CROMIE STREET, RUPANYUP
Architect Louis Williams at his best.
The last ten years or so have been bad enough for churches in urban Victoria, with closures planned or effected, but in the country they have been disastrous. Scores of churches have shut down, as rural populations decline and townships are turned into ghosts of themselves. In remoter places everything has gone: the school, the banks, the trains (long ago), the shops and even the pubs. A poky general store-cum-supermarket may well be the one place open in a street of empty, slowly collapsing shopfronts. Fewer families live on farms. Many have given up farming and gone away, and their land added to already much bigger and mechanised farms run like industries.
The Covid pestilence was the last straw for many country churches, locked up never to be reopened. But even before, churches were being abandoned one after another as remaining country residents become too old and too few to form a congregation, and their sons and daughters, like younger generations everywhere, lose interest in churchgoing. Country people were once noted for their support of the local church of their denomination, but the prevailing indifference to religion in our time has detached them, just as in the cities and towns, from the places of worship their parents and forebears attended.
In some cases those forebears paid for the church building, and occasionally a particularly well-to-do and devout parishioner would pay for a church grander than the congregation could otherwise have afforded. St James’s, Morrisons, is an example of this, as is St Philip the Evangelist in the Wimmera township of Rupanyup, 289 kilometres from Melbourne. Rupanyup has a population of not much more than 500, but its Anglican church would be an ornament to a town ten times that size.
This handsome church was paid for by the wealthy Campbell family, owners of vast tracts of land in the district. No expense would seem to have been spared, and architect Louis Williams (1890-1980), renowned for his country and city churches in many parts of Victoria and New South Wales, was commissioned for the design. The result, in his unique version of Arts and Crafts Gothic, is splendid, and is complete with the tower which on too many of Williams’s churches was left unbuilt for lack of funds. The church is not large but is far more imposing than any other building in the township. To see the tower rise up in silhouette as you drive across the dusty wheatlands and enter the wide main street of Rupanyup seems unbelievable: St Philip’s is simply not the sort of building you would expect to find in such a place and is comparable with Williams’s best work in Melbourne.
The foundation stone was laid by Mrs Frances Louise Campbell on 14 February 1935. The church is on a cruciform plan with buttressed nave and chancel and with vestries instead of transepts. The south (liturgical west) end has a shallow apsidal baptistery, a favourite Williams motif. The north (liturgical east) wall is blank beneath an intricate rose window high up, a familiar piece of visual dramatics in a Williams church. The nave is four bays long, with a lateral main entrance at the south-east through a porch in the base of the tower and plain double doors on the opposite side. The building materials are brown brick for the walls and red-brown tiles for the roof.
The tower is about 18 metres high and consists of a plain lower stage to the height of the nave roof ridge and a buttressed upper stage set back from the lower walls on a plinth. The lower stage has single slit windows on each face, the upper stage a pair of bell openings on each face and a crenellated parapet above.
The windows are characteristic of Williams. The chancel is lit by, along with the rose window, paired lateral windows with glass in the upper openings and decorative metal grilles in the lower. The apsidal baptistery has single windows with segmental heads high up on each plane. The nave windows are Tudor-arched and divided by concrete transoms so that the lower panes open for ventilation. The leading in the windows, a geometrical pattern of pointed arches, was designed by the architect, whose attention to detail is apparent throughout the church. The hand-beaten metal door handles are worth noting in this regard.
The internal reality is sad. This is a Marie Celeste of a church: everything is in order except that no one’s there, even on Sunday, since there are now no regular services, though this will change after the pandemic, and weddings and funerals still occasionally take place. Pews, font, lectern are all intact; the altar still has its cloth and candlesticks, though the brass is tarnished, as are the memorial plaques on the walls. There would once have been a ladies’ guild to attend to this. Rupanyup was an independent parish until about 20 years ago and there is a “new” (in 1966) cream-brick vicarage beside the church, an unhappy contrast to Williams’s design and now let. Today the rector lives 46 kilometres away in Horsham and such worship as there is is led by two indomitable local women who are also the congregation and church cleaners.
The building looks structurally sound from without but, inside, menacing cracks have appeared in the walls beside the chancel arch, probably caused by settlement because of drought; an earlier repair on the opposite wall has begun to open up again. How repairs could be paid for is anyone’s guess, yet they must be if the church is not to fall into disuse. And if it did, then what? Demolition or conversion to another purpose? Perhaps fortunately, its complex internal space would seem ill-adapted to be turned into someone’s house, which would be a humiliation for a building of this quality and for the town it serves.
That this is a church which must be preserved is easier said than done. How long will that fine tower stand tall above the wide flat Wimmera paddocks stretching to the horizon?
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY