• Vivamus lobortis
  • Ut porttitor urna ut pretium
  • Phasellus convallis tincidunt enim.

St Mary’s Catholic Church

208-214 Dandenong Road, St Kilda East

The first Mass in St Kilda was celebrated on 4 September 1853 at the Bay View Hotel, corner of High and Argyle Streets, by the Reverend Patrick Niall. On 22 January 1854 Bishop James Alipius Goold, the first Catholic Bishop of Melbourne, laid the foundation stone for a small brick building, which was to be used as a church and a school. Capable of seating 250 people, it cost £4000. It was at the southern end of the present St Mary’s Church and was demolished in 1867.[1]

The foundation stone for St Mary’s Church was laid on 27 February 1859 by the Very Reverend Doctor Fitzpatrick, Vicar General of the Diocese. It is the oldest Catholic church south of the Yarra river. William Wardell, one of Australia’s most significant nineteenth century architects, designed the bluestone Gothic church. Wardell migrated from England to Australia in 1858 for health reasons. He soon became Inspector of Public Works and retained the right of private practice. His best known works are St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne and St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. A deeply religious man, he attended St Mary’s in St Kilda and maintained his interest in the church after he left Melbourne.[2] Wardell was one of the senior civil servants sacked on ‘Black Wednesday’ when Sir Graham Berry became Premier in 1877 and as a result, Wardell moved to Sydney.

From the beginning, there were problems with the building: the original materials proved to be defective and the workmanship was poor. The sum of £1600 had been spent on the church when work was suspended through lack of funds. In 1862 St Kilda and Brighton became separate parishes and St Mary’s first resident priest, the Reverend Ed McCarthy, died after just three months and his successor, the Reverend F. Hayden, died at Easter after only two months in the parish. Dr James Corbett was appointed on 30 August 1863 and work on the church resumed in September 1863. The first Mass in the new church was held the following year. In 1869 Wardell was invited to prepare revised plans to enlarge the church. Dr Goold once more performed the duty of laying the foundation stone for the additional work on 1 May 1869. The work was completed in 1871 at a cost of £3800. The nave and sanctuary were lengthened, the vestry and a new chancel added. The original church occupies about half the length of the nave from the Dandenong Road end.

Built in Early English Gothic Revival style of bluestone with freestone dressings and a slate roof, St Mary’s Church is notable for being the ‘purest example of Wardell’s parish churches which were built according to ancient ecclesiastical principles’.[3] The design has a nave with side aisles with a vestry, side porches and chapels. A belfry surmounts the gable. The original gas lamps over the entrances are rare. The organ was built for the first Melbourne Exhibition.

St Mary’s is notable for its remarkably intact interior. It has a wealth of internal fittings, including the high-quality stained-glass windows by Mayers, Settler and Mathieson & Gibson. Above the southern porches there are two nineteenth century spherical lights, which were originally in the school. The sanctuary features rich stencilling while elsewhere the decoration is simpler. This reflects the historic separation of the sanctuary, which belonged to the Church of Rome, and the nave which was used by the congregation.[4] The decoration was restored in 1981. The Caen stone altar retains its original fixtures and curtains. Designed by Wardell, it is the only non-Gothic feature, being based on a Roman design in the church of San Alfonso.[5] The stone statues were possibly designed by Wardell.

Dr James Corbett, Bishop of Sale for just six weeks, consecrated St Mary’s in 1887 in a five-hour ceremony. It was the first Roman Catholic church consecrated in Victoria and the second in Australia. Corbett had studied for the priesthood in France and Belgium and travelled extensively in Europe. He became parish priest at St Mary’s in 1863 and with Wardell is responsible for bringing the church into being. This collaboration was recognised in 1981 when two windows were added representing Wardell as St Thomas, the patron saint of architects, and Corbett as St James. When Corbett was appointed bishop, the St Kilda mission was divided into St Kilda East, St Kilda West and South Yarra. Later, in November 1892, St Kilda East was further divided when Malvern district was handed to the care of the Vincentian Fathers.

Father Hegarty was succeeded in 1895 by Father T. Lynch, who died in 1942 at the age of ninety, having been a priest for sixty-three years and parish priest at St Mary’s for forty-six years. Father Keenan served until 1949 when Father Durkin became parish priest. In 1959 a chapel was added to house the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, which had been installed by the Reverend Corbett in 1886. The organ was removed and found a new home at St Margaret Mary’s in Brunswick. In the 1960s alterations were made as a result of the Second Vatican Council, but to a lesser extent than in other churches. An altar was placed in the nave to enable the priest to face the congregation when celebrating Mass.[6] The rood perch was removed but reinstated in 1981.

One of St Kilda’s most famous sons, Albert Jacka VC, married Veronica Carey in St Mary’s in 1929. Jacka served in the 14th Battalion and was awarded the Victoria Cross on 19 May 1915 for his bravery in a rear-guard action at Courtenay’s Post at Gallipoli. It was the first VC awarded to the Australian Imperial Force in World War I. Jacka later became a mayor of St Kilda but died prematurely. At his funeral, his coffin was carried by eight VC recipients.

A requiem mass was conducted on 31 October 1975 for Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, members of the news crew who were killed at Balibo in Timor.


The rendered brick two-storey presbytery was built in 1866-67 to a Wardell design and is one of his few domestic buildings. It replaced an earlier building, which fronted Westbury Street. Its foundations are still visible. The alterations and extensions of 1908-10 were supervised by Grainger, Kennedy and Little. John Grainger designed the new Princes Bridge crossing the Yarra and was the father of the eccentric musician Percy Grainger.[7]

School hall, later St Mary’s Hall

Five Irish Presentation nuns arrived in St Kilda from Limerick on 21 December 1873. They came in response to a crisis caused by the withdrawal of funding for religious schools by Parliament. The priests vacated the presbytery until Turret Lodge’ opposite St Mary’s, was bought in 1874 to house the nuns. Their leader, Katherine Mulquin or Mother Paul, established Presentation Convent and Colleges, which had a high reputation for progressive education of girls. Three Christian Brothers arrived from Ireland in 1878 and a new school was opened in 1880. Congregate graves for the nuns and brothers are at St Kilda Cemetery.

School Hall

 The school hall was built adjacent to and east of the church in 1902-04. The design was by John Rigg, in conjunction with Godfrey and Spowers, and probably influenced by Robert Haddon.[8] Robert Gamble was the contractor and £7500 was spent, including £2000 for the land. The two-storey, red brick hall has stucco decoration and includes Romanesque Revival and Art Nouveau elements. Architecturally it presents a contrast to the church and presbytery and demonstrates changing styles and the ‘new self confidence of Catholics in the general community’.[9] It was extended in 1909. It is a substantial building and was used for small theatrical performances. In addition there are rooms for classrooms, offices, a library and a kitchen. It was built at a time when church communities were attempting to provide for the betterment of young people through education, physical activities and spiritual guidance. This echoed the earlier movement to build mechanics institutes to provide educational opportunities for working-class men.[10] The hall is now occupied by the Christian Brothers College. St Mary’s Catholic School is now on the corner of Dandenong Road and Westbury Street.

[1]     This account is based on the following: Australian Heritage Commission, Register of the National Estate Database, ‘St Marys Catholic Church, St Kilda East, Vic’, database number: 015771, file number: 2/11/046/0092. Class: Historic; and ‘St Marys Catholic Church, School Hall and Presbytery, St Kilda East, Vic’, database number: 014701, file number: 2/11/046/0092. Class: Historic. Also: Timothy Hubbard and Petri Juhola, ‘St Mary’s Catholic Church, Presbytery & Hall, Dandenong Road, East St Kilda: Submission to the Classifications Committee of the Historic Buildings Council’, Hubbard, St Kilda, 1989.

[2]     For biographical details see: Ursula M. De Jong, William Wilkinson Wardell, Monash University Press, Melbourne, 1984; and Tom Hazell, ‘William Wardell, Historic Environment, vol. 3, no. 4, 1984, pp. 20-3.

[3]     Hubbard and Juhola, ‘St Mary’s Catholic Church’.

[4]     National Estate Database, ‘St Marys’.

[5]     Hubbard and Juhola, ‘St Mary’s Catholic Church’, p. 12.

[6]     Ibid., p. 13.

[7]     Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[8]     For more details of these architects see: Hubbard and Juhola, ‘St Mary’s Catholic Church’, pp. 16-18; and for Haddon, Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[9]     Hubbard and Juhola, ‘St Mary’s Catholic Church’, p. 5.

[10]    Ibid., pp. 5 and 18-19.