A restoration project at Warrnambool's oldest church has uncovered a colourful past hidden beneath seven layers of paint for decades.
The $260,000 project is reviving the history of a church building which has a story to tell that dates back to a time when Warrnambool was little more than just a village.
The detailed frieze, mural and artwork uncovered on the walls under layers of lead-based paint and sheets of asbestos has left Father Scott Lowrey wondering why it was ever covered up.
Parishioners to Sunday services have for years been surrounded by plain cream walls - the only hint of a more vibrant past was the blue and gold star-covered timber ceiling above the 100-year-old pipe organ. "Thankfully they never painted over that because it's actually quite unique as well," Father Lowrey said.
Much like a tourist wandering through the old European churches, Christ Church on Henna Street holds so much history between its walls. From its early links to vicars from England and Ireland to the stories of those who risked their lives on the battlefields of Gallipoli, the Anglican church's rich history dates back to the birth of Warrnambool as a town.
And now the grand old building is getting a much needed makeover thanks to $120,000 in funding from the Living Heritage Grants program, matched dollar-for-dollar by the church, and extra funding from local philanthropic trusts.
The works come with the tick of approval from Heritage Victoria and is part of a major overhaul of the site that began in 2008 when a conservation management plan was developed for the entire complex. "When I first came here there were buckets in the church because the roof was leaking," Father Lowrey said.
About $120,000 was spent repairing the slate roof, then another $750,000 restoring the external stone work on the tower - a later addition that dates back to 1882.
Restoration works also included the World War I mosaic memorial tablet which records the names of men and women from the Church of England who served or were killed in action. Many are well-known families in the Warrnambool community - names such as Hammond and Thompson.
Also hanging in the church complex is the recently restored flag that once flew on the battle-scarred hills of Gallipoli where the Anzac legend was born.
It was brought back to Warrnambool by Reverend Thomas Bennett who served as chaplain at Gallipoli - the flag thought to be the only Australian Imperial Forces battalion marker from that bloodied war zone still intact.
Known as The Padre, Reverend Bennett landed at Gallipoli on September 25, 1915 with the 22nd Battalion.
He lived in a dugout in what was known as Shrapnel Gully and spent his time dodging bullets in the trenches, burying the dead, writing to their loved ones, holding services and being a source of comfort to many men from the south-west.
From the battlefield, he wrote regularly to the parishioners back in Warrnambool but not all of his letters made it home. At least 800 of them were lost at sea when the ship carrying the mail was torpedoed.
But the letters that did make it home painted a picture of life on the front line. He recalled conducting services just behind the firing line - within 150 yards of the Turkish trenches - using a treacle tin filled with bacon fat to provide a flickering lamp for the services where soldiers would sing old hymns, minutes before returning to the cold trenches to "face the bullets". Afterward he would head back to his dugout in the dark of night as bullets whistled overhead.
On his return to Warrnambool, he sought out distressed relatives of Diggers killed, visited returned soldiers and helped establish the city's RSL branch. A stained-glass window and a brass plaque inside the church pay tribute to his work.
The stained glass windows at the church date back to when the church was first built in 1856. Others date to Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations in 1887. "As I say to people, the VR doesn't mean Vic Rail it means Victoria Regina. They're not stolen from the local railway station," Father Lowrey joked.
Even the windows have been restored in recent decades and, despite all major restoration works in recent years, the church has stood the test of time.
"It's remarkable when you think about the structure that was built in the 1850s. It's still here. Still predominantly sound. The foundations under here are just rock," Father Lowrey said.
The foundation stone for Christ Church was laid by Warrnambool's first vicar - Reverend Peter Beamish - in 1855.
Born in County Cork, Ireland, Reverend Beamish arrived in Australia in 1847 - around the time the first land sales in Warrnambool were taking place.
The first church services were conducted in 1847 by Dr Thomas Braim in the blacksmith's shop near the corner of Liebig and Timor streets. Packing cases doubled as pews, and the shingle roof offering little protection. Dr Braim would travel from Port Fairy to conduct services until Reverend Beamish arrived in June 1850.
"Everyone thinks the church is the oldest building on the property but it's actually the wooden section of the house that dates from 1853," Father Lowrey said.
"The parish priest Peter Beamish, and his wife Charlotte, lived in the house and converted one of the rooms each Sunday into a space for worship while the church was being built."
That wooden section still stands today, although the paintwork hides the age of the thick vertical boards.
"It's the oldest church building in Warrnambool and I would argue the house is actually the oldest continual residential property in Warrnambool since Jack Daffy's old place across from Flagstaff Hill got pulled down," Father Lowrey said.
"It would be close to one of the oldest continual residences."
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The church itself was built using Merri sandstone which Father Lowrey said probably came from the quarries a few streets away.
When tradesmen began removing the asbestos panelling from the church walls, they expected to find significant deterioration of the stonework. "But there hasn't been so we are wondering why they did it," Father Lowrey said.
Deep grooves left behind by the pipework from the original gas lighting is the only section of wall that requires major repairs.
Tradesmen have also been removing the paint that covered the bluestone surrounding the windows and doors.
"It's a big process to strip the paint from the church. It's been a huge job," parish council secretary Lois McKenzie said.
Only a small section of the mural that runs around the whole church will be restored.
The detailed decorative relief and lettering around the archway above the pulpit - which would have been done during the Victorian era of the 1870s or 1880s - can't be saved.
However, Mrs McKenzie said she hoped that when all the layers of paint finally came off it would reveal the words hidden behind it.
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