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Baptist Church

9 Pakington Street, St Kilda

 In contrast to the exclusivity of the Particular Baptists and the relative grandeur of their church, a General Baptist congregation was established in the valley below St Kilda Hill amidst poor working-class homes. General Baptists believe Christ died for everyone. For thirty-five years, this group met in halls rented from various organisations such as the Australian Natives Association, and in the St Kilda Town Hall. In 1907 a new minister, acting against the advice of the church leaders, bought a block of land in his own name. Eight years later, a Sunday school hall was built on the block. The foundation stone was laid by George Doery, the president of the Baptist Union of Victoria, on 27 March 1915. W. Rain was the architect and H. R. Stewart was the minister. The building was intended as a precursor to the church that would be built when there was sufficient money.[1] There never was enough money — the congregation consisted mainly of poor workers and Baptists rejected any government assistance for the construction of churches.

Although built as a hall, the simple red brick church had a stained-wood cathedral ceiling and a high pulpit, although it lacked an organ or stained-glass windows. The builder was a Mr Brett. His son Mervyn built the adjoining back hall some years later, which has been used by many youth groups and play groups over the years. After World War II the numbers declined dramatically and Mervyn’s daughter Edna was one of the stalwarts who sought to keep the church open, serving as church secretary and treasurer and running a youth group.[2] By the 1980s the congregation had had no regular minister for more than twenty years and relied on a series of student and interim ministers to survive. The church remained open and determinedly held a morning and evening service where a handful of worshippers would attend. Members also developed a special relationship with Scottsdale Special Accommodation House at 51 Alma Road, holding a monthly service there for the residents.

In 1981 Dr Peter Broughton agreed to an interim ministry of three months and remained for three years at the ailing church. Despite a primarily elderly membership of only about fifteen, they were ‘low in numbers but not in spirit’. Broughton observed young couples would come to services but drift away because there were no other people their age. The church was about to be shut down when he persuaded the church leaders to acquire the adjacent block of flats with the idea that this would attract young families who were saving to buy their own homes. Funds came from the sale of the old manse and its very large block of land, which had occurred in the early 1970s ‘at a give-away price’.[3] The congregation was also assisted by the Legion of Donors, a fund to help struggling churches, which covered the cost of renovating the flats. It was an attempt to attract and retain young families and thereby revitalise the congregation.

In 1984 Tim Costello was called to the St Kilda Baptist church. He and his wife Merridie had been studying theology at Rueshlikon College in Switzerland and expressed their interest in church-planting or re-building in a neglected part of Melbourne. Costello rebuilt the congregation, opened a drop-in centre and a legal service for those for whom the law is normally inaccessible. Elected mayor of St Kilda Council in 1993, he gained a reputation as a champion of local democracy. In November 1999, Costello became National President of the Baptist Union of Australia. One of his books, Streets of Hope: Finding God in St Kilda, describes his mission in St Kilda and the characters who made the ministry so special — and challenging. By 1988 the church had grown to capacity with more than 100 people involved in home groups. This created its own problems, trying to absorb new people and integrating young people into an elderly congregation.

Some of these ‘old timers’ were fondly described by Merridie Costello in a booklet marking the couple’s ten years at the church and in Costello’s Streets of Hope. They represent the ‘battlers’ who struggled financially and were often socially disadvantaged, yet were sustained by their faith and dedicated to their church and their community. Freda Ellingham had been the church pianist and attended the church all her life and lived for more than eighty years in the one street, Inkerman Street. Barbara Ramsay worked tirelessly for the church as a musician, running the Ladies Drop-in and helping at the Op Shop. Ces Swinson served as a deacon and spent much time at the Op Shop and in helping others. Ada Jackson was born in 1910 and spent most of her life in St Kilda, attending the Baptist Church with her family since 1916. She loved being part of the tennis team. (The tennis court adjoined the church and was replaced by the flats.) Ada was married in the Baptist Church in 1935 but was widowed and raised her three young children alone. In the 1970s she was heartbroken at the thought the church would close and watched the developments of the 1980s with enthusiasm. She enjoyed the friendship of Prime Timers, one of the groups established. Having vowed never to leave St Kilda, she collapsed and died there on 26 June 1992.[4]

 Important initiatives that have been part of the revitalisation of the Baptist presence in St Kilda include Machaseh House (the name is Hebrew for refuge) at 86 Brighton Road, Elsternwick, bought in 1986. This was envisaged as a community house for people who needed special accommodation. It now houses secondary students who need supportive accommodation. An Op Shop called ‘Everything But’ was opened in May 1988 at 162 Carlisle Street. By mid 1994 it had earned over $90,000. The House of Hope, the West St Kilda Baptist Mission, is located in a disused Uniting Church manse at 1 Princes Street. It was formerly run by the Presbyterian Church and called ‘Life Exchange’. It was developed as a drop-in centre with living quarters for the co-ordinator but closed in 1997.

In 1995 the St Kilda Baptist Church took responsibility for the management of Scottsdale, a large rooming house in Alma Road. This was converted to a Supported Residential Service (SRS) and has been managed by the church community ever since. It is the only not-for-profit SRS in Victoria and provides housing for nineteen adults with psychiatric disability. The residents have high needs of support and supervision. Most are living with a psychiatric illness and require significant medical and domestic assistance. The church community provides a range of volunteer assistance and a board of management.

Digby Hannah was appointed pastor in 1998 and is now serving his fifth year in this capacity. The church maintains its commitment to social justice principles and continues to understand Jesus as having modelled a way of life whereby power is shared with those who are weak and dignity ascribed to those on the margins of society. Many people who first joined Tim and Merridie Costello during the 1980s remain in the church community. Many of these people are married with young families and have settled in an inner suburb that has now become thoroughly gentrified. The tensions of living in such a materialistic and upwardly mobile community are evident within the church community. The challenge to maintain a commitment to the disadvantaged within this locality is as difficult and as pressing as ever. Under the church’s auspices, Machaseh House continues to provide for four teenagers who would otherwise be homeless and Scottsdale continues to care for people with psychiatric illness. The church also conducts an evening called ‘Saturday night mayhem’ designed to provide social opportunities for intellectually disabled young people.[5]

[1]     Tim Costello, Streets of Hope: Finding God in St Kilda, Allen & Unwin and Albatross Books, St Leonards, 1998, pp. 77-9.

[2]     Ibid., p.79.

[3]     Merridie Costello, (ed.), ‘Celebrating 1984-1994’, 1994, p. 2. Copy courtesy of Pastor Digby Hannah.

[4]     Ibid. and Costello, Streets of Hope, pp. 79-80.

[5]     Pastor Digby Hannah, email to author, 6 September 2002.