Were churches full in the comfortable 1950s? One or two were, but an informal assessment of church attendance in one Melbourne suburb in my childhood suggests that there was wide indifference to religion even then.

Census statistics and everyday observation indicate that institutional Christianity, especially of the Anglican and Protestant sort, is slowly declining in Australia. It is becoming more rare to meet people who regularly go to church. Congregations tend to include a high proportion of elderly people, although it is worth noting at once that to some extent this has always been so. I have attended many churches over many years, and, although there were and are notable exceptions, in my experience Australian congregations have always been largely elderly, as though the supply of older churchgoers replenishes itself from one generation to the next.  

Generally, though, in most places congregations were larger in the past in all churches, not excepting Roman Catholics (the catastrophic decline in Catholic congregations in the years since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s deserves to be examined as a separate case and has been compounded by the failure of the Catholic establishment to try to arrest it). But even if Anglican and Protestant churches used to be better attended, there was never a golden age of churchgoing in Australia, a time when the community more or less as a whole turned out to services on Sundays. Yet most people were Christian believers of a passive sort – they knew who Jesus was and they expected Heaven to be the reward of a virtuous life and religion formed the basis of their morality: they even had their children christened in numbers far greater than today. But actually attending church on Sunday seems to have been regarded as optional, for those who “liked that sort of thing”.

In front of the ‘villa pair” in Auguste Street. Me aged nineteen months with my father.
The neighbouring Sinclairs’ half of the pair is beyond the low fence.

My own family, in my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, were churchgoers on one side and mixed on the other. My father’s parents were observant Anglicans and his brother and two sisters and their families all went to church, if not every Sunday certainly once a month and at Christmas and Easter. My mother’s family was Methodist. Her mother went to church fairly often (once, reeking like a brewery, after a bottle of beer my father had brought for his future father-in-law, sprayed over her as she was about to go out the door). Her father as far as I know never went, though he considered himself a Christian man. Her brothers and sisters were all occasional churchgoers and, when younger, attached to Methodist social and sports clubs. Among the children of the two families – my first cousins – churchgoing has with one exception been totally abandoned. In the case of their children, the once de rigueur family rituals of baptism and church marriage have now gone too.

For the first ten years of my life we lived in a middle-class suburb called Glenhuntly which I think was typical of whole tracts of eastern and southern Melbourne. When I say middle-class it was rather mixed in socio-economic terms and I suppose what you would call “culturally”. None of the neighbours were upper-middle, some were a sort of middle-middle and quite a number lower-middle. Some of these last lived in the only block of flats in the streets near us or in a half of a “villa pair”. Few of any of these neighbours were churchgoers, though one or two of the non-RC parents sent their children to Sunday School, and as far as I can tell, apart from the fact that none of the lower-middles ever went to church, there was no obvious class-based pattern of church affiliation among those who did. This was a time, between 1942 and 1954, when just over 40 per cent of the Australian population claimed in the census to be members of the Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist churches and around 20 per cent Roman Catholic.

How did that statistic correspond to the reality in Glenhuntly at that time and the neighbours I knew? I think we might have been below the national average in terms of faith. To test this contention, I have returned autobiographically to the street where I used to live as I remember it circa 1950.   

Our house was half of a “villa pair” in Augusta Street which my parents had lived in since 1942 and considered themselves lucky to have found during the wartime housing shortage. In our part of the street there were three neighbouring families living in villa pairs, semi-detached single-storey bungalows of uniform plan with stuccoed façades and exposed brick sides and back – individuality was achieved by some having gabled fronts and others hipped roofs. In the northernmost, on the corner of Beverley Street, were Mr and Mrs Carman and their curly-headed Shirley Templish daughter Faye, with no church connection, not even Sunday School for Faye. I believe Mr Carmen drank. I can picture him as a short sallow man in a grey hat. Hats seemed to me to be generally worn by men who were known for drinking. Pub bars in 6 o’clock swill photographs of the era are always a sea of hats. The thing I most remember about the Carmens was their brass front-door knocker in the form of the façade of Bath Abbey with the sculpted angels going up and down on the ladder to Heaven as dreamt by Jacob (Genesis 28 10-19). This image of Bath Abbey in miniature was the Carmans’ sole association with religion.

No. 36 Augusta Street now.

Between them and us were the OTooles, who you would think from the name might be Catholics but if so never went to Mass. Mr O’Toole was a barber in Glenhuntly Road, South Caulfield, with two teenage sons, one of whom I think I heard had been a server at St Agnes’s, the Anglican parish church in Booran Road not far away, whose tinkling single bell high in its red-brick neo-Romanesque tower could be heard over the rooftops three times each Sunday. St Agnes’s was chronically under-attended, an unusual enough phenomenon to have been commented on. Its sparse congregation might have been a result of its being quite “High” when most Anglicans, from the archbishop down, were “Low”. Indeed, my parents knew an Anglican family who lived almost opposite St Agnes’s but never went to it, preferring to travel several miles away to St Mary’s in Caulfield, which was resolutely Low (and thriving). Or perhaps its thin attendance had something to do with the vicar, Mr Harwood, who, though genial and scholarly, was not much of what we would now call a “communicator” whereas Canon Cooper, the incumbent of St Mary’s, was silver-tongued. Mr Harwood was the only Anglican cleric I have ever encountered who took a keen interest in the races. Providentially for him, Caulfield Racecourse was within the parish, and he was to be seen there many a weekend. He began my brother’s baptism with the words, “No more talking about races now till after the service, then if you’ll come to the vestry I’ll give you my tips for Saturday.” His cat used to wander up the aisle of the church and sit gazing at him from the sanctuary step when he was officiating at the altar.

Next to the O’Tooles came us, and next to us, in the southernmost half of the “pair” we occupied, were the Sinclairs. Mr Sinclair, a middle-aged stocky rather gruff man, was a projectionist at the Hoyts Esquire cinema in Bourke Street. He was prickly, and once asked my father who he thought he was when my father, urged by my mother, asked him to make less noise chopping wood late in his backyard because I, supposedly, couldn’t sleep. But since he was usually busy showing movies day and night, we never saw much of him. Mrs Sinclair was large in rather flowing garments like a literary “Soul” and gave the impression of having come down in the world. She gave me a somewhat battered copy of David Copperfield whichI still have. She told me that they were related to the Earl of Wemyss, a Scottish peer whose territorial title was their daughter Valerie’s second name. She didn’t say how they were related but I have looked up Debrett and in the seventeenth century a Wemyss married a Miss Sinclair, so perhaps it was through her. The Sinclairs also had a son called Graham. The family had no church connection. So far, then, that’s one family (us) I know went to church out of four.

Augusta Street was a dead end (agents would have called it a cul-de-sac). At right angles to the Sinclairs were the back gates of two quite substantial houses in Hawson Avenue, a slightly more upmarket address. One of these houses belonged to an elderly couple called Mr and Mrs Davies. Mr Davies was a carrier with a leather apron and truck. Mrs Davies was slight, shrivelled and nervous-looking. She was also unusual in being a parishioner of St Agnes’s. Every Sunday morning you could see her pass our front gate en route to the 8 o’clock service, never accompanied by her husband. Next to the Davies’ were the Trewhellas. To “the man on the land” this was once a very familiar name. The Trewhella family were the inventors and patenters of the Trewhella jack, used across Australia for grubbing up obstinate tree roots. They had a foundry which was a principal source of employment in the small town of Trentham, between Woodend and Daylesford, where I was born when my father was working at the garage there, and where the Trewhellas, like a snooty family in the big house on the hill whose son falls for the girl from the wrong side of the tracks in a 1940s film, had the most imposing house in the town.

The Glenhuntly Trewhellas were certainly not snooty. Jack Trewhella, who I imagine was a younger brother of the foundry-owning Trewhellas, was in his sixties (or he may have been younger: it’s difficult to tell when you’re a child) and did odd jobs as a carpenter. I think he was a widower, and his sister, Miss Trewhella, the sweetest and kindest old lady I have ever met, kept house for him. She befriended me and used to reminisce about Trentham while going about such old-fashioned country pursuits as cutting green beans into wedges and laying them out to dry in the sun on wide tin trays. She was very old-fashioned in dress, always in a long skirt and apron. There were two other members of the household, who were either Jack Trewhella’s daughters or nieces. One, Gladys, left to get married and I had little to do with her. The other, Jean, who lived in her own little cabin, or “sleepout”, in the backyard, was headmistress of the school for children with “special needs” in Montague Street, South Melbourne. Jack Trewhella was a friend of my maternal grandfather, who had an eclectic variety of friends in all sorts of places, and it was through him that my parents learned about the villa pair to rent in Augusta Street. We had to come to Melbourne from Trentham when I was three months old because my father took an “essential war job” repairing aircraft engines at Essendon aerodrome. The house in Glenhuntly was a godsend. It meant my mother could be close to her family and it had the additional merit of being far from Essendon, with less chance of being bombed in the Japanese air raids that, in early 1942, seemed imminent. (If the bombs had fallen on my father in Essendon during the day, that would have been just a risk of the job, I suppose).

None of the Trewhellas, as far as I know, ever went to church, though I imagine Gladys, like most brides at the time, was married in one.

At right angles to the Trewhellas’ back fence, facing our house across Augusta Street, was a handsome Edwardian house with verandahs and high roofs, lived in by Mrs Baker-Smith and her son Robbie Bobbie. I never saw a Mr Baker-Smith but I suppose he was there somewhere. Robbie Bobbie’s mother was buxom, curvaceous with a cascade of dark hair and always smiling. There was no indication that she went to church nor Robbie Bobbie to Sunday School. Next to them, in another Edwardian house – these would have been the original houses in the street, when Glenhuntly was market gardens and before spec. builders in the 1930s began lining the rest of the street with villa pairs – was a Miss Nichols. Every Melbourne suburban street in those days had at least one elderly single lady living alone in a family house, left to herself after years of having looked after an aged parent (few people went “into care” then) who died only after all marriage prospects for the daughter had vanished.

Perhaps because there were no children among them I didn’t know the families further up the street from Miss Nichols. But I knew two of those on the other, eastern, side, the Balls and the Jollys. They were very different. They both lived in villa pairs but not in the same circumstances. The Jollys were respectable. The Balls were borderline. The Jollys, Frank and Betty (they sound like characters in a children’s primer of the time) were not conspicuous churchgoers, though Mrs Jolly was later active in the Mothers’ Union at St Agnes’s and their elder son Billy became an Anglican priest in Tasmania. Mr Jolly was an industrial chemist who worked at Sigma. I remember him building a beautiful model steamship in his garage-workshop every weekend. Mr Ball, several doors away, was one of those husbands and fathers who were never seen. This was quite common then, though whether it was due to drink or depression or shyness or long hours of work was never clear. Where the garden and drive of the Jollys’ house were tidy and well tended, the Balls’s were neglected, with weeds and patches of bare earth in the drive that led to a rickety-looking garage without a car in it (also quite common). Neglected front yards of the time always seemed to include a broken pram or rusting bike, and the Balls may have had some such assortment of detritus. Mrs Ball had a faded, unmade-up look (again quite common) of the sort you see in photographs of housewives in food queues during the War. Their son Alan had jug ears and, a couple of years older than I, was sometimes available for masturbatory experimentation on himself, with me as a pre-pubescent audience, in the empty garage. I doubt that they ever went near a church.

Suburban life in many manifestations was on display around the corner from Augusta Street in “Otira”, the block of flats that took up much of Beverley Street. The tenants had the variety of a TV soap cast. The ones I knew were the ones who had children, though there were two women living alone in their flats whom one knew by sight. Miss Lewis had a cake shop in nearby Glenhuntly Road to which my mother sometimes went. She could be described as “quiet and refined” but I have no idea whether she was a churchgoer. And sometimes to be seen with her head out of an upstairs window, surveying the grassy yard in front of the flats with bulging exophthalmic eyes, was old Mrs Williams. A perpetual invalid, she couldn’t have got out to go to church if she’d wanted to.

The flats in Beverley Street now. The Mackenzies lived in the front ground-floor flat, Mrs Williams above them.

The children belonged to the Mackenzies and the Satchells on the ground floor. Mrs Mackenzie, Leslie, was a milliner, the kind of woman who spoke her own mind, tartly, with language not always of great refinement. She would not have been out of place presiding over a public bar. Her husband, Jock, large, bovine, red-faced and sandy-haired, was a groundsman at the Caulfield racecourse (though I once heard Mrs Mackenzie telling the Watkins door-to-door salesman that he was a plumber, which I imagine she thought more socially acceptable). I was particularly friendly, except on occasions when we fell out and I, weakling that I was, got “bashed up” by him, with their elder son Robert. I induced him to come to Sunday School at St Agnes’s, and once to church, to which he decided to ask his mother. I heard her, with theatrical eye-rollings, recounting this to the ogre-like visage of old Mrs Williams at her upstairs window, making it sound as though Robert had asked her to go to the moon. “You won’t believe what Robert wants me to do now.” “Oh?” “Go to church.” “Up here?” asked the Williams, nodding in the direction of St Agnes’s tower. “I wouldn’t be going any further” was the theme of her answer. I think she got out of going by telling Robert that they were Presbyterian. The Presbyterian church in Glenhuntly was safely distant across the railway line.

Robert was by tacit consent leader of the “gang” of neighbourhood kids which included his younger brother David and Ken Ritchie from further along Beverley Street. The Jolly children, Billy and his younger brother Edward, were never members, probably because their parents (rightly) thought the gang members “rough” (Billy and Edward were regarded in turn by the gang as “cissy”, though quite unfairly). The gang’s recreations were playing with cap pistols – the Mackenzies always had the largest giltest six-shooters – and going to the Saturday afternoon “matinee” in the cavernous mock-Moorish interior of the Hoyts Glenhuntly cinema with its Juliet balconies and wide blue ceiling in the guise of a starry firmament from which, over the years, the stars had one by one dropped out. This faded edifice has now, naturally, been demolished. Unlike my companions, my presence there was permitted “only on wet afternoons”.

Robert used also to go with me each Friday night after tea to visit a curious lady called Mrs Watts, who lived in a rather gloomy Victorian villa around the corner half-way up Augusta Street. She would make cake for us and we would sit and chat to her. The three of us were a strange combination. I would ask her about churchy things – she was a clergyman’s widow – and she would deliver herself of various arcane facts. (I don’t remember what Robert’s contribution was.) She told us once that the then Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Mowll, had been a missionary in China where he was a prisoner for a time of communists or rebels who “did something odd to his private parts.” She had very decided opinions. She detested Anglo-Catholics and thought the Anglican and Presbyterian churches should unite. She also loathed the Labor Party, and when I mentioned once that some of my mother’s family voted Labor she ordered me from the house (the ban was rescinded when I said that I wouldn’t vote Labor, whatever they did). I had met Mrs Watts through Sunday School at St Agnes’s. She was happy to teach there – although she once told the Superintendent, Mr Hinneberg, a tailor, that his theology was “up the spout” – but would never go to a service in the church, walking instead all the way across Caulfield Racecourse to the more acceptably Low St John’s in East Malvern, where, she said, the vicar and vestry would never countenance the “goings-on in St Agnes’s”. She would be very upset to know that St John’s is now High and has taken over the parish of St Agnes’s.  

Roman Catholics, even more than Anglo-Catholics, were among her bêtes-noires. She regarded them as scarcely Christian. The reason RCs could afford such capacious churches, she explained, was that the priest would approach parishioners who had contributed and say, “I want to see more than that next Sunday or you’ll have a front seat in Hell.” “She has some odd opinions, that lady,” said my mother when I related this aperçu.

St Agnes’s church in Booran Road.

In the Beverley Street flats the Satchells’ flat was next door to the Mackenzies’. Mr Satchell wore a leather jacket and went to whatever his work was loudly on a motorbike. Mrs Satchell was neat and brittle and wore very high heels you could hear some distance away, clacking on the concrete path as she made her way up the street. They had two sons, Barry and Paul, who never went to Sunday School nor their parents to any church. There was an embarrassing incident with Mr Satchell after Robert and I had been carrying out an informal and intimate exploration of each other’s lower parts in the communal laundry at the back of the flats, unaware that the laundry could be seen into from a bedroom window of the Satchells’ flat. A few days later Mr Satchell took me aside in the yard. “I saw what you were doing,” he said. He kindly didn’t tell my parents but I have occasionally wondered how long he was at the window.

I sometimes heard “the flats” dismissively referred to at home or by genteel neighbours and although my parents were in no way snobbish, nor would have considered themselves to have anything to be snobbish about, the impression was that the flats, particularly the children and particularly the Mackenzies, were a bit “common”. They were too – the Jollys were quite right. The boys didn’t do well at school and would drop the “g” on participles and say “was” instead of “were” as in ‘we was there yesterday”. This did not apply to the Palmer family, who lived over the Satchells in the flat next to Mrs Williams, and were “quiet”. They were slightly a breed apart, for they were Roman Catholics, or at least Mrs Palmer, a round woman with a bun, was, and their daughter Louise, who attended the local Catholic school, St Anthony’s. Mr Palmer, Dick, was either non-Catholic or non-practising. He was a quiet man, mild in manner, a plumber and a friend of my father. Their flat seemed foreign territory to me. I once gained access and noted, with a frisson of awareness of the exotic, something I had never seen before, a picture of the Sacred Heart with a little electric light in front of it. 

Opposite the flats was a substantial 1920s house where the only other Roman Catholics I knew of, the Hale family, lived. They were definitely a cut above the rest of us. Mr Hale had a large American car. Their son, Ross, also went to St Anthony’s. The large block next to the Hales’ was empty for years, with tall grass and dumped bits of junk. Each 5 November it was the site of a bonfire to celebrate the then widely observed Guy Fawkes Night, for which we would all stack high garden rubbish and branches of trees and, once alight, gather around and let off fireworks and crackers. Most of us had no idea who Guy Fawkes was, and had also forgotten, if anyone ever knew, that this was an anti-Catholic festivity, but as far as I know there were no protests from the Hales.  

Beyond the flats in Beverley Street were two detached houses whose occupants, partly by virtue of not living in a flat were more respectable. They were Mr and Mrs Ritchie, parents of Ken, and grumpy old Mr Morgan and his somewhat younger wife. I should say that neither family had any church connection. All the children were terrified of Mr Morgan, the builder and owner of the flats, who appeared only occasionally at his front gate in a bad temper to tick them off for no other reason than that they were there. He seemed to us ancient and must have had some debilitating illness which made his existence miserable.

Further on from the Ritchies’ was the largest house of our quartier on the corner of James Street. It was moderately grand, its two storeys making it unique in the neighbourhood, grey roughcast and with a walled garden which contained a fish pond, the elusive goldfish in which Robert Mackenzie and others and I sometimes sneaked in through an unlocked side gate to try to raid. The owners, who were called Furneaux and who, it was said, were plumbers, though they must have been on a larger scale than Dick Palmer, never caught us, little cowards that we were.

Beyond Beverley and Augusta Streets I knew no one. How many households was I familiar with in the quiet confined area where I felt at home? I have mentioned nineteen. How many had any association with a church? Five that I know of, of whom two were Roman Catholic, four I have no idea about but suspect were not churchgoers and ten with no connection at all. That makes the churchgoers 26.32 per cent, possibly higher but still less than half of the national 60 per cent represented by the principal Christian denominations. The three non-Catholic households with a church connection were Anglican, a denomination that in 1950 claimed 25 per cent of the population as adherents.

There are three caveats. One is that it is entirely likely that a large proportion of the non-church-attending claimed church membership on their census forms. It was unusual in 1950 to put “no religion”. It is also possible that some had had an association with a church earlier in life, or – though this is less likely – would acquire one later. Further, when we moved from Glenhuntly to Caulfield I encountered a much higher proportion of churchgoers, particularly Anglicans. St Mary’s, the parish church, was crowded every Sunday, and in our own street of twelve houses, three were actively Anglican and a fourth and fifth had an Anglican connection through occasional churchgoing or enrolment in an Anglican school. This was probably typical for a solidly middle-class suburb of that sort at that time, one that was certainly more “middle” than Glenhuntly. It would not have been typical over a wider area.


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.