I'm a mum, teacher and published writer who loves travel, vintage, art and history.
Published May 10th 2015
History, culture and arts at Abbotsford Convent
Abbotsford Convent is a wonderful place to visit, not only for its cultural activities, art exhibitions and good food, but also because it's a fascinating place filled with history and interesting architecture. Around a million people visit the Convent each year, making it one of Australia's most popular cultural icons.
Today the buildings are used as an arts, educational and cultural hub. They are occupied by; artisans, cultural institutions, a community classical music radio station (3MBS), a Steiner School (Sophia Mundi), a not-for-profit vegetarian restaurant (Lentil As Anything), a bakery, bar, café, and gallery. The grounds, gardens and hired spaces are used for live music performances, theatre, community and cultural events, exhibitions, markets, workshops, festivals, conferences and more.
A bit about its history
In 1868 four nuns from the Order of the Good Shepherd arrived in Melbourne to establish a convent, a place where they could care for women in need. They purchased Abbotsford House, which had been built in 1842, and its neighbouring property St Helliers House. Sadly, both of the grand homesteads were eventually demolished and only trees remain from the original gardens.
By 1900 the Convent was the largest charitable institution operating in the Southern Hemisphere. One of the largest Catholic complexes in Australia at the time, it cared for around 1,000 women and children in need. They were largely self-sustainable, growing their own fruit and vegetables, as well as running their own poultry farm and piggery. The Sisters made lace to be sold, and provided a commercial laundry service to raise money for whatever they could not grow or produce themselves.
In 1975 the nuns decided to sell the site and the State Premier, Sir Rupert Hamer, petitioned the Whitlam Federal Government to assist in its purchase. The Convent's farmland was divided from the main site and became the Collingwood Children's Farm. The School of Early Childhood Development and the Lincoln Institute of Health Sciences moved in to establish a joint campus. In the late 1980s the Lincoln Institute became part of La Trobe University and in 1989 La Trobe University took over the Convent.
In 1997, once the university relocated, a developer won the tender to purchase the land, however their plans to demolish the heritage buildings and build apartments was met with dismay by residents. The Abbotsford Convent Coalition was formed with a vision of transforming the site into an arts, educational, cultural and tourist precinct. Their community driven campaign lasted 7 years.
In 2004, with support from the public, the Abbotsford Coalition saved the buildings from demolition and the State Government of Victoria gifted the site to the public. The State Government contributed $4 million for restoration work and the Local Government contributed $1 million dollars. The Abbotsford Convent Foundation was formed, responsible for managing the site, with a focus on arts, culture and learning. The restoration work was immense as many of the buildings had been left to become derelict and the gardens were overrun by weeds. Ten years later, only 60% of the buildings have been restored.
The Convent was built in 1901 as the place where the Sisters and women training to be nuns (novices) resided. Money to build the convent was raised by a raffle held at the Royal Exhibition Building with prizes donated by Catholic families and businesses.
One of the outstanding features is the French Medieval ecclesiastic architectural character. The building consisted of single bedrooms, dormitories, a library, community rooms, a refectory, a granary, parlours and a basement, which is now c3 Contemporary Art Space.
Today, creative arts businesses, cultural and not-for-profit organisations occupy the first floor, a Wellbeing Centre occupies the Eastern wing, and artist's studios occupy the second floor.
Built in 1908, Rosina was a building that housed older women. Women could present themselves for admission if they were homeless, destitute or were seeking refuge from difficult circumstances. They would stay in this building and work in the industrial laundries.
The building consisted of an admissions room on the ground floor, a visiting parlour, a servery, a refectory, and a theatre used for plays, choirs, recitals and lace making. Dormitories were on the upper floor. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performed in the auditorium early in her career.
Today, performing arts research and development organisations occupy the top floor. The Rosina auditorium is hired out for workshops, classes and rehearsals in various performing arts forms.
There is so much to learn about the history of the site. You can walk around and explore the grounds yourself, however guided tours are the best way to gain access into most areas. Tours are conducted every Sunday at 2pm, meeting at Cam's Café, Ground Floor of the Convent Building. There are guided social history tours, art tours, and tours in French. Tours are $15 per person/$12.50 concession. For more information call 9415 3600.