Corner of Wilfrid and Robinhood Roads, Ivanhoe East.
Melbourne’s first church inspired by the Modern movement.
This church has had a very short life, 66 years, just up to the age of being pensioned off. It was the first Modernist church in Melbourne, the first designed by the firm of Mockridge, Stahle and Mitchelland is now the first of their ecclesiastical buildings to be shut down and sold.
Outright closure is still unusual for Roman Catholic churches, whose congregations, if diminished, seem never to peter out like those of non-RC denominations. In this case there has been a union of parishes, an increasingly frequent phenomenon given the shortage of priests. The East Ivanhoe parish of the Mother of God has been united with the Ivanhoe central parish and the former church and its school are redundant. The local state school has the school and the church is on the market.
It’s a very characteristic church of its era, with a nave and sanctuary in conventional linear form where the pews all look towards the altar. Had it been built a decade or two later it would have been designed “in the round”, with the altar brought closer to a surrounding congregation as recommended by the Second Vatican Council. As it is, it is a traditional church in the contemporary dress so avant-garde at the time. The decision to build in the modern idiom, at a time when Neo-Romanesque Catholic churches were still being built, was an unusual one.
The main part of the building is in the form of a lozenge in plan so that the sides of the nave project slightly outward and the edge of the roof dips in the middle. The roof is of slate with a gable at each end and copper cross, and a vent along it that has the effect of emphasising the long line of the ridge. The concrete frame, painted white, stands out clearly on the façade, and on the side elevations, where it has the effect of a loggia. On the geographical east side the upper part of the middle four bays is pierced by rows of small cruciform clear-glass windows. There is also a section of window wall in random geometric shapes, which lighting the sanctuary, is filled with stained glass in primary colours. There is further stained glass in the window wall of the north-facing (liturgical west) gable. Beneath that is a narthex, its front wall pierced by five alternating rows of narrow rectangular windows. The narthex roof extends to the north, where it is cantilevered over the public footpath to form an entrance porch. The upward sweep of the cantilever was a very ultra-modern touch in 1956.
A low wing with the Lady Chapel and sacristy and other accommodation extends along part of the geographical west and south sides of the church. It is flat-roofed apart from four barrel vaults over the chapel.
The foundation stone of the Mother of God church was blessed by Archbishop Mannix on 11 November 1956. The Advocate newspaper carried a detailed description of the new building in its report.
“The church will be a steel framed building with the structural members clothed in pre-cast concrete to facilitate speedy erection and precision finish. Infill walls will be of pink-fawn Colortone bricks and the roof is to be of slate. The architects, Mockridge, Stahle and Mitchell, have pursued an unusual lozenge form which was suggested by the wedge-shaped site. The exaggerated perspective produced by this shape will lead the eye directly to the high altar…”
“The church which is designed to seat 450, will sit on a concrete mat to be covered with lino tiles. Rich colour will be introduced on the plastered walls whilst dado and ceilings will be in hardwood lining boards waxed in their natural colour. Pews also will be constructed of this timber. Italian glass mosaics will be used to sheath four columns which occur between the nave and the aisle. The Lady Chapel, which is part of the nave, will be emphasized by the barrel vaulting of the ceiling, and plastic domes in the flat roof will flood the baptistry and the centre of the narthex with light. A priest’s vestry, boys’ sacristy and women’s sacristy for flower arranging are also provided.”
All this was built as described and externally the church remains pretty much as it was when it was opened in September 1957. Internally, though, there have been some changes. The high altar, to which the unusual interior perspective, according to the Advocate, led the eye, was removed, along with the delicately coloured tiled wall behind it and the communion rails, during the post-Vatican II mania for “reordering” sanctuaries and a wooden altar like a butcher’s block substituted. Still in place are a crucifix and Stations of the Cross made for the church by Silesian-born woodcarver Hermann Hohaus (1920-1970).
The new church was favourably received in architectural circles, not least by the relentlessly Modernist architecture faculty at the University of Melbourne whose newsletter commented favourably on the architects’ “uncommon departure” from usual church design, which it damned as the “architecturally most backward building type in Australia”. Mockridge, Stahle and Mitchell (the firm was active from 1948 to about 1983) went on to become leading interpreters of the Modern movement. As well as the Mother of God they designed St Faith’s, Burwood, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and the unfortunately not very attractive Religious Centre at Monash University, which looks like an upturned jelly mould. They also specialised in educational buildings.
It will be interesting to see whether the closure of the Mother of God is the start of a process of “rationalisation’ of smaller churches in the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne such as is already happening in the Anglican diocese and, much more widely, across country Victoria. It will be interesting as well to see whether some way is found of preserving this church – perhaps as one of the growing number of ethnic places of worship – or whether its wedge-shaped site will be seen as just the place for yet more “town houses”.
Grateful acknowledgment is made of photographs and information in the Banyule Heritage Study, 2020.