On Sunday, for the sixth year, I volunteered for Open House Melbourne and spent the day at Abbotsford Convent sharing the welcoming duties with Shirley, another volunteer. It was a gorgeous, sunny day for winter and the sun had a sting for my Celtic pelt. Although still officially winter, I regretted not having a sun hat.
It had been several years since I’d been to the complex and although I didn’t get much of an opportunity to explore the inside of the buildings, the changes to the gardens, grounds, and renovated buildings was a pleasant surprise.
I just had to block from memory the chequered history of the institution and not dwell on the sadness when the convent was a home for “wayward girls”. Instead, I enjoyed the ambience of the grounds and chatted with the 1000 plus visitors I recorded during my 4-hour shift!
A stream of musicians and singers as people arrived to practice for concerts and the opera. Locals who walked their dogs; met up with friends or attended regular classes in art, writing and other endeavours.
The tiny, grey-haired and softly spoken ‘sister’ in her mid-80s, now retired, but who had come to revisit the place where she worked with ‘so many happy memories’. My writer’s mind had difficulty not flying off at a tangent and recreating a different scenario!
An article in the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 34 (2013), 70-90 can be read here: Abbotsford convent nuns treatment of girls with details of when it was still functioning in the Catholic network.
Established in 1863, the former Convent of the Good Shepherd was the most important Catholic institutional complex constructed in Victoria. Some outstanding features include the medieval French ecclesiastic architecture, the historical importance of the Industrial School and the Magdalen Asylum, the grandeur of the Convent building and heritage gardens and the aesthetic qualities of the surrounding farmland and rural setting.
In April of 2004, the Abbotsford Convent Coalition and the public finally won the fight to save the Convent. The State Government of Victoria gifted the site to the public; with $4 million to commence the restoration works and the City of Yarra contributed $1 million. With this, the Abbotsford Convent Foundation was born as the custodian of the site to own and manage it on behalf of the people, with a focus on arts, culture and learning. A strong team was built to implement the strategy and vision and the restoration works commenced. With many of the buildings left for years to become derelict and overgrown gardens beyond belief, the job ahead was monumental.
2014)… Ten years on, 60 per cent of the buildings have been restored, hundreds of tenants fill studio and office spaces, the venues are filled with performances, workshops, rehearsals, conferences and meetings, and there is an extensive program of events staged throughout the year. As a community hub and an accessible cultural platform and creative cluster, the Convent hosts a valuable confluence of connectivity, inspiration and ideas. With close to a million annual visitors, the Convent is now one of Australia’s most popular cultural icons.
WURUNDJERI PEOPLE AND CULTURE HONOURED
The Abbotsford Convent is located on part of the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people. The nearby junction of the Merri Creek and Yarra River at Dights Falls continues to be an important meeting place for the Central Victorian Tribes, who are also known as the Kulin Nation. The site is enclosed in a natural amphitheatre that for centuries provided the Wurundjeri people with a sheltered and resource-rich camping area. The river flats and deep fresh water also provided plentiful opportunities for hunting and fishing. The Wurundjeri have maintained their connection to the site, with their office located in the Convent’s Providence building.
Haiku by Mairi Neil
Ningla a-Na! This our land
Indigenous and immigrant
Now sharing history
Of course, further down the street, and visited by most of the people who came with children was the Collingwood Children’s Farm. This brought back happy memories of when the girls and I visited with their primary school and we actually milked a cow!
Not sure if they remember the experience with fondness but I know their Nana was thrilled to hear about the visit because it gave her an excuse (not that Mum ever needed that) to tell stories about her childhood years after her mother died, when she lived on her Uncle Arthur’s farm in Northern Ireland .
The Good Shepherd Chapel
I did manage to have a quick look inside the restored Good Shepherd Chapel. A testament to devotion and the talents of many skilled artisans. Built in 1871, it is the second oldest building at the Abbotsford Convent site and ‘has enormous cultural and historic significance for Victoria’. The original architect, Thomas Kelly, the great uncle of John Clarke, actor/comedian/writer of the ABC Clarke & Dawe duo!
(I always love the connections and six degrees of separation trivia!)
The Chapel is so much more than a church – it is a vibrant and versatile space for the community to gather, share, learn, laugh and reflect.
Renovated in 2012, its remaining original features lovingly restored, it is now a popular venue for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. My co-volunteer, Shirley, told me her son had been married in The Chapel.
More an agnostic now than having any close relationship with my Protestant upbringing, I’ve been inside many Catholic churches all over the world and usually find the statues of the crucified Christ and much of the art confronting. Sunday was no exception and the large sculpture in the foyer didn’t disappoint!
The Crucifix at the end of the Chapel, in a space called the Avant Choir, was made by Max Kreitmayer who was one of the waxworks owners in Melbourne. He came from Germany where he studied anatomy. The house he lived in across, and down the road from the Chapel near the farm is now a cafe.
Terse Verse by Mairi Neil
Faith isn’t logical,
neither is love
The stained glass windows include the beautiful Rose Window above the History Centre, and the Wheel Window, behind the altar, which breathes new life after being concealed internally during the 1960s and 70s. The two traciered windows next to the Wheel Window, representing the Good Shepherd and the Immaculate Conception on the left, and St joseph and St john the Baptist on the right.
The high Altar is still in its original form and was built by Moisseron & L Andre Sculpteures in France. The beautiful marble ordered by Sister Carmel Curtain, the revered sister interred beneath the Chapel nave.
The Apse (Dome) Painting is a set of 5 paintings depicting Mary and two archangels. A visiting artist, Signor Cavallaro, painted the mural in 1899.
Asylum Seekers & Refugees – TREE OF HOPE
The Sisters of the Good Shepherd have always been outspoken on the issue of asylum seekers and many have been active and vocal demanding change in government policies. I wrote a message on a luggage tag and hung it on their Hope Tree –
I hope that all refugees and asylum seekers are released from detention and the Australian Government discovers the meaning of compassion.
Seeking Asylum by Mairi Neil
Despair and desperation in their eyes
they plan to seek a new life
as far away as possible from strife
Seeking a safe haven is the prize
perhaps leaving behind children and wife
despair and desperation in their eyes
For many, it may take several tries
this plan to seek a new life
despair and desperation in their eyes
Living on the edge of a knife
their only crime seeking a new life
despair and desperation in their eyes.
The Order was founded on activating the values of faith, hope, charity and compassion…
‘Charity and Zeal must be universal, that is, they should reach out and relate to everyone.’
St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier
There is also a Bell Tower with bells cast in the 1880s. The bells still ring on special occasions although the original mechanism has been decommissioned. However, Anton Hassell, maker of the Federation Bells at Birrarung Marr configured a drop hammer mechanism to allow the fickle instrument to resonate when needed, much to the delight of the Convent and neighbourhood.
Many of the buildings have been turned into artist and writer studios and I have to admit to envy – especially when the benign sun shone on Sunday, the first hints of spring budded on trees and there was a serene solidity and suspension of time as you walked on paths -whether earthen or concrete – trod by thousands of feet for thousands of years.
Inside the buildings, there may have been shadows of a dark and painful past but outside the gardens display nurturing care and love. A middle-aged man I spoke to yesterday worked as an apprentice gardener ‘many moons ago’ he said with a smile. He was returning to ‘have a look at the changes’.
I complimented him on all his hard work because the mature trees and plants are a credit to the years of care and somebody’s vision, magnificent shrubs and trees don’t just happen!
Haiku by Mairi Neil
Sunlight dispels shadows
gardens nurtured with love
brighten everyone’s day.
Mother Nature’s arms
Always soothes and refreshes
Whispering sweet peace
When it was time to go off duty, Shirley and I headed for the Bakery for a well-earned cup of coffee. So many people visit Abbotsford Convent every weekend for breakfast or lunch, the variety of eating places popular – especially Lentil As Anything. But there is also Kappaya Japanese Soul Food Cafe, Cam’s and the Convent Bakery.
The sound of children’s laughter, adult chatter and the clinking of wine glasses and coffee cups and the biggest variety of dogs I had ever seen in a public space that was not specifically a dog park, was a marvellous testimony to how lucky we are living in a place often voted the world’s most liveable city!
Haiku by Mairi Neil
Coffee for two, please
Friendship needs refills
And a regular fix
Mark your calendar now for next year – Open House Melbourne weekend is a wonderful opportunity to spend time and appreciate marvellous Melbourne.
You can experience buildings with historical, architectural and cultural significance and learn a little more of the development of the city while having fun.