St John’s Baptist Church in Clifton Hill was erected at one of the highest points in Clifton Hill. After the land grant by the Government to the Catholic community in the district in 1864, foundation stone for the church was laid only in 1876 and the building was completed in 1893. The Spire was added in 1907. The St John’s School situated next to the Church was built in 1904. In the mid and late 1800’s, Church was not considered just a structure or place of worship for the people. It was a meeting place for like minded people. At a time when people had large properties and felt isolated, it was at the church, community issues were discussed, and solutions were suggested. For our readers to feel the heartbeats of that generation, instead of giving brief description of the events concerning the Church, we made it a point to quote the Newspaper reports of those years in this article.
The site for the church was granted in 1864. A group of people who were interested in building a Catholic Church for worship formed a committee and arrangements were made to receive subscriptions. The Committee met at the house of Thomas Edmund Verga JP, who lived opposite to the land granted for the church. Verga was also a big contributor to the church fund. Tenders were called for the first stage of the building and the work commenced by early 1876. The Foundation stone was laid on 27th February 1876. Here is a news clipping from ‘Leader’ published from Melbourne
Leader (Melbourne, Vic.: 1862 – 1918, 1935) Saturday 4 March 1876
“The foundation-stone of the Church of St. John the Baptist, to be erected on Cliftonhill, Heidelberg- road, was laid on Sunday by his Grace the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. The site is a Government grant and is situated at the corner of Wellington street. A grand marquee was erected in which at 11o’clock, mass was celebrated by Rev. J. P. O’Sullivan, who has charge of the church. The Rev. W. Kelly, S.J., preached a sermon appropriate to the occasion, Mr. A. Richardson presided at the harmonium, and conducted an efficient choir. After the service the ceremony of laying the stone was then performed by the Archbishop, in the presence of a large number of spectators.
The building is to consist of a nave 80 feet in length and 26 feet in breadth, a chancel 25 feet long by 20 feet broad, and two aisles 26 feet wide, and will accommodate 2000 people. The style is to be decorated Gothic of the thirteenth century, and the superstructure of bluestone. At present only the chancel, side chapels, sacristy, and a portion of the nave are to be proceeded with. When completed the building will cost about £6000. The architect is Mr. J. B. Denny, and the contractor Mr. John Sellary. ‘The total amount already collected and promised, for the purpose of defraying expenses, amounts to £255.”
The Gold rush had begun in the 1850’s and Melbourne was going through a period of relative prosperity, which made the fund collection easier than churches built during the recession periods of 1890’s.
The Church was formally opened on November 1882 after completing the first section of construction. Here is a report from ‘The Age’ published from Melbourne
The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954) Monday 20 November 1882
“The new Catholic Church of Saint John the Baptist, Clifton-hill, was formally opened yesterday morning by Archbishop Goold. The Rev. D. Shaffray preached the opening sermon, referring at length to the persecutions which the church underwent in the early ages, and impressing upon his hearers the necessity for adhering unflinchingly to the rales laid, down for the guidance of the followers of Jesus Christ. The building has cost £8300, and the decorative style of architecture has been brought into requisition. Six hundred persons can be comfortably accommodated, and the church was filled yesterday. A collection was made, and a large sum received.”
The church was extended between 1887 and 1893. After the completion of construction in 1893, the church was formally opened. Here is a report published in Mercury and Weekly Courier.
Mercury and Weekly Courier (Vic. : 1878 – 1903) Thursday 9 March 1893
OPENING OF ST. JOHN BAPITIST’S CHURCH R.C.
“Some seventeen years ago the foundation stone of this church was laid by Archbishop Goold, during the pastorate of the Rev. J. Heffernan, on Sunday last the solemn opening and blessing took place by the present Archbishop. The admission was by ticket and long before the service commenced the large building was filled. A very large proportion of the audience was Protestant as the invitations issued to the residents of Clifton Hill and North Fitzroy had been accepted and responded to, by their presence. The Archbishop was met on his arrival by a guard of honour, composed of members of the Hibernian Society in full regalia with their district officers. A procession was formed by the church dignitaries, the Archbishop himself at the rear, and the inside and outside of the building were paraded and the special blessings given to the sacred edifice.
The edifice was designed by the late Mr. T. B. Denny. It is in the decorated Gothic style of the 13th century, and consists of nave and aisles, being 144 feet in length by 60 feet in breadth, with a height of 63 feet to the apex of the richly decorated roof tower which is to support a spire, is raised to a height at present of 75 feet. The side altars are lighted by stained windows, the one on the western side illustrating the last supper, and the one on the eastern side the Blessed Virgin, St. Anne and St. Elizabeth. The building is constructed of blue stone with freestone dressing, the mullions and tracery of the windows being especially ornate. The building in addition to a very handsome choir gallery, has been fully seated with polished kauri seats designed to harmonize with the building. The only drawback is that the seats are all on one level instead of being inclined to a higher elevation at the rear of the church, which would have given the occupants of the back seats a better view of the service around the altar. Up to the present time, the cost has amounted to about £22,000 which is all paid with the exception of some £3,000.”
Octagonal Lady Chapel and sacristy were added by 1903. The Spire was added by 1907. Numerous internal fittings were added in 1923 and the building was consecrated in 1924.
Address: 61 Queens Parade, Clifton Hill VIC 3068
Leader (Melbourne, Vic.: 1862 – 1918, 1935) Saturday 4 March 1876, accessed through Trove on 20th October 2019
Mercury and Weekly Courier (Vic. : 1878 – 1903) Thursday 9 March 1893 accessed through Trove on 20th October 2019
The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954) Monday 20 November 1882. Accessed through Trove on 20th October 2019