Corner of Wilfrid and Robinhood Roads, Ivanhoe East.

Melbourne’s first church inspired by the Modern movement.

Church of the Mother of God, Ivanhoe East. Note how the steel frame, unusual in church construction in 1956, outlines the façade.

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.

Porch and main entrance of the church. The upward sweep of the cantilever, that covers the public footpath,
was a very ultra-modern touch when the church was built. 

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. 

The lozenge-shaped plan of the church with the sanctuary at the left.

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 sanctuary of the church of the Mother of God as it was at the time of opening in 1957. The altar and communion rails were subsequently removed.
The nave when new. The Lady Chapel is at right.

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.

Side view of the church of the Mother of God. The uprights of the concrete frame stand out clearly and have the effect of a loggia.

“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 under construction in 1957.
It was the first Modernist church in Melbourne.
The church was the first designed by the firm of Mockridge, Stahle and Mitchell, who went on to become leading interpreters of Modernism. (Picture: Peter Wille, State Library of Victoria, no a22359.)

“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”.   

The Mother of God church when new. Sixty-five years later it is surplus to parish requirements.

Grateful acknowledgment is made of photographs and information in the Banyule Heritage Study, 2020.



A noble bell tower with no bell.

Auburn Uniting church: a tower with a church attached, as Mark Twain might have put it.

This remarkable building might have been designed as a variation on Mark Twain’s description of Maryborough and its grandiose railway station – a “station with a town attached”. This is a tower with a church attached. No Methodist understatement here, no evangelical wariness of stateliness and statement. The Auburn Uniting church, or specifically its great campanile, soars over the suburb around it in a display of architectural power. The power as so often with religious buildings today is largely visual: the church, though reasonably well attended, could hold many more than those who turn up on a normal Sunday, so that its influence on most of the people living around it is largely aesthetic. Yet the church survives and is well cared for. 

Part of the façade showing the open arch.
The main entrance with its elaborate pediment.

It was built between 1888 and 1891 for Auburn’s Wesleyan Methodists to a design by the talented but short-lived Alfred Dunn. Born in Devon, Dunn did his articles there and arrived in Australia aged seventeen in 1882, setting up practice in Melbourne three years later and becoming an associate of the Victorian Institute of Architects, though curiously for a gifted designer, he failed to be elected to a fellowship. He entered designs in various architectural competitions, designed several notable houses, and in due course won a competition for the commission offered by the Wesleyans for their new church at Auburn. About the same time he was commissioned to build the Wesleyan (now Greek Orthodox) church at Preston, a rather showy design in Neo-Gothic. Dunn is also known for his collaboration with Lloyd Tayler, a specialist in grand projects, on the interiors of the Commercial Banking Company of Australia’s Collins Street office with its splendid domed ceiling , completed in 1890 and now preserved within a later reconstruction.

Alfred Dunn’s original 1888 drawing as submitted for the competition to design the church. As a conventionally cruciform building with side aisles to the nave and a rose window on the main façade it differs considerably from the church as built. The design of the tower is largely identical, although it is placed at the south-east corner of the church rather than at the south-west..

Dunn died very young, from tuberculosis, in 1894 when he was 29. His inventiveness and originality is well displayed in the church at Auburn, and it is intriguing to think what works it might have led to had he lived longer.

The foundation stone.

Methodists and other non-conformists were numerous and influential in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs in the late nineteenth century (the “local option” laws, by which public bars were not permitted in those districts, were largely due to their weight in local politics) and by the 1880s the Hawthorn Methodist circuit, of which Auburn was a part, was the largest in Victoria. It already had a church but found it needed a bigger one. A new site was found on the hill at Auburn, where Dunn designed a church to seat 600. His ingenious design does the site full justice. It would be hard to find a better place to build a tower 30 metres high, visible from a great way off and giving views, from an upper gallery which is sometimes open to visitors, all over Melbourne’s eastern suburbs

The church from the north-west. Both transept facades have tall three-light windows with circular upper openings. 

Dunn’s design is in northern Italian Romanesque, very freely adapted, and making much use of polychromatic brickwork, mainly red and brown.

The church ground plan is approximately square, with low pitched roofs in the form of a Greek cross delineating a short nave and transepts and a lower and plainer chancel. The three principal gabled façades have tall round-headed triple-light windows with circular upper openings, and on the main façade an open arch with balustrade on either side.

The body of the church is in the auditorium form favoured by Methodists, with the seating arranged as in a theatre, with a direct view, unimpeded by internal columns, of the pulpit, organ and choir. This was a forerunner of the church-in-the-round plan advocated in the 1930s by the European liturgical movement, and implemented (some would say to excess) particularly in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council.  

The interior, cream-painted, is not at all what you would expect from outside. It looks rather municipal, with classical pilasters, transomed ceiling and a proscenium arch framing the chancel with its sanctuary set forward of the choir seats and organ. The organ has been in the church since its opening in 1889. It was built by Fincham & Hobday and has been several times extended and restored.

The tower is at the south-west corner of the building and is twice as high as the church. It rises in four stages, with a tall four-arched open loggia as the upper stage, capped by a steep pyramidal roof. Though in the form of a campanile, it has never contained a campana, bells not being part of the Methodist tradition.

The tower, 30 metres high, lends Romanesque grandeur to a quiet suburban street.

Dunn designed the two adjacent buildings, the large Sunday School hall to the north, which is used for a variety of community activities, and the two-storeyed parsonage to the east, which, still lived in by the minister and his family, must be one of the very largest clerical residences in Australia remaining in use for its original purpose.  

The church from the north, with its spacious grounds. The north end,
which forms a rudimentary chancel, is plain externally.

The church remained Methodist until absorption in the Uniting Church in 1977. It has excellent acoustics and frequent organ and other musical events are held. In addition to maintenance by its regular congregation, a voluntary group called the Friends of the Auburn Tower, formed in 2004, supports it with fund-raising and various activities.

This church is not at risk as long as its congregation can maintain it (though you never know with the Uniting Church and its mania for selling off property). It is certainly not at risk of demolition, but is perhaps not so safe from secularisation. Not much imagination is needed to see it transformed into a concert hall – a function it already fills from time to time – or even, with an expansionist university just around the corner, a hall for graduations and academic events. Anyone who thinks churches should be churches (or town hall town halls and post offices post offices) will find that prospect unappealing.  

The south, or principal façade of the Auburn Uniting church. Note the twin open arches which give the façade a sense of depth.




A fine example of 1960s “contemporary”.

The entrance front of All Saints’, West Footscray, looking east.

This church, ultra-contemporary for its time, seems to have escaped the notice of heritage consultants and architectural historians. Possibly that is because of its locality, on the corner of one of the most dispiriting suburban roads in a shabby part of Melbourne’s west. Yet it is a striking and original design, and with the demolition of St Stephen’s, Highett, one of the few examples of a non-traditional building associated with the architect Wystan Widdows (1912-1982).

Widdows was born and died England but worked most of his life in Australia. In that time he designed more than thirty Anglican churches, which makes him second only to Louis Williams in terms of ecclesiastical output. For eight years until 1966 he was in partnership with David Caldwell, with whom he designed All Saints’.

Wide windows light the nave. Note the aperture in the cantilevered roof to admit light to the window below.

Widdows and Caldwell planned All Saints’ in conformity with the principles of the Liturgical Movement, a loosely grouped association of mainly German and French architects, artists and clerics who had been advocating churches “in the round”, with the congregation gathered around the altar, since at least the 1930s. Like the Ecclesiologists in the nineteenth-century, whose criteria of “correct” Gothic Revival, as applied to (mainly) Anglican churches spread all over the English-speaking world, the Liturgical Movement acquired international influence in just a few decades. Its success was largely on account of the Second Vatican Council, the architectural and liturgical decrees of which were – not wholly accurately – interpreted as mandating Mass at an altar “amongst the people” instead of at an altar at the far end of a nave in a church built on the conventional “linear” plan which had been the custom since the Roman basilicas were converted into churches in the fourth century. By the end of the 1960s there was scarecly one newly built Roman Catholic church that didn’t in some way conform to Liturgical Movement prescriptions, and Anglicans, needing churches for a revised rite not dissimilar to the Roman Catholic, in some places followed suit. All Saints’ at West Footscray is among the notable examples of this phenomenon. 

The foundation stone, laid in 1964.

The foundation stone was laid on 21 June 1964. The church consists of a hexagonal drum rising through two storeys and containing nave and sanctuary with attached vestries, narthex and baptistery at ground floor level. Windows, wide and tall, rise to the eaves to light the interior of the drum. The roof is of shallow gables and has two additional angles formed by the eaves of cantilevered gables, each with an aperture to allow light to the windows in the wall beneath. One sees the point, but from certain viewpoints this makes the building rather jagged in appearance.

Ventilators formed of brick tiles laid sideways. The brick walls are notched at the corners, a Widdows motif.

The porte-cochère at the entrance, with a tropical garden beneath the aperture in the canopy. The entrance doors open onto a narthex.

The principal entrance is through a porte-cochère, also with an open roof supported on metal columns. Below the opening in the roof is a small tropical garden in a raised concrete bed, like the entrance to a resort hotel in somewhere like Fiji though not as well maintained. A spacious narthex gives access to the church proper.

A wider view of the garden. A timber parish hall is next to the church.

The walls of the church are of cream brick with concrete used for fascias and some lintels. The unusual ventilators in the walls are formed of rows of brick tiles laid sideways. Of particular merit is the slender flêche, with its graceful openwork metal structure.

A bell canopy projects beneath the cantilevered eaves at the east end of the church.

Concrete discolouration and other signs of wear have dulled the avant-garde sharpness this church undoubtedly had in its earlier days. Its parish, too, has gone and All Saints’ now functions as a chapel-of-ease to the older Anglican church in central Footscray. A third church in the combined parish, St George’s, also built in the 1960s, was demolished several years ago. Its fate suggests that the future of All Saints’ is not as secure as this interesting building deserves.

Vestries with steel-framed windows at the east end of All Saints’. The many angles of roof and walls give the building a somewhat jagged appearance.





A superb church which must be preserved at all costs.

A fine example of Gothic Revival design, the Thomson Memorial Church stands out against a stormy sky at Terang.

This is a magnificent church which would not be out of place as a provincial cathedral – indeed it is more imposing than some of the cathedrals of rural Australia. As a building it is a product of generosity and imagination. As an ornament to a townscape it is unsurpassed. Long before you reach Terang its splendid spire, 136 feet (41.45 metres) high, can be seen above the roofs of the town. The Thomson Memorial Church and a 1930s pub with a church-like Neo-Romanesque tower are Terang’s most prominent buildings. But while the pub is well frequented (at least when the Chinese virus permits) the church has a very small congregation. It would be a grievous loss if it were to shut down and be demolished or turned into an “arts hub” or flats.

What has happened to the Scots who were once so prominent in Victoria’s Western District? The Scots who brought their Presbyterianism with them and built some exceptional churches in which to practise it? The churches still stand – at Hamilton, Warrnambool, Geelong and Ballarat, though the last two are closed and empty, and Terang, the most architecturally accomplished of them all, is hardly flourishing. But the Scots, or their descendants, must still be there too. You just down encounter them at church; they would seem in the main to have abandoned their religion. The sea of faith, as Matthew Arnold put it, has withdrawn, ebbed away, leaving the churches like great beached ships on the shingle behind it. 

The Thomson Memorial Church, Terang from the east.
The spire is a landmark on the Princes Highway and from far outside the town.  

Most Victorian country towns of any size have three substantial churches – an Anglican, a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian (which is often now Uniting). But Terang, with a population of about 2,500, has only one of note, the Thomson Memorial. The Anglican church is a timber hall of the kind you would see in the outback. The RC one was a standard bluestone Gothic building of moderate dimensions, now superseded by an awful 1970s construction, substantial, yes, but looking as if it were designed by a jukebox manufacturer. This stands awkwardly across the Princes Highway from the Thomson Memorial. Its architect was Kris Kudlicki whose specialty was railway stations.

The west façade of the church. Note the arcade of four blind arches and
eight lancets beneath the tripartite main window.

The Thomson Memorial Church was designed by the Melbourne firm of Reed, Henderson & Smart. Joseph Reed was the architect of the Scots’ Church, Melbourne, which according to the Camperdown Chronicle of 7 January 1890 was the model for the Terang church. The Thomson in the church’s name was John Thomson, a very early pioneer, who had arrived in the district in 1839 and settled at Keilambete outside Terang. He had earlier built a manse (now long since sold off and replaced by a cream brick bungalow) for the Presbyterian minister, and the new church, replacing an earlier one on the site, was to be a jubilee benefaction in celebration of his fifty years on the land. He did not live to see his gift. Soon after commissioning the architects in 1890 he was killed in a buggy accident. His widow arranged that the church be built and dedicated to his memory, and it was opened in 1894.

The foundation stone with its restrained inscription stating the circumstances in which the church was built.  

One of the best things about this church is its remarkable architectural completeness. Not only does it have a tower and spire, when many churches of the era were left without, it has a proper Gothic nave of four bays with arcaded side aisles and a clerestory. The nave buttresses rise above the walls of the aisles. It has transepts and an apse. True, the architects have had to take a certain liberty with the apse. It looks from outside as though it is the eastern arm of the church, in which you would expect to find an altar (or you would have in the Middle Ages when all Gothic churches were Catholic) but it is actually closed off from the body of the church and houses a vestry. This was no doubt at the request of the client and is the standard arrangement in most Presbyterian churches: they usually have a pulpit, elders’ stalls and communion table at the far end and the vestry in a room beyond. But I know of no other church where the vestry is disguised externally as a chancel.

The graceful curve of the apse is inspired by French Gothic design, though it is not a true apse and houses a vestry.
Rough-cut stone with smooth stone dressings on a doorway. Architectural detailing on the building is remarkably “correct”.

The apse, or its exterior, is the most French-looking element in the design, though the whole building, seen from the street, could almost be a church in Normandy. The details of windows and doors are correctly Gothic to a degree not always seen with nineteenth-century churches in Australia. The satisfying massiveness of the tower is visually reinforced by the external stair turret with stepped-up window openings. The arrangement of the clustered pinnacles at the base of the spire is almost identical to those on the spire of Christ Church, South Yarra, in Melbourne, which is not to be wondered at since Joseph Reed designed both.

The church is built of Barrabool and Waurn Ponds sandstone with its attractive grey-greenish tinge. The walls are of rough-cut blocks and the dressings of smoothed stone. The foundations and crypt are of bluestone and the roof of slates. Inside, fittings and furnishings are much as they were when the church was built. There is some excellent joinery and good stained glass. The organ, an 1879 instrument by William Anderson, was originally at Holy Trinity in the Melbourne suburb of Kew. It was brought to Terang in 1902 and has twice been rebuilt, most recently in 1971.

Angle of transept, nave and aisle. The massive walls are of rough-cut Barrabool and Waurn Ponds sandstone with smoothed stone for the dressings. The roofs are slate.

The plaque shows the burning bush seen by Moses (Exodus 3: 1-10) with the words Nec tamen consumebatur (“Yet it was not consumed”), symbol of God’s indestructible eternity.

The Thomson Memorial Church is now part of a ministry district with two other churches, at Camperdown and at Noorat, the last one a smaller bluestone building in Early English Gothic, also built as a memorial, in this case to the pioneering squatter Niel Black, whose family are still prominent in the area. One must hope that the strength in numbers derived from unity is sufficient to keep this noble church in use. It is a building which must be preserved at all costs, and the best way is to keep it open for the purpose for which it was built.

The nave from the north. With its clerestory, aisle windows and buttresses, it is an essay in correct Gothic Revival.




Rus in urbe beside the bay.

St Agnes’s, Black Rock, built in 1914. The flat-roofed extension is a 1970s addition.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society

St Agnes’s is a country church in a suburb. It was in the country, more or less, when it was built, and has kept that air, even to the extent of acquiring a thoroughly unsuitable flat-roofed extension at the front for before- and after-service get-togethers, just as many a country church did four or five decades ago when such accretions were the fashion. St Agnes’s is included on this website as a church at risk because those getting together are now fewer in number.

Though unsurprising, this is a pity in a district that has grown a great deal since this diminutive church was built for a much smaller population. Its first congregation lived in rambling, isolated houses among the ti-tree and scrub. Black Rock is now thoroughly built up with expensive-looking houses, though, either in reality or imagination you can still hear the waves swishing on the nearby beach and smell the salt in the air. 

The first St Agnes’s, Black Rock was built in 1899 and burnt down fourteen years later.
Note the sandy soil along the fence: the beach is not far away.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society

The present church is the second on the site. The first was a weatherboard structure built in 1899 and burnt down on Shrove Tuesday, 4 February 2013. That day was hot and windy. The fire started in the scrub, swept the street and engulfed the church. Some items of furniture were saved, notably the eagle lectern carved by the German immigrant sculptor Robert Prenzel (1866-1941) who lived nearby. It is still in use in the present church.

After the fire, services were held for a time, at the invitation of the proprietress, at the “Linga Longa Tea Rooms” on Beach Road – oh, those delightfully playful names of yesteryear; today it would be more earnestly named “Caffé e Focaccia”, the latter word probably incorrectly spelt and always incorrectly pronounced. Though the timber church was beyond repair, they didn’t muck about in those days, as my father would have said, and before the year was out the foundation stone of the new church was laid. The building was dedicated in April 2014.

The architect was John Gawler (1885-1978). At the time he was the representative in Australia of Walter Burley Griffin who in 1912 had won the competition to design Canberra. Gawler was later a partner in the firm of Gawler & Drummond and dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Melbourne.

Gawler’s design for St Agnes’s was for a steeply gabled plain brick three-bay nave with pointed windows, a small not-quite apsidal chancel – it has a square east wall with shorter polygonal sides – and lateral vestries with organ chamber. Above the north vestry is a bellcote in the form of a roofed frame. The west end of the church was unfinished until the extension was added in 1975.

Interior of St Agnes’s, Black Rock, with the chancel screen carved by Miss Elsie Traill.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society

The interior is made elaborate by much timber carving, principally the work of a local lady, Miss Elsie Traill, who laid the foundation stone of St Agnes’s and whose father, an early resident of Black Rock, was an animating spirit behind the establishment of the parish. His wife, “greatly concerned over the lack of religious training for children” in the district, had started a Sunday School in a private house in 1888 and in 1894 Mr Traill gave the land for the church.

Miss Trail’s principal oeuvre is an open chancel screen running the width of the church. Anglican churches of the era, still under the influence of the distant Ecclesiologists in England, who thought no church “correct” without a screen to divide the congregation in the nave from the choir and sanctuary at, as they would have seen it, the more sacred end, were often equipped with screens, some of which, like that in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, have since been moved to another part of the building. The screen in St Agnes’s would be an ornament to a larger church, and although it is somewhat intrusive in a more restricted space it is good to see it still there when so many church interiors have been vandalised in the name of “reordering”.  

The Black Rock countryside has long since been built over but St Agnes’s retains the look of a country church. The pretty bellcote can be seen beyond the apse.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society



Closed and to all appearances forgotten. 

St George’s Presbyterian church, Geelong, with its commanding spire.

This is one of those mysterious cases where a church shuts its doors after a service and shut they stay without anything further happening. Time goes by and no attempt seems to be made to reopen the building or to make any change to it. No estate agent’s board appears outside spruiking its potential, with the wit property salesmen reserve for churches on the market, as a heavenly home or a divine development site. It remains unmeddled with and undemolished. Which of course is a good thing, as long as it lasts, particularly for a building of such architectural merit as St George’s, Geelong.

This church closed for services in January 2015 for a “one-year operational review”. At the end of May 2021 it is still closed, its Presbyterian owners apparently having come to no decision about its future. During those six years the church and its surroundings have received basic maintenance and there are no signs of vandalism, which is itself these days unusual.

St George’s is an imposing church, built for a wealthy and influential congregation, which included the philanthropist Francis Ormond of Ormond Hall and Ormond College fame and sundry Western District squatters of Scottish provenance. They engaged the architect Nathaniel Billing (1821-1910) to prepare the design. Billing had emigrated from England direct to the Western District town of Port Fairy, where he had designed St John’s Anglican church and supervised the construction of the Roman Catholic church of St Patrick. In Melbourne his most notable work is the vast All Saints’ Anglican church in East St Kilda.

Billing described himself (there appears to be no corroboration) as a pupil of the renowned Gothic Revivalist Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), architect of over 800 buildings, of which perhaps the best known is the soaring red-brick hotel in front of St Pancras Station, London. If so, the influence shows. Billing’s work is certainly more disciplined and “correct” in his style than other ecclesiastical architects working in Victoria at the time, with the exception of William Wardell, architect of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

The foundation stone of St George’s was laid on 12 June 1861. The building materials are bluestone and Hawkesbury River freestone for the dressings. The first completed section was the large nave with vestry and square-ended chancel. The church faces west and a porch the width of the nave was built, with a principal doorway and gabled portal opening onto La Trobe Terrace. Transepts and vestibule were added in 1908 and the tower and spire on the north-west corner to mark the church’s 75th anniversary in 1936.

Street view, late 1930s style. Central Geelong soon after the addition of the tower and spire to St George’s (left foreground). The new work stands out for the lighter colour of the stonework. Along Ryrie Street, the former Geelong Post Office and the T & G Insurance Building can be seen.
(Picture: CD Pratt,

The design is English Gothic of the early Decorated period. The nave is six bays long, the bays marked by buttresses, and under one roof. The window in the main west façade is traceried, with four principal lights and three cinquefoils. The tower, in three stages and buttressed at the corners, is distinctive for its unusually tall bell chamber. A broach spire rises above it, a landmark in the west of Geelong and to some extent a companion to the higher spire of St Mary of the Angels further east. The stone-built Gothic manse behind St George’s, now tenanted, was also designed by Nathaniel Billing.  

The church contains some fine stained glass, including windows by Ballantyne & Company of Edinburgh and a war memorial window by William Montgomery (1850-1927), described by his biographer as “Melbourne’s leading stained-glass artist” of the period.

It would be nice to think that this church could reopen. There is a precedent for that in the former Presbyterian, then Uniting, now Presbyterian again church in St Kilda, which, set on a hill with a tall spire, is the most prominent nineteenth-century building in Melbourne’s inner southern suburbs. It was briefly made redundant by the Uniting Church but was reopened and then thoroughly restored inside and out about ten years ago by a Presbyterian congregation that took responsibility for it. But perhaps St George’s has been shut for too long. Its interior fittings, according to someone who managed to see inside, are thickly covered with thick dust. One fears the worst.

St George’s in 1930, before the addition of the tower and spire.



Valuable site: the East Ivanhoe Uniting church and
its land were sold for more than $11 million.

Sold but not yet demolished: the East Ivanhoe Uniting church was built in the early 1960s.

Here’s an illustration of how quickly churchgoing has declined in well-to-do suburbs where not long ago churches were at the centre of local life.

The East Ivanhoe Uniting church was built on a hilltop site in the early 1960s to replace a smaller brick church of 1941, still standing next to the new one, which the then Methodist congregation had outgrown. In 1977 the new building, like almost all other Methodist churches in Australia, passed to the Uniting Church. By the early years of this century the congregation had shrunk and the Uniting Church, feeling the pinch after heavy losses over an unsuccessful educational investment, decided to close the church and sell the site, at 5441 square metres a valuable one in a suburb as smart as East Ivanhoe. Four years ago they successfully did so; it brought $11.05 million. The purchaser was a “high-end” aged-care (the classy name for old folks’ homes) entrepreneur. There has evidently been some delay in getting the project started as church was still there in late April 2021 but fenced off, the usual prelude to demolition.

In two generations, then, this church had gone from full to closed down. The teenagers who attended its youth club when it was newly built were late middle-aged but not necessarily inactive by the time the church closed. Where had they gone? Certainly if they still lived in the district they were no longer going to this church on Sundays.

The East Ivanhoe Uniting church was designed by Bates, Smart and McCutcheon in a plain but pleasing functional style; it is very similar to the Methodist church they designed in Ashburton in 1961. Both have square towers (now encrusted with the near obligatory mobile phone paraphernalia). East Ivanhoe has a free-standing cross on top. Both churches are built of cream brick. Both churches consist of a lowish-roofed, shallow gabled nave on a rectangular plan. East Ivanhoe is lit by continuous clerestory windows under the eaves. There are no concessions to “ecclesiastical” ornament.

The plain square tower of the East Ivanhoe Uniting church. Church and tower are very similar to the Ashburton Uniting church designed by the same architects, Bates, Smart and McCutcheon.

The church at East Ivanhoe is one of three buildings on the site, sold en bloc together with the tennis courts that almost all suburban Protestant churches once had and which helped make them a hive of activity all weekend: Saturday afternoon tennis and a Saturday evening dance for the younger members of the congregation and church and Sunday School for everyone on the Sabbath. The other buildings are a substantial institutional-looking red-brick hall, also circa 1962, and the original 1941 church, which must have been one of the last buildings in the district to get a permit before war restrictions were imposed. It is pleasantly set back behind a garden and faces the side street. It too is built of red brick, with just that touch of Neo-Gothic in its design that proclaims it to anyone who has poked around churches for a bit to be a between-the-wars Methodist church.

This church has been let to a Chinese congregation but is now empty again. The site is not fenced off: does this mean it will be excluded on heritage grounds from the “redevelopment” of the rest of the site and retained as a “community hub”?

The artist Alan Sumner designed stained glass windows for the older church. Have they been removed?

The former Methodist church at East Ivanhoe, later replaced by the 1960s building.



I spoke too soon.

The Uniting, formerly Presbyterian, church at Rokewood is still open for Sunday services. It was built in 1866, in bluestone with freestone dressings to a design by Alexander Davidson. The spire, with its unusual adaptation of a broach at the base, was added in 1905.

St Andrew’s Uniting, formerly Presbyterian, church at Rokewood was built in 1866, in bluestone with freestone dressings to a design by Alexander Davidson. The spire, with its unusual adaptation of a broach at the base and canopied upper openings, was added in 1905. The building is now for sale.

When I wrote the entry on St Patrick’s, Rokewood, in February 2021 I noted that there was another church in the same township that was still open for services, This is St Andrew’s, Rokewood’s Uniting, formerly Presbyterian church.

I spoke too soon.

St Andrew’s has now been advertised for sale, though mercifully for once without all the demeaning cracks about heavenly living and a bargain to pray for which constitute estate agents’ ideas of wit and disfigure most advertisements for ecclesiastical property.

In that earlier post I wrote that “Rokewood also has a notable Uniting, formerly Presbyterian, church, bluestone with a spire. It was built in 1866 with the spire added in 1905. Given that the Uniting Church is also a keen disposer of its rural buildings, one must hope it remains viable.” That last sentence, if I say it myself, was prescient.

The architect of St Andrew’s was Alexander Davidson, who also designed the Presbyterian (now Uniting) and Methodist (now sold) churches at Mortlake further west and the handsome Presbyterian church at Werribee, which contains a great rarity in this country, a family pew for the owners of the local stately home (Werribee Park). Davidson designed the Rokewood church in English Decorated style on a Latin Cross plan with equal-length nave, transepts and chancel. The bluestone is set off with freestone dressings and the windows are plate-traceried. The design of the spire is unlike any I have seen, It rises eight-sided out of broaches, above which a projecting band runs round it surmounted by Gothic canopies above which again the shaft continues its upward course.  

That this church, so clearly intended to be a local landmark at the centre of its village, will be turned into a gallery or a restaurant, as some potential buyers have suggested, or worse, someone’s “quirky” house, its slate roofs carved up into solar panels, is an insult to its dignity and architectural quality. And all for, says the ad, a top price of $465,000. Surely the Uniting Church isn’t as hard up as all that. It’s sold dozens of churches and ploughed the proceeds into its capital funds. Couldn’t it spare a bit to keep this particularly accomplished building open and in repair? Couldn’t it think twice about privatising a public space and depriving a small community of its architectural heart?

The other consideration I’ve made elsewhere I’ll make again. To sell an under-used church that’s little more than a timber hall with pointed windows makes no great impact visually, though it’s a pity just the same. But to sell a solid imposing church with a spire that announces to all the world that this is not just any building but a church is counterproductive to Christian mission. It proclaims to everyone who sees it, as though the words were written in neon lights, “Forget about Christianity. We’ve gone out of business.”

Not out of the business of selling churches though. There’ll be plenty more.




An inner-city church rebuilt on a new site.

St Andrew’s Gaelic church and, to its right, the manse in Rathdowne Street, Carlton, in a photograph of the early 1880s. A cupola of the Exhibition Building is in the foreground. The church, cruciform with a pinnacled tower, was dismantled in 1938. The manse with its elegant balconies survives as do the terraces to the right. In the middle left distance behind the flagpole is the former Catholic Apostolic (now Rumanian Orthodox) church in Queensberry Street before its 1887 remodelling. The tower with mansard roof and flag beyond is the old Carlton Brewery. The tower of the former North Melbourne Town Hall can be recognised in the distance to the right above the transept of St Andrew’s, with the spire of the Union Memorial Church in Curzon Street faintly discernible left of the Town Hall.  
State Library of Victoria (10032021)

Is this beautiful bluestone church at risk or not? It is hard to say. A notice on its former website says its congregation was “disbanded” on 10 April 2016 and that the church would become the “permanent spiritual home” of an Indonesian congregation who’d migrated in from the eastern suburb of Mulgrave. They are still there, with one service each Sunday. But how permanent is “permanent’? Ethnic congregations are by nature eclectic – how many Indonesians live in prosperous Anglo Gardiner? – and have a habit of dissolving or moving elsewhere, as this one already has. But as long as they are in possession St Andrew’s can probably be regarded as safe.

St Andrew’s, Gardiner on its commanding corner site. The resemblance to the original St Andrew’s Gaelic church is slight. The present building is largely the work of architects Scarborough, Robertson and Love in 1939.

The Uniting Church has several Indonesian congregations in Victoria (another is at St Stephen’s, North Caulfield) and they appear to be enthusiastically attended. St Andrew’s has around 250 members, which includes a few elderly survivors of its previous (English-speaking) congregation. There is a Sunday morning service in English but it is held in the hall, since the main Indonesian service is at the same time.

How that earlier congregation declined in number would make a case study to illustrate the overall collapse of Protestant churchgoing in the last thirty or forty years. I have written about it in the introduction to this website and elsewhere* and need not go into it again here. Suffice to say that St Andrew’s was once full every Sunday. Gardiner, which is part of high-priced East Malvern, was typically fertile ground for the kind of upright, undemonstratively pious, family-oriented Christianity that used to flourish throughout well-to-do middle-class Australia. One wonders, when observing the standards of public life today, whether the kind of people who practised it still exist.

North side of the nave of St Andrew’s, Gardiner.
The lower tower windows light the porch inside.
StAndrew’s is surrounded by well-tended grounds. .

An interesting point about St Andrew’s is that it has seen decline before. It used to be in Rathdowne Street, Carlton, on the corner of Queensberry Street, where it was built in 1855 as St Andrew’s Gaelic church, Free Church of Scotland by denomination. Carlton in those days was rather grand, but as Melbourne grew, industry and institutions moved in and many residents moved out. By the time of the Depression the church was redundant, and with another Presbyterian church two blocks away (the Erskine Church, now demolished) it was decided to close it. Dismantling it, moving it stone by stone and redesigning it to become Gardiner’s Presbyterian church in 1939 was a stroke of inspiration (a stroke that struck twice, since the Presbyterian – now like St Andrew’s, Uniting –church at Box Hill is a similar 1930s transplant). In Gardiner, an ideal site was found, on the upper side of a hill in the Gardiner’s Creek valley, overlooking the crossing of two main roads. With the clock on its square tower, a less common feature in Australia than in England, it could almost be an English village church on the edge of a green.

The chapel with its six square-headed windows, the organ chamber and the projecting vestries.
The foundation stone with dates of the earlier and later churches.

The architect of the Gaelic church is not recorded, but it hardly matters because St Andrew’s as it stands bears little relation to that church beyond the inherited building materials and some furnishings inside. It was redesigned by architects Scarborough, Robertson and Love, who are perhaps best known in Victoria for the Littlejohn Memorial Chapel at Scotch College. The Gaelic church had been cruciform, but they reconstructed it as the new St Andrew’s without the transepts. The redesigned tower was placed in its original position at the front but the nave behind it was extended to five bays with a short chancel for the elders’ stalls and communion table. A two-bay chapel with clerestory, an organ chamber and projecting vestries are on the north. The tower, originally thinnish with corner pinnacles, acquired a solid buttressed prominence; it was made broader than the original and square-topped without the pinnacles and is capped by a weathervane. There are double louvred bell openings on the upper stage, the clock with a face on three sides, and entrance porch with steps at the lowest level.

West wall of the vestry. Note how the rough-cut bluestone catches the sunlight.
The main door at the foot of the tower.
Side view of the tower with its “solid buttressed prominence”.

Windows and other openings are in plain Early English style with hood moulds. The roof is of slate. With its rough-cut bluestone catching the sunlight in the manner of wavelets on the sea, St Andrew’s is an exceptionally satisfying building. It stands in well-kept and unfenced shrubby grounds and looks like what it unfortunately no longer is, the very centre of its community.

*Articles in Quadrant Magazine
The Decline of the Suburban Church
The Continued Decline of the Suburban Church

Panoramic view of St Andrew’s, Gardiner. It could be English village church on the edge of its green if only the road surface were grass.




One more disposal in what looks like a clearance sale.

St Patrick’s, Rokewood, now sold to a new owner. The church was built in 1927.

The Roman Catholic authorities in Ballarat are at it again, selling off a perfectly good solid church building which will now be mutilated architecturally by being put to some secular use, probably as someone’s house. They’d hardly got the very handsome St Thomas Aquinas’s at Clunes off their hands – an act of cultural vandalism if ever there was one – when St Patrick’s, Rokewood, was on the market. The church was put up for auction at the request of the parish priest, who had been obliged to drive the 50 kilometres or so from his other church in Ballarat to celebrate a monthly Mass there. He’ll now not have to bother. The dozen or so people who made up the congregation will do the travelling instead, to their nearest church at Linton, 32 kilometres away, as long as that lasts. They could have gone to Springdallah, which is a bit nearer, but that was sold a couple of years ago and has already been given the usual treatment and put to domestic use.

The former Catholic church at Springdallah has pretty Gothic windows in the Early English style. It exemplifies the rule that, once sold for conversion into a house, a church is usually disfigured by solar panels, iron stovepipes and other unsuitable domestic additions.

The congregation was adduced as a reason for the Rokewood sale, in that, according to the parish priest, “[l]ow numbers and the effort required to ready the building for a monthly Mass were taking its toll on the small community.” It’s hard to see what “toll” that would have been, and wouldn’t they have preferred to keep their local church?

Rokewood is a township of around 200 people south of Ballarat. St Patrick’s, on a wide block as you enter the town from the north, is a plain Gothic Revival building in red brick and cement render with a slate roof. It’s largish for a small township, with a long nave of five bays and separate chancel with lateral sacristies. It’s also, as churches go, not that old. The foundation stone was laid on 16 October 1927.

The foundation stone of St Patrick’s, laid in 1927.

The building is of simple design and has some attractive details, such as the sets of three lancet windows above the entrance porch and on the (liturgical) east wall of the chancel. The tripartite theme is repeated under the upper section of the front gable by a boxed half-timbered panel supported on corbels. This gives the façade a faintly non-ecclesiastical look. The external walls are handsomely buttressed. The church has eaves rather than parapets, unusual in a Gothic Revival building.

Porch and main façade of St Patrick’s, Rokewood. Unusually for a Gothic Revival church, it has eaves instead of parapets.

The Catholic diocese of Ballarat needs to take its responsibility as custodian of country churches more seriously. It has sold at least five recently in what looks like a clearance sale of churches it no longer wishes to maintain. Already this year the pretty stone church at Macarthur in the Western District has gone. We know that the countryside is depopulated and that fewer people go to church but are these sales really worth it compared to what is lost? They inevitably result in the disfigurement of a building that earlier generations paid for, measured the course of their lives in with baptisms, weddings and funerals, and carefully looked after. Once a church is sold, various unsuitable domestic accoutrements are tacked on in the form of solar panels, glazed extensions and coolie-hat-capped iron chimneys in the manner of that depicted by nursery-rhyme illustrators on the old woman who lived in a shoe’s residence. These ruin the appearance of the exterior, while the inside is partitioned up – even though there never seems to be a way of exorcising a chill echo that permeates the cavernous nave-cum-living room. If you want to see the hideous things people do to secularised churches look at the Facebook page on “Churches for Sale”. Frankly, it would less of an affront to the integrity and, indeed, the sanctity of a church to pull it down.

The half-timbered panel under the gable repeats the tripartite theme of the lancet windows.

Or in the case of architecturally valuable churches, such as the very fine St Joseph’s, Blampied, unused but happily still unsold, if they must be closed, give a key to a sympathetic neighbour, lock the church, ensure essential maintenance and hold on to the building against demographic change. Some country towns are growing again – Clunes is a case in point – and the time may come when the church can be reopened. In the meantime, as the Anglicans have found at Rupanyup, it will sometimes be requested for weddings and funerals.

Side view of porch and main front of St Patrick’s, Rokewood. Note the clustered corner buttresses and well-kept slate roofs.
Notice on the porch door. What Covid cancelled temporarily the sale of the church has made permanent.

The Catholic diocese of Ballarat, though, is perhaps a special case. It needs the money from the sale of churches and other property (the presbytery at Linton was up for sale at the same time as the Rokewood church), mainly to pay vast sums to the “victims” of clerical child sexual abusers of the past, who made up for their limited numbers by the scale of their offending. (Why it needs also to perpetuate these unhappy events with a proposed “memorial” at the Ballarat cathedral is a mystery, unless it be to try to ingratiate itself with the influential and aggressive “survivor” lobby in Ballarat, most of whom are secularists and unlikely to be placated by anything the Church might do anyway. Besides, there have been no cases of abuse in the Ballarat diocese for over two decades. Better to leave past sins in the past and move on.)

The nave of St Patrick’s, Rokewood is of five bays, making. It quite a large church for so small a township.

Rokewood will not be the last of these sales. We shall watch with concern where next in the Ballarat diocese the blow will fall.

The end of the story. The church seems to have been sold with its pews and other furnishings, such as an unusual altar and pulpit of “crazy” stonework, still in situ.