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St Columba’s Church

2 Normandy Road, Elwood

 St Columba’s Church School was opened on 28 April 1918. A fair conducted by the Sacred Heart parish in September 1914 had enabled the purchase of the land. The land cost £1439 and the building cost £1740. Archbishop Mannix opened and blessed the new church school in the presence of 3000 people. The school had 150 pupils when it opened in June 1918. The original teachers were sisters of the Presentation Order. Mother Anthony was the first principal and Sisters Angela and Bernadette the first teachers.

The first Mass was held on 5 May 1918 by Father J. Byrne. The priests from Sacred Heart attended until it became a separate parish in 1919 and its first parish priest, the Reverend Jerome McCarthy, was appointed. The school colours were blue and gold and they featured in the interior decoration. The wooden altar was painted in blue and gold. The sanctuary was a raised proscenium and curtained off during school times. The school desks also served as pews; it was the job of the senior boys each Friday afternoon to arrange them appropriately for services.

Sister Ignatius became principal in 1926. Pupils were taught physical education by a Mr Donald on Friday afternoons and Maggie Mossop taught singing. During the Depression the sisters taught pupils to Grade 9 level because many children could not afford to go on to secondary school. (Most pupils completed Grade 8, thereby gaining the Merit certificate, and left school.) The school held concerts, a choir, and annual picnics to South Morang.[1]

The Reverend Michael McKenna became the parish priest on 6 January 1922. He had served with the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Forces sent overseas in 1914. He began work raising funds to build a church next to the school. The foundation stone was laid on 12 May 1929. The architect was A. A. Fritsch and the builders were the Reynolds Brothers. It was completed on 8 December 1929. Archbishop Cattaneo attended with Archbishop Mannix. The red brick Romanesque church designed to accommodate 700 people had cost £12,516 and gifts valued at £3553 had been donated, including stained-glass windows, the pulpit and altars. The tower can be seen from many parts of Elwood and St Columba’s is considered one of the best of the Roman Catholic churches of a similar scale built around this period. The design of the belfry and metal-capped cupola is unusual. Inside, the barrel-vaulted ceiling is the main feature, while the stained glass and the choir gallery balustrade are also noteworthy.[2] It was a culmination of a dream for Father McKenna, who had laid the first brick of the church and laid the last brick on the tower to complete the building. His sudden death following a seizure on 17 October 1936 was a great loss to the people of St Columba’s.

His successor was Dr Francis Greenan, who continued the work undertaken by Father McKenna by buying adjoining land and expanding facilities for the school. A hall with three classrooms and a teachers’ room was completed in 1937. The story is told that on hot days Father Greenan would march the children to the beach. ‘The fact that mothers were aghast at their little ones being on the beach in the middle of a heat wave never crossed his mind’.[3] The hall was taken over by the Army during World War II and was also used as a post office for a time. The children were taught in the tennis pavilion, which was later demolished and a replacement built. The children regained the use of their school in 1943.

After the war, the school remained small with composite grades from Prep to Grade 8 taught by five teachers. In line with government policies this was reduced to teaching to Grade 6 by 1966. Sister Ignatius returned as principal in 1950 and remained until 1970, having given a total of thirty-one years of service to the school and its pupils. To mark the golden jubilee of the school another two rooms were added. In 1974 the long association of the Sisters of the Presentation Order with the school ended. Dawn Keogh became the first lay principal, followed by Loris Stone, who oversaw extensions to the school, including a library, which were opened in 1983. Colette Hickey was principal from 1988-97. The present principal is Christine White. The school is a small but flourishing community with an enrolment of ninety-two pupils.

 John Ploog was in the first enrolment of pupils at the school. In 1970 his reminiscences were included in a history of the church by Francis Renton Power. Reflecting on the traditional enmity between Catholics and Protestants, Ploog recalled how there would be ‘battles’ against the local state school pupils. ‘After a veritable flood of verbal abuse, battle was joined and continued on the banks of the Elwood “canal” (and sometimes in it).’ When some ‘yahoos’ threw a stone through a window of the Anglican St Bede’s, Ploog was in the delegation charged with apologising to members of St Bede’s congregation. In contrast, in 1970 the two congregations were attending each other’s services.[4]

The third parish priest was Father Michael Tuomey, who arrived in 1953. The church was consecrated on 12 October 1961 in a ceremony lasting more than four hours. Archbishop Simonds circled the church three times as a Litany of the Saints was chanted by a choir of priests. The ceremony then continued inside the church and included placing a relic of St Clement under the altar stone.[5] Father Tuomey began a monthly magazine The Columbian and was responsible for the establishment of the Parish Council and the introduction of lay lectors to the parish. He retired due to ill-health in 1973.[6]

St Columba’s fifth parish priest was Father Conrad Reis. A former boarder at St Columba’s, during World War II he served in New Guinea as chaplain attached to the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade. His particular charges were members of 29/46 Infantry Battalion, the 37/52 Infantry Battalion and the 4th Field Ambulance. Each year, even after he retired due to poor health in 1977, Father Reis celebrated a Mass at St Columba’s for the returned soldiers to whom he had ministered during the war. A plaque in the foyer commemorates the men from these units who died in action in New Guinea. During Father Reis’s time, St Columba’s Church was altered according to the provisions of Vatican II. Intended to make services more accessible to people, the Mass was celebrated in English, not Latin, and the celebrant now faced the people. The marble altar rails were removed, as was the top of the high altar, including the large marble angels and the rotunda. The sanctuary was extended and a simple wooden altar installed.[7]

Reverend Father Des Jenkins arrived in the parish in 1978 and served until 1996. During his time in the parish, the presbytery and the church were refurbished and extensions to the school were undertaken. His successor was Reverend Father John Salvano. He reactivated some of the regular social activities that had been enjoyed by parishioners in the past but which had gradually lapsed due to changing demographics in the parish.[8] He was appointed to the parish of St John’s Clifton Hill in mid 2000. Reverend Father Terry, the parish priest of Sacred Heart, West St Kilda, was then also appointed parish priest at St Columba’s and is the current incumbent.


In 1919 a house was bought for the priest’s residence and it was sold at a profit of £200. The new presbytery was opened on 24 April 1921. Mr W. M. Kelly, a builder from Gardenvale, built the building to his and Father McCarthy’s design, thereby saving an architect’s fee.


In 1937 a parish hall was built with W. P. Conolly the architect and J. H. Johnson the contractor. Tennis courts were also built at this time. It was part of Father Greenan’s vision of providing a centre for the children of St Columba’s during their leisure time where activities could be provided in a Catholic environment. Physical education, indoor sports and dancing classes have been held in the hall and there were  various sporting teams associated with the church.

Over the years, dances, card parties and concerts were other popular activities held in the hall.


[1]     All the information about the school comes from: Emer Di Muzo and Peg Whitehill (researchers), The Birth of St Columba’s, n.d.

[2]     Bick, St Kilda Conservation Study, p. 181.

[3]     Di Muzo and Whitehill, The Birth of St Columba’s, p. 10.

[4]     Francis Renton Power, ‘The Story of St. Columba’s, Elwood’, typescript, 1970, p. 2. [Copy held at MDHC Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.]

[5]     Ibid., p. 5.

[6]     For Tuomey’s ministry see: Emer Di Muzio, St Columba’s Elwood: A Chapel-of-Ease, n.d., c. 2000, pp. 46-51. Assistant priests, principals and teachers are also listed in this book. See: pp. 66-7.

[7]     Ibid., pp. 51-2.

[8]     Ibid., pp. 55 and 59.