MYRNIONG UNITING CHURCH

(FORMERLY PRESBYTERIAN)
OLD WESTERN HIGHWAY, PENTLAND HILLS

Closed as unsafe, though its congregation wants to repair it.  

Boarded up and fenced off, Myrniong’s 159-year-old Uniting church from the north-east.

“Position, position, position,” as estate agents used to say and perhaps still do. This tiny church occupies one of the best positions of any church anywhere. That will be its attraction when it’s sold to someone wanting to convert it into a house with “divine panoramic views”, as the agent’s blurb will no doubt say.

The Myrniong Uniting church stands outside the town high on a brow of the Pentland Hills, looking down on a spectacular landscape of valley and plains, with the Werribee Gorge cutting a deep gash in the middle distance and the You Yangs dark and jagged against the thin blue line of far-off Port Phillip. It’s the kind of location chosen by Mediaeval fortress builders to command a strategic pass. The main road from Melbourne to Ballarat used to run right past the front gate, but is now a secondary route and the church gazes out instead over the speeding traffic on the Western Freeway below, climbing and descending, usually too fast, the steep gradient from Bacchus Marsh.

Well-crafted and satisfyingly substantial, the Myrniong Uniting church from the north-west. The pinnacle on the front gable is matched by pinnacles on either side, but instead of rising from the parapet as you would expect, they are perched on corbels projecting from the top of the wall. The east end has lost its side pinnacles.
Detail of wall, window and buttresses. All windows are surrounded by quoins
(raised stone blocks that stand out from the wall).
Vestry with chimney and the west wall of the Myrniong Uniting church.
“The church is built of rough-cut freestone of a lovely tawny colour.”

The church was built during 1861 and 1862 for the Presbyterians of the district when Melbourne was a mere quarter of a century old. It is a plain building typical of an era when wool and gold had not yet injected the fulness of their wealth into the colony of Victoria. The congregation joined the Uniting Church in the 1970s.

The Pentland Hills church is built of rough-cut freestone of a lovely tawny colour, as though the stone blocks were honeycomb. The architect was William Douglas (or Douglass) of whom little is known except that he designed a substantial Congregationalist church, now also secularised, in his home town of Kyneton. The plan is a simple rectangle of four bays and at the eastern end a vestry. The main façade, sides and vestry are buttressed, with angled buttresses at the corners. The slate roofs are gabled. The vestry gable is capped with a chimney, a vestry or sacristy fireplace being an almost universal feature in nineteenth-century churches where clergy would arrive after a long ride on horseback, feeling the winter cold and perhaps wet through as well.

The Myrniong Uniting church and its view down from the Pentland Hills. 

This is a well-crafted, satisfyingly solid-looking and well-proportioned church, Gothic in style, if by that one means it has pointed windows. The west-facing façade is plain, with a central door and flanking lancet windows and a roundel above. There are some rather odd details. The pinnacle on the front gable (there is no cross) is matched by pinnacles on either side, but instead of rising from the parapet as you would expect, they are perched on corbels projecting from the top of the wall. The east end has lost its side pinnacles. The lancet windows on façades and sides are edged with quoins, that is, raised stone blocks that stand out from the wall. These are in ashlar, smooth blocks of dressed stone cut to fit closely together. Lewis suggests that it was originally intended to stucco the rough-cut walls externally, covering their outer surface to be level with the quoins.

This church is now closed and locked with windows boarded up and security mesh all around it. So is the newish hall at the back, which was used for a mix of congregational and community events, as rural church premises should be. The Uniting Church authorities put the property up for sale in 2019 after the local council declared the church unsafe. Restoration was said by a Uniting Church spokesman to be “beyond the financial capacity of the small congregation”. The small congregation disputes this, a representative saying that they had been “in the process of sourcing funding” to carry out the repair works before the Uniting Church’s decision to sell. There are two sides to every story of course, but this is not the first time the Uniting Church has been accused of disposing of a small country church over the heads of its congregation.

“We felt very in the dark about it,” the Moorabool News quoted congregation member Emma Muir as saying. “and we felt sad that we couldn’t celebrate the 160 years of the church.” She said the closure was “like losing a friend.”

The panorama from the church grounds. The Western Freeway is in the middle distance, with the Werribee Gorge just beyond and the You Yangs and Port Phillip on the horizon.

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

ST JAMES’S, MORRISONS

(ANGLICAN)
TABLELAND ROAD, MORRISONS

Idly dreaming beside the pines.

Solitary among the pines, St James’s, Morrisons.

This church is remote and hard to find among the stands of green-black pines and the straggly gums that screen it from the road, until you round a bend and there it is. It looks abandoned, idly dreaming in pinaceous solitude without even a cart track across the grass to the door. Only a diminutive notice with service times, affixed to a front buttress – one of those much altered notices with previous times heavily blocked out – betrays this to be a still living church. A newish house over the fence and a shed or two represent the physical presence of Morrisons, the locality in which St James’s church stands.

Morrisons is on a tableland south of Ballan, 99 kilometres west of Melbourne, though probably few people outside the district have heard of it. St James’s comes as a surprise: a substantial church for such a lonely place – solid brick too, in a district where many churches are built of timber or bluestone. It’s the sort of church you’d see on a Melbourne suburban corner. But Morrisons was bigger when St James’s was built. The 1903 Australian Handbook lists the locality as having two churches, two schools, two pubs, four stores, a creamery and as being a centre of alluvial gold-seeking on the Moorabool River. All that is past. At the last census Morrisons had a population of 128, of whom few these days are attenders at St James’s. “About five or six,” a local told me when I asked how many usually turn up for the two monthly services. I asked if he thought the church at risk of closure. “I can’t see much of a future for it,” he said. St James’s in fact is living off the capital of the past, with an endowment to keep the building in repair.



Left The tower seen from the chancel end.
 
Above The foundation stone, laid in 1924.

Right Buttress and parapet detail at the corner of nave and façade.

This is not the first Anglican church at Morrisons. An earlier weatherboard structure was dismantled and moved to Lethbridge near Geelong in 1924 (it has since disappeared). On 3 July that year the foundation stone of the new church was laid by Frances Hill Molesworth, wife of John Matheson Molesworth of Ballark, a sheep property not far away, still lived in by the Molesworths who have been there over a hundred years. The consecration took place on Trinity Sunday 1927.

Tower, nave and chancel of St James’s, Morrisons. The body of the church is under one roof without a change of level for the chancel, which would be more usual.  

The newer church is of red brick with cement dressings and a tiled roof (which may not be original. Slate would have been more usual). I have been unable to find any record of architect or builder. The Ballark homestead looks as though it had modernising work carried out in the 1920s so there may be a connection with the building of the church around that time.

Yet there must have been an architect because for a remote country church the design is not simple and correct detailing has not been spared. For example all the windows have hood moulds, a decorative device but one with the original practical purpose of deflecting rainwater. Construction would have cost quite a bit too. Apparently the Molesworth family paid for most of it, as large landowners in a more devout age sometimes did.

St James’s was designed, according to an account at Ballark, to look like “an English parish church”. It doesn’t really, in part because of the very Australian red brick and tiles, but you can see what they were driving at. The building style could be defined as Australian vernacular Gothic, very common among churches of the first half of the twentieth century. In plan the church consists of a rectangular nave of three bays with buttresses and a single-bay chancel, both under one roof. A vestry is attached at the (geographical) north-west (the church is not oriented).  A gabled baptistery alcove with single pointed window projects from the middle of the nave façade with a trefoil in the upper nave wall above it. At the south-east corner is the church’s most prominent feature, a low square tower with louvred bell openings and a coffered parapet with quatrefoils in the coffers. There is a weathervane on top and the entrance porch below.

Chancel, vestry and nave of St James’s, Morrisons. Note the uneven gable, where the roof slopes lower on the west side to intersect with the gabled roof of the vestry. The weathervane on the tower can be glimpsed above the roof ridge.

The end wall of the chancel is blank but there are two lateral windows and windows in each bay of the nave, several with good stained glass. The chancel roof has an uneven gable, where the roof slopes further down on one side over the internal chancel wall to cover an organ chamber and intersect with the gabled roof of the vestry.

Morrisons, now spelt without the possessive, is short for Morrison’s run or land. Minor country roads in Victoria are often known by a past owner’s name but seldom geographical localities. Hugh Morrison bought the sheep run then called Moreep in 1856. He later retired to Geelong but there was still a Thomas Morrison farming at Morrisons in the early twentieth century.  On 18 May 1915 he was away in hospital in Ballarat with “miner’s complaint” – tuberculosis; he had presumably been at some point a prospector – when his wife and young son were shot and bludgeoned to death by Mrs Morrison’s brother, who then set the farmhouse on fire and killed himself. The remains of their bodies were discovered in the ruins.

Light and shade with windows and buttress on the nave wall. The hood moulds above the windows are to protect the window aperture from rainwater.

As the sun dips low behind the pines and the west wind shears across the tableland, this is a haunted-seeming place and St James’s, enfolded in shadow, could be a ghost church. It isn’t, yet, but if rural churchgoing declines further, who knows?

St James’s enfolded in shadow as the sun sinks behind the pines.

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

SCOTS CHURCH, BALLARAT

(PRESBYTERIAN)
LYDIARD STREET, BALLARAT

Its graceful spire is one of only three in Ballarat.

The spire and façade of Scots Church, Ballarat, make a fine composition. 

This charming and unpretentious brick church on Soldiers Hill was built for the Presbyterians of North Ballarat in 1890 to a Gothic-inspired design by local architects Figgis & Molloy. Its spire, slender and graceful and visible from all over north Ballarat, is its most attractive feature. It is one of only three spires in the city: the others are on St Andrew’s Kirk and the former Congregationalist church in Mair Street, now the Pentecostal Ballarat Christian Fellowship.

Presbyterians outside Scotland often called one of their churches in big towns the Scots Church, usually with a possessive, instead of giving it one of the few saints’ names their robust protestantism permitted (St Andrew, St Giles, St George and a few others). This indicated the continuing attachment of Scottish migrants to their homeland and the traditions of the Church of Scotland in which they had grown up.

The foundation stone of Scots Church was laid on 5 July 1890 by Sir James MacBain, Scottish-born businessman and president of the Victorian Legislative Council.

The Scots Church spire rises from an octagonal drum on a square buttressed tower of two stages on the north-eastern corner of the building. It makes a handsome composition with the elaborate principal façade, of which the central feature is a large window with a brick central mullion and stone tracery in English Decorated Gothic. There are twin porches at the base of the façade and a chequered gable at the top in which is inserted a vescica piscis, a favourite motif of Gothic Revivalists that translates as, and supposedly resembles, a fish bladder.

The church is on a rectangular plan without transepts. The nave is of six bays, buttressed externally. The building remains incomplete and there is a concrete wall, intended to be temporary, across the end of the nave where a chancel or organ chamber was to be added. A single-storey vestry is beyond this.

The foundation stone of Scots Church, Ballarat, was laid on 5 July 1890.

While still open and functioning, the Scots Church has but a small and largely elderly congregation and one wonders how it can survive for many more years without new members. It is melancholy to think that, apart from the Presbyterian component in the numerically declining Uniting Church, only three Presbyterian congregations survive in Ballarat to represent the Scottish religious tradition that was once so influential in the city and throughout the Western District. 

Scots Church seen from the vestry end. The concrete wall above the vestry roof closes off the nave where an extension was intended.
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

ST ANDREW’S, DAYLESFORD

(PRESBYTERIAN)
CAMP STREET, DAYLESFORD

An impressive church gazing with forlorn dignity over a town that has no use for it.

Autumn colours soften the starkness of the neglected grounds of St Andrew’s, Daylesford. The obtrusiveness of power lines in the Australian streetscape is often underestimated.
In countries with a higher sense of public aesthetics they are underground.

The coronavirus has not so much concentrated my mind as concentrated my sphere of activity on an area close to home. This will account for what might seem an over-representation of Ballarat and district among these posts. That there is a disproportionate number of churches at risk in this region is a fortunate or unfortunate coincidence, depending on the way you look at it.

St Andrew’s, Daylesford, is a tragic case of a notable building closed and abandoned. It stands high over the town on a steep hill and is visible from far and wide. Its Presbyterian congregation moved out in 2002 to smaller premises because the church had become “too hard to maintain”. It was sold that year, with estimates that it would bring over a million dollars, and a local agent intoning, as they all do when a church comes up for sale, that it “had the potential to be turned into a home, function area or theatre”. In the event it became none of these. Whoever bought it has made no changes to the building, and seems scarcely to have carried out basic maintenance. The grounds around are overgrown with tangled shrubs and weeds. A stark notice on an entrance pier warns PRIVATE PROPERTY. DO NOT GO BEYOND GATE (there is no gate; it must have fallen off).  The former manse next door, an imposing two-storey edifice from which the minister of St Andrew’s must have had the best view of Daylesford of anyone, is much better looked after and is open to one and all (for a price) as a bed-and-breakfast.

Visitors not welcome. Do not venture through this gateway. The steep steps lead up through untidy grounds to a path that ends at the open entrance of the porch
Porch gable and south-western pavilion on the facade of St Andrew’s. The pyramid roof at the left has ben adapted to form a base for the tower. Note the trailing wire where the power has been cut off.

St Andrew’s was designed by Ballarat architects Clegg & Miller. George William Clegg (1870-1958) had been articled to Tappin, Gilbert and Dennehy (for Tappin see St Thomas Aquinas’s, Clunes) who had offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Ballarat. Gilbert at one point ran their Ballarat office. Between about 1907 and 1918 Clegg taught architecture and building construction at the Ballarat School of Mines.

The foundation stone of St Andrew’s was laid in 1903 by Mrs Jessie Leggatt of a prominent Daylesford family (there is a Leggatt Street in the town). Mrs Leggatt gave the money to build the church and her marble memorial plaque remains affixed inside the empty porch, on view to passers-by. St Andrew’s was opened the following year.

St Andrew’s, Daylesford, on its steep site above the street.

The church is built of rosy red brick with stone dressings and slate roof. The style is a modified English Decorated, a bit Collegiate in its effect. The design of the façade is ingenious. The west front of the nave with its tall central and lower lateral windows, all of two lights, rises above a narthex which has been set forward and is entered through a gabled arch opening into an open porch running the width of the nave. At the south end is a pavilion with castellated parapet and pyramid roof. This is echoed at the north end by the base of the tower, for which the planes of the pyramid have been turned into broaches. Out of these rises the octagonal form of the tower, which has louvred bell openings with horizontal hood moulds in the upper stage and a crenellated parapet. The details are lovely; there are even gargoyles beneath the parapet, which is capped by a short copper spirelet. The whole is French Gothic rather than the English of the rest of the church.

The weatherboard hall behind St Andrew’s is in a ruinous state. It would once have echoed to the voices of Sunday School children singing rousing metrical psalms in the Scottish tradition..

The church interior is a plain hall with an arched organ chamber instead of a chancel. The organ remains in the empty building and is of some interest. It was built by E. Cornwall Cook in 1904 and renovated two years later, because of mechanical defects, by George Fincham & Son. It is one of only two organs by Cook known to survive; the other is at St Andrew’s Uniting (originally Presbyterian) church, Echuca (see the Organ Historical Trust of Australia gazetteer https://www.ohta.org.au/organs/organs/DaylesfordPres.html).

Daylesford with its spas was a popular weekend designation until the 1920s but declined somewhat after. It was re-invigorated in the 1980s and now sees itself as a “gourmet resort”. An influx of retired folk has set the town growing again but God is not high on Daylesford’s list of priorities and four other churches near St Andrew’s – Anglican, Roman Catholic, a “community church” and a fine former Methodist, now Uniting, building with a landmark spire – give the impression of just hanging on, while St Andrew’s itself languishes unused, a melancholy comment on the spirit of the age. In a town that cared about architecture it would be in the visitors’ guide.

Seen from the opposite hill, St Andrew’s church looks out over Daylesford. The former manse is to the left of the church. Daylesford’s Catholic and Anglican churches can be glimpsed to the right.

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

ST PAUL’S, BOX HILL

(FORMER LUTHERAN)
STATION STREET, BOX HILL

Squeezed out by the high-rises.

St  Paul’s, Box Hill: condemned to demolition after its site sold for $29.5 million.

It is no new thing for a church to be sold for the value of its land. In Melbourne this happened as long ago as 1913 when the historic site on which St James’s Old Cathedral had stood since 1842 was sold and the building moved block by block to West Melbourne. It happened in 1957 when St John’s, Latrobe Street, near Elizabeth Street, was sold and demolished. In the 1980s St John’s Lutheran church in City Road, South Melbourne, was demolished, but replaced, in the Southbank redevelopment. Now a second Lutheran church has had to make way for urban reconstruction, this time in Box Hill.

St Paul’s is in Station Street, right in the heart of the area lit upon by an alliance of skyscraper-dazzled government planners, big-time developers and Chinese money to turn streets of shops in a Melbourne suburb into their version of Shanghai. Gleaming iridescent towers of apartments, all fully Feng Shui-compliant no doubt, and all ludicrously out of proportion to the original buildings among which they sprout, have increased the population density twenty-fold. Even on Sunday mornings, the district around St Paul’s is jammed with traffic, and this is a principal reason for the church being sold. Many of its congregation come from considerable distances (Lutheran churches in Melbourne are scattered) and need their cars to get there, but as the church’s website puts it, a “survey of the congregation in 2015 found that worshippers were already finding it more difficult to travel along Station Street and find a convenient park.” Since then the jams have got worse every time a new masterpiece in the Asian International style rears its obtrusive bulk over Box Hill’s crowded hub.

The nave and chancel of St Paul’s, Box Hill, are under one long roof.

St Paul’s was designed by Melbourne architect P. J. O”Connor, most of whose work was for Roman Catholic churches (St Roch’s, Glen Iris, St Thérèse, Ballarat). It was opened and dedicated on 11 April 1954. The style is postwar cream-brick simplified Neo-Gothic. Nave and chancel are under one long steep tiled roof, with short lateral gabled vestries at the west end, where the chancel is. At the south-east corner are the base and crenellated first stage of a tower with a porch and entrance at ground level. The west front, with a trefoil window, looks incomplete. Were its small doors intended to lead into an extension beneath the window? Most of the other windows have segmental arches. The east end on Station Street has windows in the form of a stylised cross let into the brickwork, with a central glazed roundel and glazed arms. These are not remotely Neo-Gothic. Neither is the more recent flat-roofed two-storey extension of hall and offices to the north, with a vaguely Post-Modern canopy over the windows and garages below.

The unfinished west end of St Paul’s, Box Hill and the more recent extension beyond.  

St Paul’s and its ancillary buildings were sold in 2018 (for $29.5 million!) but remained open by agreement until March this year. The church has been deconsecrated and emptied of its fittings. The buildings will be demolished in the next year or two.

Though not a building of particular distinction, this church ought to be missed when it goes. Churches glimpsed down canyons of tall buildings contribute a civilising note. They invite reflection on less transitory things than the getting and spending of commercial and real estate ventures. What would Wall Street be like without Trinity Church, or the City of London without its churches by Wren? And what pressure to sell must they have been under over the years?

High-rise towers loom over the suburban roofs of Box Hill.
The former St James’s Uniting church in Box Hill South, built in 1964, is the new home of the St Paul’s Lutheran congregation.

The St Paul’s congregation has moved to Box Hill South, to a church that would have been at risk if they hadn’t bought it. This is the former St James’s Uniting church in Riversdale Road, a light-filled airy building that opened as a Presbyterian church in 1964. It was designed by Chancellor & Patrick in the low, angular uncluttered style with lateral clerestory and sloping roofs they also applied to their domestic architecture.

St Paul’s Lutheran church, Box Hill, as it won’t be much longer. A high-rise building will occupy this site.

ST JOSEPH’S, BLAMPIED

(ROMAN CATHOLIC)
MIDLAND HIGHWAY, BLAMPIED

Left to the rats and bats.

Satisfying to look at in its solidity and proportions: the bluestone bulk of St Joseph’s, Blampied.

St Joseph’s, Blampied, well illustrates the kind of church nineteenth-century rural faith was capable of building and twenty-first-century indifference doesn’t want to know about. It is a substantial bluestone building, very satisfying to look at in its solidity and proportions, and stands as a landmark on its hill beside the Midland Highway between Newlyn and Eganstown. 

St Joseph’s was built between 1869 and 1874 to the design of an amateur, E. Shepardson, who was a schoolteacher at Eganstown (though Lewis puts an “allegedly” against this attribution). Whoever the designer was, he had a very good model to guide him in the Roman Catholic church at Daylesford, thirteen kilometres away, begun a few years earlier and designed by one of the masters of Gothic Revival in Australia, William Wardell (1823-1899) whose principal works include St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, St. John’s, Toorak and St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney.  The influence of the English architect Charles Hansom (1817-1888), who though he never came to Australia devised the design of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat, may also be detected, particularly in the windows. 

High on its hill in the serene central Victorian landscape:
St Joseph’s, Blampied, looking west from the Midland Highway.

St Joseph’s consists of a nave of five bays, a large chancel and lateral sacristies with a double gable, not often seen on country churches. There is no porch, probably for economy; quite a few country RC churches are like this, where you walk in straight through the door into the nave – but where did the congregation put their umbrellas and mackintoshes as they arrived for Mass in this district of heavy rains? 

The chancel of St Joseph’s has a three-light east window high up with sandstone tracery in English Decorated style; the same style is seen in the nave windows which are of two lights with trefoil above. Several windows contain good stained glass.

The fine east-facing chancel window in English Decorated style.

Blampied is more a locality than a township. It is named after Swiss-born Louis Blampied, who built the Swiss Mountain Hotel on the highway, still functioning today. The local settlers, many of whom were Catholics from Switzerland and Ireland, exhibited a high degree of piety in commissioning and paying for a church of the quality and size of St Joseph’s. 

The church still had about thirty regular parishioners (“with twice that number at Christmas,” according to the Ballarat Courier) when the dead hand of redundancy fell upon it in March 2018. As at Clunes and St Thérèse’s, Ballarat the reason given for the closure was the unavailability of a priest. As the Courier reported, when parishioners were told five years ago that the church was marked for closure, they “tried hard to find another priest to lead their congregation. They said it was an impossible effort as there are simply not enough young priests to replace the older priests who are moving on.” You hear this story over and over again. Large tracts of western Victoria, from the coast to the Mallee, where once there might have been a half a dozen separate parishes, have been bundled together under one priest, with the consequent closure of churches in remoter communities.

The sacristies of St Joseph’s with double gables are unusual for a country church.

At least no attempts have yet been made to sell St Joseph’s and the church is still, officially, available for weddings and funerals. It is also used for a concert or two during the annual Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields festival each January, though as a festival official told me, “we have to give it a good clean first because of the rats and bats.”

Footnote. Many of the early Irish and Swiss settlers of Blampied are buried in St Francis Xavier’s cemetery up the road from St Joseph’s in the Daylesford direction. The small weatherboard chapel, built 1865-1867, is surrounded by graves and is well looked after.

St Jospeh’s, Blampied, has been closed for services since March 2018.

ST JOHN’S, PORT ALBERT

(ANGLICAN)
RAGLAN STREET, PORT ALBERT

Township’s sole surviving church of four is now threatened with closure.

St John’s, Port Albert, before recent renovations. Note the pretty fretwork on the bargeboards. (Picture: Ray Brown, https://fergusonandurie.wordpress.com/ (20200424)

Little country churches like St John’s, Port Albert, are the bane of the ecclesiastical bureaucrat. They have tiny congregations, require regular maintenance, and are too small and poor to maintain their own incumbent. The priest or minister from the bigger town some distance away, whose parish generally includes two or three other small churches as well, must build into his schedule a fortnightly or monthly visit. It’s a long drive there and back, and all to minister to a congregation of six. Why, thinks, the bureaucrat, can’t they get in their cars and drive to the main church?

And in many, many cases now they do, if they don’t give up going to church altogether when their little church is closed by order of the distant authorities. St John’s, Port Albert, is an exception to this trend. The Anglican diocese of Gippsland wants to close it. The congregation wants to keep it, and have so far succeeded. As long as this dispute remains unresolved, St John’s is a church at risk. 

Port Albert is a straggling township that was once a port of some substance but is now peopled mainly by a few fishermen and weekenders. It used to have four churches. St John’s is the only one left.

Three-light stained-glass chancel window at St John’s is by the celebrated Melbourne firm Ferguson & Urie.
(Picture: Ray Brown, https://fergusonandurie.wordpress.com/ (20200424)

It was built in 1884 after fire destroyed an earlier church. Parishioners managed to save the simple timber furnishings, which remain in St John’s today. The style of the building is basic Australian rural church: a hall of timber construction with a porch and chancel, ironwork bell tower and pointed windows in emulation of Gothic. There is some pretty local craftsmanship in the form of decorative bargeboards on the roof and porch gables. The three-light window at the east end, installed in 1885 and restored in 1999, is a fine example of the work of celebrated Melbourne stained-glass designers and manufacturers Ferguson & Urie, who were in business between 1853 and 1899. The central light shows the women at the Empty Tomb on Easter morning. This is believed to be the only window by Ferguson & Urie in a timber building. 

Like most nineteenth-century coastal churches St John’s contains shipwreck memorabilia, in this case of the paddle-steamer Clonmel which went aground not far away in 1841, happily without serious casualties.

St John’s was on the point of being deconsecrated when some enterprising parishioners decided to save it. They formed the Friends of St John’s in 2014 and say they now have a growing congregation. They have been without a vicar for eighteen months and have been helped out for services by clerical volunteers. The Friends have raised money through a variety of social and other activities and from the sales of a history of the church by local historian Melva James. This has allowed them to renovate the church, repaint it outside, build a new picket fence and replant the gardens. St John’s is now in good condition for its continued use, if the diocese of Gippsland relents on its wish to close it.

Readers who would care to help the ongoing maintenance of St John’s can contact Peter Coates at peter.coates@internode.on.net

A representation of the women at the Empty Tomb forms the lower panel of the central window at St John’s.
(Picture: Ray Brown, https://fergusonandurie.wordpress.com/ (20200424)

ST ANSELM’S, MIDDLE PARK

(FORMERLY ANGLICAN)
PARK AND LANGRIDGE STREET, MIDDLE PARK

Closed and subdivided after a century of worship.

St Anselm’s, on the corner of Park Road and Langridge Street, Middle Park, was closed in 2001 and converted into flats. The spirelet on the roof is a typical design of the architect Louis Williams. 

St Anselm’s is a neat little church on a tight street-corner site in the bayside suburb of Middle Park. On a stormy day you can hear the rumble of the breakers on the beach several streets to the west – and the scream of motor racing from several streets to the east when the Grand Prix requisitions Albert Park each March. 

Middle Park is a solidly red-brick Edwardian suburb with a few surviving Victorian villas. After the Second World War, at a time of housing shortage and building restrictions, it became a district of landladies and furnished rooms. Its houses have since been elaborately refurbished and Middle Park is now one of Melbourne’s most expensive and smartest places to live. But as already observed in this blog, when the upwardly mobile move in, church congregations decline; which is not a very flattering reflection on the persuasiveness of religious educators in the nominally Christian schools that most of these prosperous residents will have attended and to which they send their children. 

A chancel window. The coloured glass has been inserted since the closure of the church.

This was the trajectory with Middle Park’s Methodist church in Richardson Street, where a diminished congregation saw the sale (and subsequent conversion into maisonettes) of their handsome cruciform brick building after the formation of the Uniting Church. But St Anselm’s managed to retain some loyal attenders, attracted in part by its High Church services, right up until 2001 when the diocese declared it surplus to requirements and amalgamated it with the larger St Silas’s, a towering half-built masterpiece by Louis Williams (1890-1980) a kilometre or so away, to form the “Parish of the Parks”.  

The foundation stone of St Anselm’s was laid on 7 March 1922 by the dashing Harrington Clare Lees, a sporty Englishman who’d been appointed Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne the year before. The architects were Sale and Keach, of whom I can find no information beyond their names on the foundation stone. Their building replaced a timber church on the site.

The foundation stone of St Anselm’s was laid in 1922.
This plaque was placed on St Anselm’s ten years before closure.

St Anselm’s is a simple rectangular hall with an entrance at the south-west corner and a short chancel added later to a design by Louis Williams, judging by the style. He also added the pert little spirelet on the roof, very typical Williams, similar to the one he placed on St Stephen’s, Darebin (now also a house). Williams designed some furniture for St Anselm’s (some of it now at St Silas’s) and must have made alterations to the original church as well, such as adding his characteristic square-headed widows with tracery at the top – though the tracery disappeared from all but the chancel windows during the conversion of St Anselm’s into flats, or should I say, “town houses”. The narrow two-storey vicarage beside the church was retained as a single house. Last year someone paid $3,350,000 for it.

St Anselm’s was closed in 2001 and sold – though one suspects for nothing like that amount. The interior was carved up and partitioned, a spiral staircase was crammed in and skylights cut in the roof leaving nothing ecclesiastical about the building except the cross on the gable and the desperate attempts at wit of the estate agents’ spiel whenever a flat inside St Anselm’s comes on the market – a “heavenly conversion”, “divine living”, even “praying for a seven-figure sale”. Oh yes, the spirelet was suffered to remain, as was the plaque on the front placed there in 1991 to commemorate “100 years of Anglican witness and worship in Middle Park”. Ten years later the witness and worship stopped. 

The west front of St Anselm’s from Park Street. 

This being a website about churches at risk of demolition or alteration, it must be admitted that St Anselm’s has undergone its time at risk and survived as a building, though completely altered inside. But prices being what they are in Middle Park, the church remains vulnerable to “redevelopment” of the site for a block of many more flats than the shell of St Anselm’s can contain. 

A side view of St Anselm’s looking west along Langridge Street.

ST THOMAS AQUINAS’S, CLUNES

(FORMERLY ROMAN CATHOLIC)
BAILEY STREET, CLUNES

Unfinished but impressive, and sold because no priest was available.

St Thomas Aquinas’s is a four-bay fragment of what was intended to be a much bigger church for the gold-mining town of Clunes. When the gold ran out there was no money to complete it.

The existing building is the nave of what would have been a very imposing church, designed for a town that was a rich centre of gold mining in central Victoria. More than a thousand people attended the opening on 9 March 1873.

St Thomas Aquinas’s was designed by Henry Richards Caselli and W. B. Tappin and built in 1873-1874. The Cornish-born Caselli (1816-1924) is known for many churches and public buildings in central and western Victoria, among them St Alipius’s in Ballarat and Christ Church, Hamilton, with its massive spire. Tappin (died 1905) also worked on St Alipius’s and designed the French Gothic chapel of Loreto Convent, Ballarat. Both architects were masters of Gothic Revival. It has been suggested that for Clunes they based their design on plans by English architect Charles Hansom (1817-1888) for St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat and St Patrick’s, Port Fairy. The façades in particular are similar.  

Solid well-buttressed bluestone construction on the nave and side aisle of St Thomas Aquinas’s church. Builders’ rubbish lying around indicates alterations inside.

When the gold at Clunes ran out, the town – which has a number of handsome public buildings, put up in expectation of its becoming an important regional centre – settled down to a gentle decline embalmed in its own past. It remains a little-changed example of a nineteenth-century small Victorian country town with a main street that is largely as it was a century or more ago. A bit too far from Melbourne (140 kilometres) for the well-to-do looking for weekenders, in the 1960s Clunes began to attract a few sub-bohemian urban arties manqués who established themselves in its run-down cottages, bought for next to nothing, where they could sit around listening to Bob Dylan and drinking rough red. It also acquired a reputation for second-hand bookshops.

In recent years, the building of a country campus for a leading Melbourne school, the reopening of the railway station and the advent of “tree-changers” means Clunes has begun to grow again, which of course is just the moment chosen by the Roman Catholic diocese of Ballarat to close St Thomas Aquinas’s and sell it. The excuse is not enough priests, though you’d think one could drive over from Creswick 18 kilometres away for an hour or so on Sunday, or even from Maryborough, which is all of 33 kilometres away. Country clergy at the time St Thomas Aquinas’s was opened would have thought nothing of riding all day on a horse to say Mass for distant parishioners.  

Once sold in 2018, St Thomas Aquinas’s passed into the usual limbo of churches acquired by private owners. Sometimes they just sit empty while various planning permissions are sought and then get resold at a substantial profit. At one point St Thomas Aquinas’s was to be turned into a commercial art gallery, though it’s not known whether this plan is going ahead. In any event it has been thoroughly gutted inside – not that the furnishings were ever up to much. A French harmonium organ dating from the opening of the church has gone to the Clunes museum. A relic of the Angelic Doctor after whom the church was named has gone heaven knows where.

St Thomas Aquinas’s is built of bluestone, with dressings in what looks like sandstone. In its unfinished state it consists of a nave of four bays with arcaded side aisles and clerestories above and one side porch. The (liturgical) west front, which rises high over the sloping site, has a window of four lights and intricate tracery in the English Decorated style and is further embellished by statuary niches (empty) The church was to have had a tower at its (liturgical) north-west corner – you can see the unfinished angles where the stones would have slotted in – and a proper chancel, but now never will.  

Unfinished stonework where a corner tower was to have abutted the nave of St Thomas Aquinas’s, Clunes. The blocked arch would have opened into the side aisle.

As a building St Thomas Aquinas’s is so obviously a church it should never have been sold for secular usage. Could it not have been mothballed on a care and maintenance basis in case a priest could be found for occasional Masses? The Anglicans still have their large church in Clunes and are restoring the organ. As I have written elsewhere, part of the function of a building’s design is to express its purpose, and to see a church that turns out on closer inspection to be something else is an offence against aesthetics and logic.

A fine four-light window with English Decorated tracery distinguishes the main front of St Thomas Aquinas’s, Clunes. The picket fence is an attractive piece of old-fashioned rural craftsmanship.

ST STEPHEN’S, HIGHETT

(ANGLICAN)
DONALD STREET, HIGHETT

Empty for seven years and demolished overnight. 

St Stephen’s, Highett, as it was until the end of March 2020.  An earlier hall that served as a church is on the left.

This church was at risk when I wrote the description that follows. It had been sold in 2013 but was still standing locked and empty. Out of the blue it was demolished in late March, before I could get a photograph. 

The location of St Stephen’s was typical of more than a few Anglican churches built in the expanding suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. Not for them the big corner sites in the main streets with room for a school and perhaps a convent. They all seemed to go, along with the hilltop sites of popular sectarian legend, to the RCs. And when the Anglicans did obtain such a site, they seldom made the most of it. Witness St James’s, Glen Iris, which should have had a towering 1920s Louis Williams edifice with a spire visible from all over the eastern suburbs, and received instead – thanks to that nemesis of many a grand plan, a depression and war – a 1950s box (not without architectural merit); or St Matthew’s, Ashburton, which never progressed beyond a dual-purpose hall, just clinging on as a church today with the help of a South Indian congregation.

St Stephen’s occupied four house blocks among the brick and timber dwellings of a narrow residential street, away from shops, schools and what is now called the train station. Were the Anglican diocesan planners caught on the hop when sites for churches were being acquired in new suburbs? Were the Anglican laity not as munificent as RCs in donating land, or in what they put into the plate? Whatever the reason, there are several suburbs where the local Anglican church is or was out of the way somewhere among the tiled roofs of an anonymous-looking street. St Thomas’s, Ferntree Gully, St Silas’s, North Balwyn, and the Epiphany, Oakleigh are a case in point.  

Perforated needle spire with foundation stone of St Stephen’s below the windows.

As was St Stephen’s, where the foundation stone was laid on 18 November 1967. The church was designed by Wystan Widdows (1912-1982), an English-born architect second only to Louis Williams in his prolific output of more than thirty post-war Anglican churches. It was his last church before he returned to England. St Stephen’s showed Widdows in moderately “advanced” mode; his earlier churches were conventional in plan with nave leading to a sanctuary at the far end and a choir in a chancel between, whereas St Stephen’s was on a basically hexagonal plan influenced by the ideals of the European Liturgical Movement, in which altars were to be brought forward, closer to a congregation gathered around. St Stephen’s was not quite that advanced, and the altar, cleared out before demolition with the rest of the furnishings (some of which have gone to the Anglican church at Beechworth in north-eastern Victoria) was not placed to be seen in the round, as strict Liturgical Movement practice would require.

The church was built of cream brick, notched at the outside corners – not an attractive detail; it made the walls look unfinished as though there should have been something joined on. The roof was pitched low with broad eaves. The nave and a front wing of chapel and foyer had repeating bays of narrow rectangular windows glazed in a simple geometric pattern. There were two wide entrances on the main (street) frontage, one sheltered by a port-cochère with wedge-shaped roof and each with a tripartite set of timber-framed glazed doors. A thin perforated tapered spire, said to be in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright, denoted the building’s ecclesiastical function.

How proud the local Anglican churchgoers, more numerous then than now, must have been on the day their new church, reassuringly moderate in its tentative embrace of avant-garde ecclesiastical fashion, was opened. How sad the decline as they became older and fewer, to the point where the Anglican authorities decided their church was no longer “viable” – after less than half a century, which used to be nothing in the lifetime of a church.    

This well-designed building deserved a better site. Two adjacent timber halls, one going back to the first Anglican services in Highett in 1931 and the other an ex-army structure that with a bell tower and other additions served as a temporary church, have been cleared away with the church. 

Redevelopment gets underway. St Stephen’s is blotted from the streetscape. (Picture: Clea Stapleton)