Returning to Blairgowrie, Victoria, from a road trip to Kangaroo Island in September 2022, we stopped in the town of Millicent, SA, to pick something up on the way. Serendipitously we parked in front of the catholic church of St Alphonsus. It was an unusual cream brick lozenge of a building. Most of the Christian churches on the way had been traditional buildings “a la Gothic”, with services once a month, or decommissioned and now converted into craft shops or community centres. This was an extraordinary building – and I immediately recognised it as something very special. I walked around it to get a sense of it in three dimensions. The morning light was perfect, revealing the crisp lines, the rounded edges, the unified composition, the care with which it had been built and a testament to its current community of worshippers. The bellcote at the entrance summoned parishioners and visitors alike, the cross above the sanctuary called like a beacon to the community. This was a modern post Vatican II design – architecturally distinguished and liturgically new.
The foundation stone recorded basic facts: “St Alphonsus Church – This stone was blessed – by The Most Reverend – J W Gleeson CMG DD – Coadjutor Archbishop – of Adelaide – on the 21 March 1965 – Reverend J Macsweeney PP”.
St Alphonsus sits back from the road and is elevated, commanding its site while at the same time welcoming its people. The church is part of a complex including presbytery and parish office. I eagerly knocked on the door, then rang the phone number full of hope, wishing to see the interior and discover more of its story. But being a Monday morning there was no one around!
A little research revealed that in August 2022, St Alphonsus Catholic Church, 87 George Street, Millicent – on Bunganditj Country, had been provisionally entered in the South Australian Heritage Register (Ref Heritage News August 2022). The original church located on this site had been dedicated by Bishop Reynolds on 2 March 1884. The current St Alphonsus’ Catholic Church building replaced an earlier structure that had been re-opened on 26 May 1935 after it had been damaged by fire a few months earlier.
I discovered that “This church is one of the largest churches built in regional South Australia after the Second World War. This reflects the rapid growth and prosperity of the town of Millicent as it emerged as a regional service centre for forestry and nearby associated industries during the post-war boom. Many were migrants, and those who attended Mass at St Alphonsus’ Church swelled the size of the Catholic congregation, leading directly to the construction of the new church in 1965-1966 (Heritage News August 2022, p.8).
Heritage SA noted that “St Alphonsus’ Church is a pivotal example of a post-war church, as it was the first South Australian church to respond directly to the Instruction on the Liturgy, a key document arising from the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965) (Vatican II)”. Further, they stated that “The church is also an outstanding, critically-recognised example of late twentieth-century ecclesiastical Modern Movement architecture in South Australia” (Heritage News August 2022, p.8).
The Heritage Council, SA, therefore provisionally entered this place on the SA Heritage Register, under criteria a), d) and e) – a decision triggering three months of public consultation (Heritage News August 2022, p.8).
These criteria highlight the significance of St Alphonsus. Criterion A: it demonstrates important aspects of the evolution or pattern of the state’s history; Criterion D: it is an outstanding representative of a particular class of cultural significance; and Criterion E: it demonstrates a high degree of creative, aesthetic or technical accomplishment or is an outstanding representative of particular construction techniques or design characteristics (her-gen-assessment-criteria-guide.pdf).
St Alphonsus’ Catholic Church demonstrates two important aspects of the evolution of the South Australian State’s history, namely post-war regional development, which occurred as a result of the Playford government’s industrialisation strategy for South Australia, and post-war migration, which supported industrialisation.
The design of St Alphonsus’ Church responded to Vatican II’s call for full and active participation by the congregation by fanning the pews around the sanctuary by nearly 180 degrees, the first time this was done in a South Australian post-war church. Thus, it demonstrates a key stage in the development of the ‘post-war church’ class of place.
The church is also an outstanding, critically-recognised example of late twentieth-century ecclesiastical Modern Movement architecture in South Australia. The building is noted for its imposing appearance, structural engineering, use of materials, sense of light, integration of interior design, master planning, and the legible relationship between plan and external form (Source: https://maps.sa.gov.au/heritagesearch/HeritageItem.aspx?p_heritageno=28125).
Further research was needed to find the architect. Cecil William Peters (Bill) was born on 18 April 1925 in the rural town of Forbes, New South Wales. Having completed his high school education, and with World War 2 continuing apace, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in July 1943. On his return from the war, in 1946, Peters married and moved to Adelaide. After considering his career options, Peters decided on architecture, following in his father’s footsteps, and enrolled at the School of Mines and Industries. During his studies and for a number of years thereafter, he was articled to the Chief Architect of the South Australian Housing Trust, John W Overall, gaining much valuable experience. He graduated in 1954, becoming an associate member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) in 1955 and a Fellow in 1970.
The Catholic Church in Adelaide experienced a period of exceptional growth from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. di Santo reports that “Peters’ association with the Catholic Church resulted in many commissions … his many fine churches include St Matthew’s, Bridgewater (1966); St John Vianney, Burnside (1962); St Alphonsus, Millicent (1966) and the chapel at St Michael’s College, Henley Beach – the latter being one of his personal favourites. Many of the commissions were for educational spaces and facilities at various Catholic colleges and schools including Mercedes College, Springfield; Christian Brothers College, Wakefield Street, Adelaide; St Michael’s College, Henley Beach; St Catherine’s School, Stirling and St Joseph’s School, Tranmere. Other works included a convent for the Sisters of St Joseph, Kadina and presbyteries at Semaphore, Prospect and Dulwich” (Peters to di Santo pers comm. 23 January 2009). (Ref: di Santo, Aldo, ‘Peters, Cecil William’, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia)
What stands out in this modern church is not only its response to Vatican II, but its honouring of the faith tradition on this site. The windows of the original church have been incorporated into the contemporary glass design. The old Gothic windows have been set into the new coloured panes of glass and elevated. They tell the story of faith, of tradition, of worship in this place over time. This is clearly seen in the images of the baptistery.
This deliberate conscious reminder is already evident from the exterior – when the visitor subconsciously queries the composite form of all the windows. The story is subtly told to those with eyes to see and wonder. Another feature is the Stations of the Cross – incorporated into the windows around the church – each vertical light has four geometric panels at the base, then one station, then two more geometric panels. A very interesting way of incorporating the figurative tradition with the geometric.
I am so pleased to have stumbled onto this church and so discovered a treasure: an amazing piece of architecture, a remarkable story and a vibrant faith community.
Ursula de Jong – member National Liturgical Architecture and Art Council (NLAAC)