St Mary Star of the Sea is one of the most beautiful and historically significant churches in Australia. Originally with seating for over 1200 people, it has been described as the largest parish church in Melbourne, in Victoria, or even in Australia.
On 30 September 1852, only a few weeks after land allotments in North Melbourne became available, Very Rev Patrick Geoghegan OSF, Melbourne's first Vicar General, secured two acres, on the highest point within the block formed by Victoria, William and Chetwynd streets. A foundation stone was laid two years later, on 14 May 1854, and within six months a modest cruciform stone church was erected. Melbourne's port lay in the church's shadow, and so the church was dedicated to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, patroness of seafarers. Priests from St Francis', Melbourne's proto-cathedral, served the mission.
The Victorian Gold Rush fuelled a population explosion which contributed to a rapidly increasing Catholic congregation. On 28 July 1862, Rev Simon Riordan chaired a public meeting which resolved to erect an entirely new church to serve North and West Melbourne. A scarcity of funds forced an alternative: two additional transepts should be added to the existing building. Construction was delayed, however, by a good nine years. In 1871, a new transept increased the capacity of the church to 500.
Two years later, in 1873, St Mary Star of the Sea became a parish. Rev Henry England, West Melbourne's long-standing locum, was appointed first parish priest. In 1875, Archbishop Goold visited the parish, and informed priest and parishioners that the building was not adequate for divine worship. In response, a second transept was added and the interior renovated.
The communion rails were preserved, and the forward altar was only a temporary wooden structure.
By the turn of the century, the external fabric of St Mary's was in a very bad state. Its interior was gloomy and in a state of synthetic disrepair. In 2001, Archbishop George Pell entrusted the parish to the priests of Opus Dei, a personal prelature of the Catholic Church.
In 2002 the parish priest, Rev Dr Joseph Martins, launched a $10 million restoration project, which is ongoing. Thomas Hazell AO, an experienced public servant and committed restorationist, headed the project. Dennis Payne, the chief architect, led a specialist team widely recognised for expertise in heritage buildings and places of worship. George Giannis, the chief restorer, set about not only restoring past grandeur, but added details which were envisaged but never realised in the initial construction.
Faithful restoration, by way of example, includes the recreation of gold stencil work in the sanctuary. Some of the stencils relate directly to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's restorations at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, whilst others derive from Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin's designs for the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Giannis' team has also recovered the original brilliance of the magnificent images of St Gabriel and St Michael which overlook the high altar. But he has also painted and fixed a depiction of Christ Pantocrator, which was intended to adorn the arch separating the nave and chancel. Similarly, fibre-glass angels now stand in the niches high in the church ceiling, in place of carved timber angels which were planned in the 1890s, but never commissioned.
To enable Mass to be offered by the priest facing the congregation, construction of a permanent marble Altar coram populum accompanied the restoration project. The altar was designed by Rev Victor Martinez, a professional architect and priest of Opus Dei. It accords with the design, but does not compete with the monumentality, of the magnificent high altar which dominates the sanctuary. Its constituent two tonnes of marble required extra reinforcement to the crypt beneath the sanctuary. The restoration of the interior is largely complete.
Several trade unions and building suppliers very generously donated labour and equipment. Most of the sum raised for the restoration financed the replacement of the decayed sand and limestone of the external walls. Over 250 tonnes of replacement stone was used on the north and east facades. Exterior work on the west and south facades is still outstanding. The global financial crisis has impacted fund-raising, and work has ground to a halt. Scaffolding remains however, and it is hoped that the restoration project can be completed, despite an economic environment similar to the one which slowed, but did not prevent, initial construction.