & Tracey, which continues to maintain a long tradition of work for the Archdiocese of Melbourne. It was the first church in Melbourne – perhaps in Australia – to conform to the liturgical recommendation of the Second Vatican Council that the altar of a church should be closer to the congregation, who should be seated around it rather than in rows of pews looking towards a distant altar at the far end, as in a traditional “linear” church plan.
St Francis Xavier’s is therefore a rotunda, octagonal in plan. Its European Modernist style reflects the architectural preferences of the Liturgical Movement, which since the 1930s had been seeking to promote the changes in design and ritual which ultimately influenced the Vatican council’s liturgical prescriptions.
The church is built of brown brick, exposed on the lower walls inside and out. A side chapel, baptistery and sacristies cluster around the octagon. The main entrance is in a long projecting porch. Over the doors, to indicate the building’s new use, a sign has now been added which would not look out of place on a white-goods warehouse.
The upper walls of the rotunda are rendered and painted white. Two horizontal clerestory stages run around the eight sides, the lower broader than the upper. They are the church’s best feature and eliminate the need for any applied ornament. The rotunda is capped by a shallow tented tiled roof concealed behind the parapet, with a prominent cross.
The clerestories are filled with intensely coloured glass in abstract designs. This, and various paler stained glass in chapel and other lower windows, is probably, though no record survives, the work of John Ferguson (1923-2010) and his contemporary Nick Papas, two artists whose designs were generally used by Smith & Tracey for their church commissions.
The “refurbishment” of St Francis Xavier’s included the blocking of an entrance externally and the installation of air conditioning units on the former baptistery roof which make the baptistery look as if it were about to take off vertically. Inside, several partitions have been inserted, reducing the nave space. But the most regrettable alteration is the insertion of a false ceiling at a level between the two clerestories. It hides the upper clerestory and the beautiful open roof with its exposed beams inside an artificial roof cavity. This is a great loss and it is hard to imagine what advantage was supposed to be gained from it.
Smith & Tracey designed most of the furniture and fittings for the church, now largely dispersed. Their massive stone altar has been replaced by a trite wooden table. The mensa of the stone altar sits outside as part of a “garden of memory”.
Though compromised, the design of this graceful building was completely successful for its purpose. How unfortunate that the same cannot be said for the English-language liturgy it was built to house, which can now be seen as jejune and linguistically drab.
Unless otherwise credited, all photography is by Fiona Basile (www.fionabasile.com).