By David Southwell
As Victoria and Tasmania cautiously emerge from the COVID-19 separation, the Uniting Church will begin a new era of togetherness as Synod and agency staff converge at a joint centre of operations at the freshly finished Wesley Place development, which is also home to the historic Wesley Church.
Over a four-week period from late June, 417 staff from UCA Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Uniting Vic.Tas, Uniting AgeWell, U Ethical will move into the 35-storey gleaming glass tower that shares a green public space with the restored 162-year-old Wesley Church and its associated buildings.
Synod General Secretary Rev Dr Mark Lawrence says moving Synod operations and mission staff from 130 Lt Collins St to Wesley Place, where they will work in close proximity with staff from the agencies and congregations, presents exciting opportunities.
“There are already a lot of ways in which the different parts of the Uniting Church family engage with and relate to each other,” he says.
“If we’re in the same place together we can build on those activities, we can more easily set up face-to-face meetings, we can quickly touch base and share ideas.
“If we’re intentional, that can lead to a greater scope to do work together and, where appropriate, share services with each other as well.”
These thoughts were echoed by Uniting Vic.Tas CEO Bronwyn Pike, with the agency relocating 200 staff from two other sites to Wesley Place.
“It is extremely exciting to be moving into new office accommodation in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD,” Bronwyn says.
“The new offices will provide a modern working environment for our employees, while strengthening our traditional links with the Church.
“It makes sense to co-locate our community services organisation with other divisions of the Church, given our shared history and sense of common purpose.
“Sharing these premises will bring us closer to the Synod and our sister agencies and provide more opportunities to collaborate and exchange information and ideas on driving real, positive social change.”
The Wesley Church congregation, which will also have ministry staff based in the new building, is also looking forward to closer collaboration with the various arms of the UCA.
Wesley Place Project Transition Officer Leonie Barber says her congregation is in talks with potential UCA Synod and agency partners to set up a centre that will explore how the Church can have a more effective voice on ethics and social policy.
“We want it to be a fruitful and creative way for the Uniting Church’s excellent thinking research and policies to reach out in the public arena,” Leonie says.
“That’s the intent to draw together the strengths of the Uniting Church in an identifiable location and perhaps be listened to.”
Leonie says this promises to be a new chapter in the congregation’s long history of engagement with the community to help the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, a pedigree that is also noted by Bronwyn.
“Wesley Place is at the historical heart of Uniting,” she says. “Over a hundred years ago, the Wesley Church congregation formed the Melbourne Central Mission out of concern for people in need, particularly those who were abused, addicted, homeless or impoverished.
“This was the origin of one of our 24 founding agencies, Wesley Mission Victoria. Now, as the recipients, stewards, and continuity of the Uniting Church, we continue the important work of supporting vulnerable people in times of crisis.”
The depth of Church history at the 130 Lonsdale St site led to discoveries still being made, even at a late stage of renovations, including the recent find of a forgotten foundation stone under a staircase in one of the buildings associated with the church.
“The stone was from the Primitive Methodist church that stood on the corner of Lygon and Queensbury streets,” Leonie says.
“The church was built in 1866, eight years after Wesley Church. The Primitive Methodist congregation merged with Wesley Church at the time of union between the many strands of Methodism in 1901.
“The stone had been retrieved by somebody at the time the church was demolished and stored under the staircase in the Wesley Church Schoolhouse. There is an intention to feature the stone and its history in the gardens in front of Nicholas Hall.”
Wesley Place will remain in the hands of the Uniting Church, but has been leased to developer Charter Hall for 125 years.
As part of the $600 million deal, Charter Hall has committed more than $20 million to restoring Wesley Church and related heritage-listed buildings, including Nicholas Hall, the Caretaker’s Cottage, the manse and Schoolhouse.
Work began on the site in 2017 and continued even under the restrictions of COVID-19, although this has contributed to the project marginally overshooting its initial projected completed date, which was in April this year.
The church, which was built in 1858 according to the Gothic Revival designs of renowned architect Joseph Reed, reopened for worship in December last year after two years of being scaffolded followed by 10 months of complete closure for works.
Unfortunately the congregation, which had been “camping” out in Nicholas Hall, only had a short time to enjoy their reopened home before Wesley Church stopped holding services in March as part of the COVID-19 lockdown.
“We were still celebrating our return to worship and music in the church, so it was particularly painful when we had to close the doors again,” Leonie says.
“After the restoration works, it’s still our church. People are often there because they love the building. We haven’t detracted from its original beauty, we’ve made it more versatile.”
Mark notes that UCA people, especially those on floors two and three of the Wesley Place tower, will enjoy a very prominent view of the church.
“That’s important symbolism as well,” he says “The southern end of the second floor is where the meeting rooms, main reception and chapel will be and they will have a view of the church and over Lonsdale St. It will be a very lovely place to work in and have meetings in.”
As part of the 125-lease, Charter Hall provides a sinking fund that pays for the church’s repairs and maintenance.
“That means we are not spending all that time worrying and pouring money into maintaining buildings and still not keeping up with it,” Leonie says.
“So, we have been freed from the burden of decaying buildings to get on with being a church.”
BY THE NUMBERS
8 – Number of buildings that make up the Wesley Precinct (130, 140 and 150 Lonsdale Sts, School House, Caretaker’s Cottage, Nicholas Hall, Wesley Church, Wesley Manse.
35 – Number of floors at 130 Lonsdale St office tower.
417 – Number of UCA, U Ethical, Uniting AgeWell and Uniting Vic.Tas staff relocating to Wesley Place.
1858 – Year Wesley Church built.
1893 – Year Melbourne Central Mission begins. This became Wesley Mission Victoria which, in 2017, became part of Uniting Vic.Tas.
1902 – Year Wesleyan Church becomes a Methodist Church.
1961 – Year Uniting Church buys 130 Little Collins St, with the intention of turning it into its head office in Victoria
1967 – Year building is completed at 130 Little Collins St
2016 – Year historic 125-year lease is signed between Uniting Church and Charter Hall.
2017 – Year first sod turned on the Wesley Place development.
2020 – Year 130 Lonsdale St office tower opens.