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St Paul’s: When Coburg was Pentridge

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Christopher Akehurst 
 
On 25 January is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle. In light of that feast day, we look at one of Melbourne's noteworthy churches named after St Paul, and one of the six oldest Parishes in the Archdiocese. 
 
What gives a church its particular character? This is a harder question to answer than it might seem. Architectural style is part of the answer, yet lots of churches with a distinctive character are identical or similar in style. A spire or a tower or a dome can impose character on a building but only where they are a dominant feature. The material the church is built of can contribute its own ‘personality’ and so can the church’s setting. A church with a historic churchyard, with leaning gravestones and venerable dark-leaved trees, will have a very specific character, whatever the style of the building. Indeed, you could take such a church and rebuild it on a busy street corner, all concrete and traffic, and although it would be the same building, its character would be utterly changed. There is a 19th-century bluestone church in Box Hill that was moved, stone by stone, from inner Melbourne that illustrates this point well. Character may be determined by a combination of some or all of these factors, with none of them dominant.
 
Take the case of St Paul’s, Coburg.
 
It’s a brick church, mainly Gothic Revival in style, cruciform plan with transepts. It has a tower that is large enough to make an architectural point and give the church a distinctive profile. It stands on a prominent site in Sydney Road just across Pentridge Boulevard from the former prison. That building has a very pronounced character, with its fortress-like stone walls and parapets and glazed watch-towers, yet it does not overwhelm St Paul’s, whose character is much less defined and consists, I have concluded, in its pleasant well-built sense of ordinariness, plus the visual interest that always derives from a juxtaposition of older structure and later additions.
 
You could define St Paul’s as a workmanlike church, solidly constructed and fit for the purpose it serves, with harmonious proportions and a functional attractiveness that has no need to promote itself visually with superfluous ornament.
 
The tract of Sydney Road between Pentridge and Bell Street has three historic churches of interest.
 
In 1848—only thirteen years after Melbourne was founded—the Wesleyan Methodists, a numerous denomination in those days, applied to the colonial authorities for land to build a chapel at the corner of what is now Bell Street. The district, with farms and a pub, was then known as Pentridge and the chapel is now Melbourne’s Fijian Methodist church. The Anglicans applied next, and built the attractive Holy Trinity, further north, in 1850. That same year the Catholic Bishop of the colony, Dr Goold, also applied for land. Two acres were granted and on 30 June the foundation stone of the first St Paul’s was laid. A school was opened too, in a small, two-room timber building on a site thought to be in front of the present St Paul’s presbytery. That early foundation makes St Paul’s one of the six oldest parishes in the Archdiocese.

Pentridge Prison, originally called Pentridge Stockade, was likewise established in 1850.
 
The district was of economic importance on account of its bluestone quarries, of which there were 41 by 1875. By that time the earlier farms had given way to streets of houses and the name Pentridge had been discreetly dropped. In perhaps the first instance in Victoria of a name change to make a suburb sound more desirable, Pentridge became Coburg.
 
It was Fr O’Hea of St Paul’s who chaired the meeting in 1867 at which residents, all no doubt upwardly mobile, complained that they were ‘embarrassed’ to say they lived in Pentridge, since everyone thought of it as the jail. Coburg was chosen in honour of Queen Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was by descent a prince of the royal dynasty of Saxe-Coburg and was visiting Melbourne that year.

St Paul’s, as already noted, was built in three stages.
 
The first church was superseded in 1894 by a substantial new brick building of Gothic Revival design. This remains as the nave of the present church. Major additions in a similar style were made in 1928. These consisted of transepts together with side chapels and sacristies and the spacious sanctuary with its flat-ended apse (two short canted side walls, broader end wall).

In 1956 the bell tower at the south-west corner was added. It has a French air and rises two stages above the level of the roof that connects it to the main church building. The upper stage has canted corners and two tall pairs of lancets. The tower is capped by an elongated pyramidal copper roof. The main façade, with its three stately portals and circular window, was built at the same time as the tower.
 
Tower and façade are stylistically in a mid-20th-century simplified Neo-Gothic which is dissimilar to, yet sits well with, the conventional Gothic Revival of the body of the church.

The architects throughout were the prolific firm of Reed, Smart and Tappin. As the largest church in Coburg, with the longest nave, it was a substantial commission.

In fact, when you go inside, the first thing you notice is the length of the church. Seen from the narthex under the choir gallery, the long nave of seven bays stretches away towards the sanctuary, the view unimpeded by screens or other fittings. The creamy-coloured plaster walls contrast dramatically with the polished dark red timbers of the barrel-vaulted roof. At the crossing, nave and transepts join under the broad beams of the roof. Though large this is a simple and functional space, free of the clutter of unnecessary furnishings or ornament.

The sanctuary and chapels are divided from the nave and transepts structurally by an unusual arrangement of wide central arch and smaller cloister-like lateral arches that link outer arches opening in front of the chapels. The chapel altars of the Sacred Heart on the left and Our Lady on the right were added in 1951, soon after the church’s centenary. The marble altar rails installed at the same time are happily still intact in front of the chapels, although they have been removed from the sanctuary, as has the pulpit.

In the sanctuary itself, the white marble gradine and tabernacle of the former high altar remain in their original position under the group of three east windows (geographical east as well as liturgical; St Paul’s is traditionally oriented). The high altar itself was moved out of the sanctuary in a liturgical reordering in 1974. A handsome piece of workmanship in white Sicilian marble, this altar was given in 1928 by the then parish priest Fr Peter McGee, and now stands in the crossing on a paved and raised sanctuary area designed for it when the church was restored eight years ago. At one time it had a timber canopy above. This has been removed and in the centre of the sanctuary arch there is now a hanging rood.

The restoration was made necessary by a fire in 2008 that seriously damaged the eastern part of St Paul’s. Part of the roof was destroyed and walls were blackened. The restoration was carried out with imagination and sensitivity by the firm of Andronas Conservation Architecture, who have done much work in the Archdiocese. The opportunity was taken to restore the whole interior of the church to its present beautiful condition. It took three years, and St Paul’s was reconsecrated on 3 July 2011, its 161st anniversary.

In the original sanctuary, the diapered stencilling of the wall decoration has been restored and now appears as when first applied. In the new sanctuary area, two highly original ambos on green marble columns have been placed forward from the altar. This part of the church, though it was once filled with pews, has a serene spaciousness that makes it completely at home in the building. The earlier reordering has been absorbed into and made harmonious by the restoration. There is none of the untidiness sometimes encountered when a church has been reordered—a sense of furniture shoehorned into an unsuitable space, or of a former sanctuary left desolate and denuded. St Paul’s is a model of what a good reordering should aim at.

The church has an excellent pipe organ built by the celebrated Fincham firm in Melbourne. It was bought from a church in Geelong and almost fills the north transept, where it was installed in 1986. It survived the 2008 fire.

The painted Stations of the Cross were set into the nave walls in 1953. They replace a set presented by Monsignor O’Hea which were subsequently judged ‘too small’ for the enlarged church and removed to a purpose-built alcove near the western entrance, where they can still be seen.

Of all the artefacts in St Paul’s, it is the stained glass that is the chief glory. Of particular note are the windows at either end of the church. At the west, in the roundel above the choir gallery, Mary, Help of Christians, dates from 1959. At the east, the three lights illustrating the Conversion of St Paul, the church’s patron, were installed in 1952. On either side of these, pairs of windows show the Resurrection on the left and the Ascension on the south. There are also triple windows high on the north and south sanctuary walls showing St Paul, St Patrick and St Columba, and, to counterbalance the male saints, St Brigid, St Cecilia and St Teresa.

The three lancets on the façades of the transepts depict an Ecce Homo on the north and Our Lady of Sorrows on the south. They date from 1928. The long rows of windows on either side of the nave are of equally fine workmanship of the 1950s. The principal iconography is of the Mysteries of the Rosary. All in all, the stained glass in St Paul’s is not only a remarkable collection for a parish church but fulfils the function—like the stained glass of the mediaeval cathedrals—of being an illustrated compendium of the Catholic faith.

St Paul’s is at 562 Sydney Road, Coburg. Website: www.cam.org.au/coburg.

Christopher Akehurst is a Melbourne journalist with a special interest in architecture. Sherman Tan is a Melbourne freelance photographer and an architect-to-be.


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