Opening and blessing by Archbishop Denis Hart of the Benson Retirement Village, St Peter’s Toorak

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We are a long way from the fine Sunday afternoon of 11 February 1912 when almost 800 people had gathered "from all parts of the district" (The Advocate 17 February 1912) on the corner of Toorak and Lansell Roads, Toorak for the blessing of St Stanislaus Chapel-of-Ease. I say a long way from February 1912.

Let me explain what I mean. 106 years ago is beyond our life span. However, the oldest parishioner of St Peter's Parish, Dora O'Sullevan, died in March, just short of 100 years, and the oldest parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Margot Burke, died two weeks before her at the age of 94 years. Both women had a long association with these two parishes. They were faithful Catholics, socially engaged, daughters of generous contributors to the Church and active parishioners. Their funerals were attended by their respective surviving sisters, family members and friends and fellow parishioners.

Why do I begin this address on the occasion of the Opening and Blessing of The Benson Apartments and the new Parish Centre of Toorak and Armadale Parishes by referring to these two women? The answer is both simple and complex. It is simple because their longevity and residential stability have brought the past very close to us. The blessing of St Stanislaus Chapel in February 1912 occurred three months before the sinking of the Titanic which we all know about. We think that was a long time ago.

The answer is also complex because the death of those two women in such close succession was only one month ago and they were known by many people who are here today. So they were close to us and will remain so. We fit into their life span. The past is closer than we think. Their good deeds and Christian faith go with them and stay with us. These two women remind us that the Church is built on the faith of the disciples who are served by faithful leaders and teachers.

And today we gather to acknowledge the past endeavours of many generations of faithful people whose determination and faith ensured that this tie would be a visible and lasting sign of God's presence and purposes in Toorak. Their endeavours have made it possible for the present generation to develop this site beyond all ordinary expectation of achievement.

A parish site which had all the accoutrements of so many other parishes: a church, presbytery, sporting facilities and parking space, needed a considerable investment of cold hard cash if it was ever to be able to maintain, develop and challenge future generations of the faithful and to shoulder its responsibilities to the wider society by renovating, restoring and expanding these facilities.

So, I salute and congratulate the St Peter's Renewal and Development Committee whose energy, determination and vision, under the leadership of your Parish Priest, Father Brendan Hayes, and the chairmanship of the energetic, indefatigable and admirable Mr John Ralph have brought this project to fruition. I know that Father Hayes and Mr Ralph were confident in the support of parishioners and the competency of the Committee. I understand that the project took root ten years ago and that the journey is not yet completed.

I did say to Father Hayes at one stage that approval at official levels was moving at 'glacial speed' and he did not regard me with an icy stare. He believed me when I said that it was a good project and that it had my wholehearted approval and support. Today, my dear friends, you see the outcome. With God's grace and your own desire to cooperate with God's always inscrutable plans, great things will continue to be done for God's glory and the welfare of his people.

I cannot omit referring to the reason for naming the Apartment building, The Benson Toorak. As I have been given to understand, the St Peter's Renewal and Development Committee wanted the present development to be seen in a context of growth, development and vision that could not be described as the mere whim of a moon-struck cabal of adventurers. The Committee wanted this development to be appreciated as the flowering of a vine that had been planted even before that February day in 1912 when the Chapel- of-Ease for the Parish of St Joseph in South Yarra was opened and blessed by Archbishop Carr, the second Archbishop of Melbourne.

In fact, The Benson Apartment has been named for Father Robert Stanislaus Benson, second Parish Priest of South Yarra. Appointed in 1891 at the age of 27 years, he was a graduate of all Hallows College in Dublin, which was established in 1842 to send priests to the Church in the Irish Diaspora. Father Benson built the present church, presbytery and former school at Fitzgerald Street in South Yarra to serve the needs of the growing community. Even more importantly for this celebration today, he bought the land for the Chapel-of-Ease of St Stanislaus, on which the present St Peter's Church stands, in July 1904, and the land on which the Parish Centre and half the Apartment building stand, in November 1918, just after the end of the First World War. Father Ebsworth bought the former Presbytery in February 1953. That was the third title of land.

Robert Stansilaus Benson's tenure of 34 years from 1891 to 1925 is an unbroken record of service in the South Yarra Parish. He was moved to St Mary's Geelong in 1925, honoured as a Domestic Prelate of the Pope and died in 1941. But that is another story.

So I can firmly state that the eventual creation of the separate Parish of Toorak in 1929 is due to the pastoral zeal and good business foresight that this man provided for the people entrusted to him. No longer would the Catholic servant girls who worked in Protestant households in Toorak be deprived of Sunday Mass. Thanks to Father Benson they could walk to St Stanislaus Church. Indeed, at the blessing of the Chapel on that February afternoon in 1912, Archbishop Carr warmly thanked members of the other Churches who were present, for their interest and financial support. Ecumenism and business sense walked hand in hand.

I cannot finish without mentioning the first priest who ministered to the Catholic population in Toorak when the district became a parish in its own right in 1929. I am sure that Father Walter Ebsworth will receive more attention when St Peter's Church is finally restored and renewed. Father Ebsworth was born in Melbourne in 1895, educated at the Parade Christian Brothers' College, on the site of the Catholic Theological College in East Melbourne. He studied for the priesthood at the seminaries in Springwood and Manly and was ordained by Archbishop Mannix in St Patrick's Cathedral in 1918. Appointed to the new Parish of Toorak in 1929, he retired in 1971 and died in 1977. He served the Toorak Parish for 42 years. The Lounge Room of The Benson will be named in his honour.

I began with two women whose life spans almost covered 1912 until 2018. The ministry of the two priests in the South Yarra – Toorak district, was exercised from 1891 until 1971. These four people clearly illustrate the life of Christian witness which has also been lived by countless people in this area from 1891 until today. May The Benson and the new Parish Centre provide visible proof of the continuing witness of the Church and its people to the presence of God in Toorak and Armadale and the wider society of this Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.

+ Denis J Hart

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