I find myself so frequently moaning about church interiors wrecked in the name of "liturgical renewal" (and I don't mention more than a tenth of the shockers I see) that it comes as a breath of fresh air to be able wholeheartedly to praise the restoration and refurbishment of a great church that might so easily have fallen into the clutches of the kind of "innovative" designer who pulls out all the good fittings and replaces them with something absurd, as for example the impractical font-ambo-altar sequence recently installed in another landmark Melbourne church.

St Mary Star of the Sea in West Melbourne is a lofty building in French neo-Gothic style. Standing high on its hill west of the city centre, it is like a junior twin to St Patrick's Cathedral across the city on Eastern Hill. If it had the tower and spire that shortage of funds deprived it of it would be visible from all over central Melbourne, and certainly from Port Melbourne, as its dedication suggests. Flagstaff Hill, the early signal station from which shipping arrivals at Sandridge, the port of the infant colony, were announced in flags, is actually slightly downhill from St Mary's.

St Mary's was built to accommodate 1200 and along with Wardell's St Ignatius, Richmond, also in Melbourne, is probably the largest parish church in Australia. St Mary's was designed by local architect Edgar J. Henderson (others had a hand in the interior) who also designed the Catholic cathedral at Sale in Gippsland and substantial churches in Gardenvale and Echuca. It was built between 1892 and 1900, although its internal fittings were not complete until 1925.

That, as it happened, was about the time its parish was ceasing to be residential. As population drained away from inner Melbourne the congregation grew smaller. By sacrifice and effort the building was kept open but there was no money for extensive maintenance and the fabric declined. In particular the soft sandstone with which the brick walls are clad deteriorated badly. Inside, colourfully painted and stencilled walls were covered over with a nondescript greyish wash. The shortage of money had one positive effect. It meant that in the years after the Second Vatican Council when so many churches were being "re-ordered" (a process I recently saw described, quite appropriately, as "wreckovation") St Mary's was spared. Though the standard plain versus populum altar of the period was installed, the high altar and towering reredos, side altars and marble communion balustrades survived intact.

Stonework, including an entire pinnacle, falling from the structure made it clear by the start of this century that St Mary's would have to be either restored or demolished. The then parish priest launched an appeal for $10 million. With government contributions along with public donations enough money was raised to begin a thorough restoration - roof, walls and all the essential things like plumbing and wiring that no one sees and cost so much.

The glory of the whole project is the restoration of all the brilliantly painted wall surfaces inside the church, with the reinstatement of the stencilling in the apse and side chapels. A vast mural of Christ Pancrator - Christ the ruler of all - designed for the original church but never realised, has been painted by the chief restorer George Giannis and placed over the chancel arch. Giannis has also painted and carved the rows of angels with trumpets that gracefully line the hammer beams of the roof. The church glows with colour. It is a magnificent sight and I urge you to go and see it, preferably during a service when the lights are on.

The restoration is not complete. There is still stonework to be restored and $2 million needs still to be found to bring the appeal (supported and administered by the National Trust) to its target. But what has been done is wonderful. If only all church restorations demonstrated the respect shown by the restorers of St Mary's to the integrity of the building and the intentions of  the original architects and decorators.

There are good photographs of the restoration on the St Mary's website,

28 March 2012

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