Wesley Church enters new era of worship and witness

On 15 December, the historic Wesley Church in Melbourne’s CBD will welcome worshippers for the first time since early February – and for project transition officer Leonie Barber that really will be something to sing about.

The church and its associated manse, schoolhouse and caretaker’s cottage are being restored as part of the $200 million redevelopment of the Wesley Place precinct.

When finished next year, Wesley Place will host a new 35-storey office tower and retail area set in a green public space. Most of this area had previously been a car park.

The Lonsdale St site remains in UCA ownership, with Charter Hall signing a 125-year lease, which includes a sinking fund for the ongoing maintenance of the church buildings after the full restoration.

Before the restoration, Leonie said the deterioration of the heritage-listed church and its associated structures had “bedeviled our days for decades” and it got to the stage where solid plasters were falling from the ceilings.

Faced with the prohibitively expensive repair and maintenance of the buildings, the congregation, in consultation with the former Wesley Mission (now Uniting Vic.Tas) and Synod, decided a commercial partnership was the only realistic option to keep the properties functioning as a UCA presence.

“It’s been a very positive experience working with Synod on this,” Leonie says. “I see it as a gift to the community, that this whole area will be a public space, with the church at the centre.

“We can concentrate on doing the work of the church more effectively. The church’s core business is not property ownership so we have released it to get on with ministry in this place.”

Leonie is especially excited about restoring Wesley’s musical pedigree, with the church’s excellent acoustics having previously attracted performance groups and festivals before the physical deterioration became insurmountable.

“We have maintained two choirs for many years – both of them very faithful and unpaid,” Leonie says.

“We trust these will grow and, in addition, Charter Hall is in conversation about starting a community choir.”

Wesley Church opened in 1858 and it and the accompanying buildings were constructed between 1857-59 from the Gothic revival designs of renowned architect Joseph Reed, who was also responsible for Melbourne Town Hall.

The church can claim to have Victoria’s first spire, large pipe organ and imported tree, which still produces olives. This, and a second heritage-listed tree, an elm, have been protected throughout construction.

This was just one of the challenges facing the specialist restoration team, which has had to find or train people in skills and trades that are in danger of fading away.

“Stone masons and plasterers have been brought over from Britain and apprentices trained,” Leonie says.

“The new stone has come from Germany and the slate was imported from the original quarry in Wales to replace the roof.”

Highly specialised work was also required to restore the stained glass windows, many of which were removed, transported to a workshop where they were re-leaded by hand and then refitted in the church.

As a homecoming for the congregation there will be a Thanksgiving Service in the restored Wesley Church on 15 December, 2pm. All are invited to attend.

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