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

St George’s East St Kilda Uniting Church

(formerly St George’s Presbyterian Church)

4 Chapel Street, St Kilda East

One acre of land was reserved in Chapel Street for the Presbyterian Church and was gazetted on 10 September 1866. In June 1876 a public meeting was held in the Orderly Room in Chapel Street, St Kilda East, adjoining the church’s land, to gauge interest in establishing a church. Sunday services began on 13 August 1876 in the Orderly Room with the Reverend Groundwater Fraser preaching.

On 21 April 1877 the foundation stone for the church was laid by Sir James McCulloch, the former Premier of Victoria and a founding trustee.[1] Albert Purchas was the architect of this substantial red brick Gothic Revival building with its distinctive 33.5-metre banded octagonal belltower and attractive contrasting cream brickwork and freestone dressings. The facade is dominated by a double entrance surmounted by a triangular rose window. Robert S. Ekins was the contractor and his tender was £3000. The church opened on 1 October 1877 and reflects the wealth and aspirations of the St Kilda Presbyterians of this period. At the first Communion Service, held on 9 December 1877, fifty-one communicants were present.

The first minister was the Reverend J. Laurence Rentoul. Born in Ireland and a brilliant scholar, he and his family travelled to Australia to answer the call to St George’s. He commenced duties on 15 June 1879 and spent four years at St George’s before taking up the position of Professor at Ormond College. An eloquent preacher and influential professor, he became an important figure in the Presbyterian Church and public life. He became Moderator of the State Church in 1894 and from 1912-14 was Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. He was appointed Chaplain-General of the Australian Military Forces at the beginning of World War I and in 1916 became Chaplain-General of the AIF on the Western Front.[2]

The congregation soon outgrew the church’s capacity and an enlarged building was opened on 3 October 1880, designed to accommodate 650 people and built at an estimated cost of £8700. The memorial stone was also laid by Sir James McCulloch. The church has a T-shaped plan with ‘an aisleless nave, raked floor and broad transepts, a shallow sanctuary and no chancel, representing a Protestant reduction of the ideas of British architects such as Pearson and Butterfield’.[3] The stained-glass windows are noteworthy and the early non-figurative windows by Ferguson and Urie are particularly fine.[4] The large triple window in the chancel was presented by Lady McCulloch in memory of the ‘loved and Dead’. Another, in memory of John Kane Smyth, the Vice-Consul for the United States of America in Melbourne, has the Stars and Stripes on the top ventilator above it. The newest window is on the southern side of the church and depicts the children of the world gathered around Christ. It is in memory of Samuel Lyons McKenzie, the congregation’s beloved minister, who served from 1930 to 1948. His ministry is remembered for his love of people and concern for their welfare during the Depression and World War II. He died on 16 January 1948 and his grieving widow continued her role of helping and advising, editing the newsletter and helping in the choir until the Reverend H. Douglas Fearon was inducted on 8 March 1949.[5]

An organ by Lewis & Sons of London dates from 1881 and was classified by the National Trust (Victoria) in April 1989. Prior to this acquisition, a harmonium had been used and then a hired small pipe organ. T. C. Lewis was a progressive English organ builder and a foremost pioneer of the German system of tonal design in England. St George’s organ is one of five Lewis organs exported to Australia and the earliest still in existence.[6] St George’s established a proud tradition for music in its services. Miss Nicholls organised the first choir and then in 1880 Thomas Brentnall, a professional organist and choirmaster, was appointed. He was succeeded by Julius Herz in 1885. He was a renowned musician and attracted some of Melbourne’s most talented singers to the choir. Bertha Rossow, Lalla Miranda and Clarence Fraser and later Madame Steinhauer were all well-known singers who sang in the choir.

When Rentoul left, it was feared this would be a major setback for the young church but the Reverend John Gordon Mackie began his ministry at St George’s in September 1884 and the church continued to prosper. In 1884 the Sunday school building was opened, having cost £1486. By 1890 all debt had been expunged. Half of the remaining debt had been paid by Sir James McCulloch, even though he had retired to England several years previously.

Many sons and fathers of the St George’s congregation enlisted during World War I and twenty died, including St George’s own minister, the Reverend Andrew Gillison, MA.[7] Born near Glasgow, Gillison was a minister in the United States, Edinburgh, North Shields, Glasgow and then Brisbane before arriving at St George’s in 1909. Appointed a chaplain of the AIF, he was closely associated with the 14th Battalion, which was raised in St Kilda and Prahran, and was with the unit at Gallipoli. On Sunday 22 August 1915 he and another chaplain ignored warnings of the presence of snipers and attempted to bring in a wounded man lying 20 metres away in no-man’s-land. Both chaplains were hit by snipers. Gillison was carried to safety and announced he felt ‘bright and happy’ but passed away a few hours later. The first AIF chaplain to die in the war, he was deeply mourned by his military companions and his parishioners. The 14th Battalion and the congregation at St George’s jointly erected a memorial tablet in the church and provided a communion table. The congregation raised almost £700, which was placed in trust for his family. The commemorative service in 1917 to install the memorial forged a bond between the battalion and the congregation at St George’s. The battalion colours were later entrusted to St George’s and now hang in the Shrine of Remembrance. The marching banner of the Battalion is cared for by the St Kilda Historical Society. After World War II, members of the 2/14th Battalion and the 14/32nd Battalion also became involved in the annual memorial service and since 1994 Vietnam veterans have also attended with other veterans.[8] It has become an important contemporary ritual, which attracts hundreds of people and its theme of ‘healing the wounds of war’ has deep significance for all veterans.

During World War I the female members of St George’s raised £1000 for patriotic funds and sent more than 10,000 articles to the Red Cross for the care of soldiers. Mrs Glass, the minister’s wife, served as president and Mrs Larard and Mrs Gray Cox were on the committee organising this work. The Reverend Thomas Glass was the incumbent during the war years and, like all clergymen, had the unenviable task of conveying news of casualties to families. His health suffered during the war and he resigned in 1922. The roll of honour in the vestibule is made of Victorian blackwood, carved in high relief. It commemorates the twenty men who died and another eighty-nine who served.

Over the years many spiritual and social activities were instituted at St George’s, some of short duration such as the Ladies’ Reading Club which operated from 1888-93. There were segregated Bible Classes for young men and women, the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union, formed in 1892, a cricket club and a floral guild. Guilds teaching physical culture for girls, boys and young men began in 1904. They were entirely financed by John Maclellan and the idea extended to other denominations throughout Victoria. Maclellan died in 1936 and the guilds ceased at St George’s through lack of funds although in 1977 the members of the girls’ guild were still holding bi-annual reunions and raising money for charity.

The first mission work began in 1880 with G. O. Duncan appointed as a full-time visitor and lay reader, the entire cost being paid by Sir James McCulloch. In 1885 Lady McCulloch inaugurated a mission among poor women in Windsor and Prahran with a Miss Wilson appointed as the first missionary. A library was established and weekly Mothers’ Meetings were held. After Lady McCulloch withdrew her financial support in 1894, a committee of women at St George’s continued the mission. Beatrice Davidson worked for the mission from 1900 until her death in 1917, when the mission ceased. Parishioners had a large memorial erected over her grave in Sutton Grange Cemetery, south of Bendigo.

After World War II, St George’s suffered from the general decline in church attendances exacerbated by the changing nature of St Kilda and the decrease in numbers of residents living in the vicinity of the church. In 1973 the congregation was deeply distressed when the communion silver was stolen, including the small communion cup presented to the Reverend Gillison by the Young Men’s Bible Class before he left for overseas and used by him at Gallipoli. It had been presented to St George’s after the war and was used for communion. In a strange turn of events, the cup was found by a Vietnam veteran during excavations for flats. It was buried a metre deep. He sold it to a militaria dealer who advertised it in a catalogue in 1987. The wife of a member of the 2/14th Battalion Association saw the catalogue and, realising its significance, the battalion raised the money overnight to buy the chalice. It was donated to the Ivanhoe Grammar School cadet corps as a reminder to the young of the achievements and sacrifices of those who served.[9]

By the 1980s the reduced numbers and ageing congregation led to questioning whether the congregation remained viable. John Bottomley was inducted into the parish in 1991 and began a program of consolidating the church’s physical and spiritual resources and re-energising the congregation. Historic buildings were put to new and profitable uses. Much of the site is now used by St Michael’s Grammar School. In addition, a range of activities was introduced to attract younger people to the church. A centre for theology and the arts, the Centre for Creative Ministries, was established to meld activities in the arts with worship, faith development and community service. During the late 1990s, the emphasis was on the disadvantaged, for example the homeless, and people with intellectual, psychiatric and other socially isolating disabilities.[10] More recently, the Centre has refocussed on its original vision.

In 1997 the congregations of St George’s and the former East St Kilda and Windsor Congregational Churches joined together to form the East St Kilda Uniting Church parish. The Centre for Creative Ministries now operates from the former Congregational church and hall on the corner of Hotham and Inkerman Streets, East St Kilda. The new parish is growing in numbers and vitality and diverse groups of people come in contact annually with the parish through the many outreach programs.

Sunday school

The Sunday school with Mr A. Anderson as Superintendent began in August 1876. Three years later, it moved to Hornby Street State School where there was an average attendance of one hundred children and eighteen teachers. A hall in the church grounds was opened on 14 February 1886. This was destroyed by fire and a new hall built in 1927-28. After World War II the numbers of children attending declined and the Sunday school ‘went into recess’, probably in the late 1960s.[11] Today, a small group of children participate in a Children’s Ministry program to meet the present need.


[1]     For biographical details see: Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[2]     For biographical details see: Centre for Creative Ministries, History of the East St Kilda Uniting Church Parish: Application to the Local History Grants Program to make a 60-minute Video Documentary, Centre for Creative Ministries, East St Kilda, 1999, pp. 9-10.

[3]     Ibid., p. 6.

[4]     For detailed descriptions see: Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[5]     For a complete list of incumbents to 1977 and brief biographies see: ‘St George’s Presbyterian Church St Kilda: The First One hundred Years’, 1977.

[6]     For details about the organ and its builder see: Christopher Gray, ‘Proposed Restoration of the 1882 T. C. Lewis Organ: The history and importance of the instrument and its builder’, reproduced in Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[7]     The Australian War Memorial has an informal portrait of Gillison P02615.004 and a photograph of Gillison preaching at Gallipoli A03808. Also: Gillison papers, PR86/028 and his diary, 3DRL/6277.

[8]     See also: Healing the Wounds of War, video, Centre for Creative Ministries, n.d.

[9]     Scott Whiffin, ‘Back from battle, cup rests in peace’, Port Phillip Leader, 18 September 1995.

[10]    Centre for Creative Ministries, History, pp. 2-3.

[11]    Unless otherwise acknowledged, this account is based on St George’s Presbyterian Church, East St Kilda, 1876-1926 Golden Jubilee Book. My thanks to the congregation of St George’s for a copy of this book.