St Mary’s gives a good impression in Bairnsdale
If you ever happen to be passing through the regional city of Bairnsdale in Victoria’s Gippsland district, be sure to make some time to call in to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. You needn’t be religious in order to appreciate this fine building, which is elaborately decorated on the inside with a plethora of beautiful painted murals.
I visited St Mary’s yesterday, and was totally amazed with what I saw so I thought I’d provide an account of my experience for you to enjoy.
The decorated interior of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia.
Bairnsdale is 290 road kilometres from Melbourne, on the Prince’s Highway. In order to have a reasonable period to appreciate the sights of Bairnsdale, a Melburnian needs to leave early and allocate about 8-hours for driving time both ways.
The serious tourist would be best advised to spend the night in Bairnsdale, but since I’d recently been to the city and the sole purpose for my visit was to see this one church, I decided to squeeze it into a single day.
I departed Melbourne fairly late in the morning, and had lunch in Moe, so I didn’t arrive in Bairnsdale until 2:30PM. Unfortunately for me, as I entered the church I discovered that a wedding was about to commence, so after driving for four hours, I had to wait yet another hour and a half to have a look around!
St Mary’s is a red-brick construction that was designed and built in 1913. The front entrance and bell tower were completed in 1937. The church was designed by Augustus A. Fritsch and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Database and the National Trust Register.
As one travels into Bairnsdale on the Prince’s Highway from Melbourne, one sees the church tower on the left stretching into the sky. On the right is a massive water tower, also stretching into the sky. On first impressions, it seems as if the church’s tower was extended with the sole intention of ensuring that its tower appears taller than the nearby water tower!
St Mary’s is an imposing building, but one which looks entirely approachable and soft in its appearance. Unlike many Australian churches from the interwar period, St Mary’s is predominantly Romanesque in design, giving it a stylistic link with the churches of Spain and Italy instead of Britain and France.
Inside St Mary’s
As one walks in, the eye is immediately drawn to the altar and specifically the ornate tabernacle, which is surrounded by a series of highly-decorated stained-glass windows. From there the eye moves around the rest of the building, and discovers the beautiful art that lies within.
Upon entry, one’s eye is immediately drawn to the altar. As Christmas is approaching, a small nativity scene is depicted.
St Mary’s has a barrel-vaulted ceiling that initially reminded me of many of the historic Catholic churches I had seen in the Philippines.
The ceilings of St. Mary’s have been ornately decorated with painted murals which are the work of Italian painter Francesco Floreani.
Floreani’s murals were painted over six years in two stages; the first between 1931-4 and the second between 1937-8. Floreani spent six long years lying, kneeling, balancing and bending on a 15-metre scaffold!
Floreani’s work depicts many themes central to Christianity, as well as some themes unique to Catholicism.
Above the altar is a depiction of Mary, the Mother of God. Cherubs hold a scroll around Her which reads Immaculata in Luce Puritatis (Latin for “Immaculate in the Light of Purity”). On either side are paintings of the Nativity and the Taking Down from the Cross. In front of the main alter are themes of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. These paintings have the most effect, as we can clearly see the bodies of the damned and sinful burning in the eternal fire of Hell, whilst the angels attempt to recover those who sit in Purgatory. Such dramatic depictions probably seek to remind the congregation why they should continue to visit the church!
The walls of the church are also richly embellished and feature the Apostles, the Gospel Writers, the Crucifixion and the vision of St. Francis of Assisi. There’s even a depiction of Francesco Floreani in there! These are much friendlier works which seek to celebrate the Christian faith and glorify God.
Being a Catholic church, St. Mary’s also has a set of framed Stations of the Cross, but when compared to the beautiful murals on the upper-walls and ceilings, they pale into insignificance and I barely noticed them!
As mentioned previously, St. Mary’s was built in 1919 and completed in 1937. The interior of the church was initially plain, as can be seen from this photograph.
Francesco Floreani was born in Venice, and studied painting at the Academy of Arts, Turin. In 1927, Floreani emigrated to Australia where work was plentiful until the Great Depression of 1930. In 1931, Floreani met Fr. Cremin on a farm whilst he was employed as a pea-picker at Metung. Floreani asked the priest if he knew of any better jobs in town. When Fr. Cremin learned that Francesco Floreani was an artist, he employed him to decorate the church. Starting with statue-painting, it was a job that would last him six years!
Francesco Floreani also gained paid work outside Bairnsdale. Melburnians can see his work in the Regent, Plaza and Forum (former State) theatres.
Francesco Floreani’s work at St Mary’s in Bairnsdale is regarded as one of his most significant works. In terms of church design, it is also highly significant because such expansive painted murals are relatively rare in Australian churches, when compared to those in Europe.
As it happened, my delay in accessing the church turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
On account of the wedding, I was able to speak to parish priest Fr. Denis O’Bryan who kindly permitted me access to the mezzanine, which is ordinarily closed to the public.
Mezzanine access felt like a good ‘reward’ for being patient in waiting for the wedding to finish, and the elevated perspective enabled me to take photos from a different vantage point to most visitors, which was fantastic.
Like most churches, St Mary’s is open to the public during daylight hours, and all are welcome regardless of religious affiliation. Access is always free, but a donation towards the church’s upkeep is appreciated.
Unfortunately, St. Mary’s doesn’t have a website, but their address is 23 Pyke Street, Bairnsdale. As you’ve hopefully gleaned from this article, it is well worth a visit.