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East St Kilda Uniting Church (former)

(formerly East St Kilda Congregational Church)

Corner Hotham & Inkerman Streets, St Kilda East

 The second Congregationalist Church established in St Kilda was centred on the East St Kilda area. There was a building in Inkerman Street, on the south side between Balston and Westbury Streets, used for services and probably another meeting place was used, although the site is unknown.[1] Eminent men associated with the foundation of the new church and who served as deacons were Thomas Fulton, who was also involved with the Alma Street Congregationalists, and Sir Frederick Sargood, the owner of the spectacular house and garden Ripponlea. The Hon. George Rolfe, a state politician who served in both Houses of Parliament, donated land in Westbury Street (originally called Cannon Street). A wooden chapel was built, which had 180 seatings and was opened on 15 September 1865. The minister was the Reverend W. H. Lawrence. Rolfe served as the Superintendent of the Sunday school for many years.

In August 1885, although there were fewer than fifty members, the bold decision was made to buy the land on the corner of Hotham and Inkerman Streets for £750. The cost was partially offset by the sale of the land at Westbury Street. It was decided to move the Westbury chapel intact to the new site. As the chapel was being hauled along Inkerman Street, the entire structure collapsed onto the road, opposite Chusan Street. All weekend, male volunteers mounted a vigil over the wreckage and the female members kept them supplied with refreshments. Eventually the wreckage was removed and the chapel was re-erected. The contractor was paid an extra £12-10-0 for the additional work entailed. The chapel was used as a Sunday school when the new church was built.

In 1886 three architects associated with the congregation were invited to submit designs and while J. Russell Browne’s design was judged the best, that of Hillson Beasley was adopted because it would be more affordable.[2] The memorial stone was laid by Mrs Albert Spicer on 28 October 1887. The wife of a prominent member of the British House of Commons, she expressed delight at the gift presented to her of two emu eggs mounted in silver on an Australian wood stand. The builder was James Potter and it cost £3069. Money had been donated from the Victorian Jubilee Fund, which singled out the church at East St Kilda as a major recipient. The church was opened on 10 May 1888.

The church is distinctive architecturally because it is a late polychrome brick church. The use of brickwork interspersed with stone makes an attractive facade. The building consists of a nave, transepts placed beneath double transverse gables and an octagonal turret to the north west. The planned spire, apse and vestries were never built.[3] Congregational churches focus on the proclamation of the word and therefore place emphasis on the pulpit. Brass memorial plaques are preferred to memorial stained-glass windows.[4]

The organ, described as a ‘little gem’,[5] was built by Fincham about 1870. Its history is unknown before it was hired by this congregation in April 1886 for use in the chapel at Westbury Street. It was moved into the new church and bought in 1890 for £85. It was a single-manual chamber organ of six stops. The church and organ were classified by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria).[6] The organ was sold to a private owner after services ended in 1996.

The 1890s Depression brought financial ruin to many wealthy people and unemployment soared. Church members tried to help the poor and unemployed at a time when the church itself was in financial difficulty and the members less able to donate money. The women collected money for the unemployed, held a concert to buy fabric for the poor to make clothes and in mid 1894 started a soup kitchen, which opened three times a week. The following year, they extended their efforts by providing lectures, concerts and social evenings for the unemployed. In addition, they organised fairs to raise money for the church. One of these was held in the grounds of Ripponlea. A scheme of district visitation was also embarked upon whereby six women and one man visited poor areas, offering advice and financial assistance when possible.

Like many other churches at the time, guilds were established. The Christian Guild and its juvenile branch aimed to ‘promote sociability, rational recreation and intellectual and spiritual improvement’.[7] This was to be achieved through fortnightly activities such as Bible studies, essays, lectures and music. The youngsters met weekly for talks, concerts and temperance lectures. On museum night, the Reverend E. Taylor, who had been a missionary in Madagascar, showed the children Malagasy handcrafts and J. Russell Browne displayed a tiny working model of a steam engine.

The church’s honour board is unusual for including the names of two nurses who served abroad: Nellie Stephenson and Sister Gertrude Irvine.

By 1940 the old chapel, now used as a Sunday school, was beyond repair and the land was subdivided and the building sold. The rear of the church was redesigned to incorporate a hall and create a kitchen. The seating was reduced from about 400 to about 200 and later to 150 and the organ was moved. The manual blowing was at last superseded by electricity ‘to the relief of Frank Whelan’, who had performed the task for many years. (In the 1880s the fee for this task was ten shillings per month but payment ceased during the 1890s Depression.) A brick addition at the rear of the church was named the Stephenson Sunday School Kindergarten in honour of the longest serving minister. In the 1990s it was being used as an office for the parish and the Centre for Creative Ministries.

After World War II, the church had an active Sunday school and library, Young Worshippers League, gymnasium clubs for boys and girls and tennis teams. But, like so many other churches, East St Kilda Congregational Church endured a long period of decline. Gradually the various fellowship groups were abandoned and its Sunday school was one of the last to close in the district. The congregation survived through the dedication and determination of a small group, notably members of the Whelan family, which had four generations of association with the church. Typically, it was the older family members who by regularly volunteering to serve on the committees sustained the church because the younger family members had moved from St Kilda.

In 1977 many Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations joined the newly created Uniting Church. After voting twice against Church Union, East St Kilda was the last Victorian Congregational church to vote in favour of Union, and then only with the narrowest of margins. A two-thirds majority was required to join and the vote was eight for Union and three opposed. When the Union came into effect, the church had eighteen members. The Reverend John Woodruff concluded his ministry at St Kilda East Congregational Church at the end of 1977 and the Reverend J. Villiers Mills, the minister at St George’s Presbyterian Church, became the minister of the new East St Kilda Uniting Church parish, which consisted of Windsor and East St Kilda Congregational Churches and St George’s. In the following decade, the tiny East St Kilda congregation displayed a ‘remarkable spirit of tenacity’ in organising around key events such as harvest festival, the church’s anniversary and the annual thanksgiving appeal. The Baptist Lay Preachers Society assisted by providing people to lead services. With the appointment of the Reverend Graeme Warne to the parish, better cooperation gradually developed. When the church at Windsor closed, the former Congregational church gained five new members. The Reverend Norman Marshall served as interim parish minister during 1990-91 before the appointment of the Reverend John Bottomley. Steps were already under way to adopt a statement of Mission and Ministry for the parish and this resulted in a new initiative, the Centre for Creative Ministries, based at the former Congregational church. An agency of the East St Kilda Uniting Church parish, it creates worship, faith development and community programs that relate to theology and the arts.[8]

[1]     Jack L. Barnes, A History of the East St Kilda Congregational Church, East St Kilda Uniting Church Parish Council, Burwood, c. 1995.

[2]     The architect John Little is also given credit for the design in Lewis, Victorian Churches, p. 85.

[3]     Ibid., p. 85.

[4]     There is a comprehensive list of the many plaques in Barnes, A History of the East St Kilda Congregational Church.

[5]     Ibid.

[6]     National Trust of Australia (Victoria), ‘Uniting Church and Organ — St Kilda East, file number: B5966.

[7]     Barnes, A History of the East St Kilda Congregational Church, p. 49.

[8]     See also: Faith Works!, video, Centre for Creative Ministries, focussing on an art exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.