Aussie visitors to Europe will take in a church or cathedral or three right? Why not spend an afternoon on a church crawl in Melbourne or try out a new church service experience? You don't have to be religious to appreciate the beauty and tradition of these historic sanctuaries.
It took me a good few weeks to action my plan of a walking tour of Melbourne churches. I only managed to get to two, instead of the eight or so on my list. Church crawling is a tougher gig than I imagined.
The first challenge is whether or not the church is open. I wanted to have a look inside St James Old Cathedral, which is the oldest stone church in Melbourne, built between 1837 and 1847. It was moved stone by stone to its current location north of King Street after St Paul's Cathedral opened. Sadly I found that it is only open at service times, not for weekend wanderers like me.
St Paul's on the other hand is open for visitors every day, from 9am to 4pm each Saturday and Sundays from 7.30am to 7pm. It stands with dignity at the northeast corner of the iconic intersection of Swanston Street and Flinders Street, its tall gothic revival exterior forming a striking contrast with the asymmetry of Federation Square.
St Paul's from Fed Square (picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
It's actually pretty simple inside, but it is big and worth a quiet wander. You won't feel like an intruder if you visit. The first thing I noticed after walking in was a lovely sign, acknowledging that people are welcome to visit whatever their reason, even just for shelter from the weather and a place to sit down.
The first thing you notice in St Paul's is the soaring ceiling and the long, long body of the cathedral. I love the tiling detail on the floors and side walls, and the striking horizontal band treatment of the columns. There are plenty of stained glass windows and old memorial plaques to look at, as well as obvious signs that the church is still loved and well cared for, such as what looked to be recently hand cross stitched cushions on every pew. There's even a little cathedral shop staffed by volunteers.
Each pew cushion must have taken hours of embroidery work
If you like services with your church visits there are five every weekend to choose from, including one at 12.15 on Saturdays. See the St Paul's website for details. A morning service had just finished when I arrived, and there was a friendly buzz as the clergy spoke with the exiting congregation. When I went back, having left my umbrella behind, I found 20 teenagers rehearsing a contemporary performance for a Chinese service at 2pm, again with a lovely feel.
The other church I visited was The Scots' Church on the northwest corner of Collins and Russell. I've walked past it often on my way to and from work, admiring its glorious exterior and the equally lovely Assembly Hall building next door. The Scots' Church website claims it was built "to be the most beautiful building in Australia" and I can see why.
Scots' Church (courtesy Adam Carr Wikimedia Commons)
Inside, the contrast with St Paul's was stark, largely reflecting the more austere Presbyterian Church tradition, where elaborate decor and furnishings were considered to detract from worship. One exception is the wonderful pipe organ at the rear. There were a few young people in the church practicing, but the church looked and felt faded in comparison to the cathedral. One example of this was also a very striking feature of Scots' for me: the faded but beautiful old flags that hang in the entry hall and along the body of the church.
As with many old Melbourne churches The Scots' Church has a historical claim to fame, describing itself as 'the first church in Melbourne: the first Christian denomination to have regular services of worship conducted by an ordained minister'. The Church History on their website makes interesting reading. You can also see from the website that there is plenty of activity at the church.
For the record, the other city churches I aim to venture inside one day include:
- St Patrick's cathedral and St Peter's Eastern Hill, just around the corner, which is the oldest Anglican church standing on its original site in the inner city area;
- St Mary Star of the Sea in West Melbourne, which has recently been restored to its former glory;
- St Francis in Lonsdale Street, the original Catholic Cathedral, which describes itself as Australia's busiest church, conducting 43 masses each week; and
- the Welsh Church, particularly during a Gymanfa Ganu (singing festival).
Let me know if you have any other suggestions for good holy strolling.