On Sunday 19 November 2023, St Ambrose’s Catholic Church in Brunswick will be celebrating a momentous occasion: their sesquicentenary—150 years since the church was completed. Patricia Murray, a member of the Coordinating Committee for the celebrations, says, ‘It is a significant event. St Ambrose’s is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Melbourne.’

Indeed, the first ground was broken on the project in 1869, with the church finally coming to completion in 1873.

In the leadup to the celebrations, the parish leadership team have been providing little snippets of St Ambrose’s history in their weekly newsletter, building a picture of the development of early Melbourne and of how the church came to be.

Ms Murray says that one of the unique things about the church itself is its ‘late Gothic style’, making it ‘one of the finer churches of Melbourne, built in bluestone, with a timber supported ceiling, a 19th-century organ, and high-quality stained-glass windows’. A recent beautiful addition is an olive garden at the front that was planted 20 years ago by the Merri-bek council ‘as a place of welcome and rest for the local community’.

Sitting on Wurundjeri land, St Ambrose was built out of necessity, although the construction of the church was slow going. In 1839, when the area that is now Brunswick was surveyed by European settlers, the only place where people could travel for Mass was a small weatherboard chapel on the site now occupied by St Francis’ Catholic Church. But with the Catholic population of the area on the rise, everyone knew they needed an alternative.

In 1850, the foundation stone for a new church, St Paul’s Catholic Church, was laid in Coburg. However, when gold was discovered in Victoria, the builder abandoned the church to search for gold, and construction wasn’t completed until 1855. It was with the arrival of Fr Charles O’Hea, a priest from Ireland, that St Ambrose’s finally came to be built.

During the gold rush, Brunswick became a stopping place on the way to the goldfields. Its population grew even more rapidly—boats with new immigrants were arriving on almost a daily basis throughout these years—and the need for another church became clear.

In 1860, at a meeting at the Sarah Sands Hotel in Brunswick, it was suggested that a new site for a church be found, and Fr O’Hea gave his blessing to the proposal. Michael Dawson, a wealthy Irish landowner, donated a one-acre block of land to be used for the new church, and in 1870 the foundation stone was laid by the Vicar General, Dean Fitzpatrick.

Early photo of church50
St Ambrose’s Catholic Church in 1873.

The church and community today

Today, the community at St Ambrose has been embracing some significant changes in their way of life.

Fr Linh Pham, Parish Priest and Moderator at St Ambrose, says that their community was one of the first to take part in Archbishop Peter A Comensoli’s invitation to Take the Way of the Gospel. Under this initiative, four churches in the area—St Ambrose’s, Our Lady Help of Christians, St Joseph’s and St Fidelis’—have come together under one ‘mission’ as the Brunswick and Moreland Catholic Community (BMCC). What this means on a practical level, Fr Linh says, is that BMCC is now under one administration, with one newsletter, one website and an overarching Evangelisation and Stewardship Council for the mission.

‘It has been an exciting task and challenge for both clergy and parishioners,’ Fr Linh says. ‘However, we are living in times of great change, not only in the Church but also in the world. This new way of working together between parishes gives clergy and parishioners opportunities to discern what the future could look like and to explore how to live out our baptismal vocation.’

‘With optimism and support from each other, clergy and parishioners, BMCC has achieved many good things over the last three years,’ he says. ‘Most parishioners realise that something new and different needs to happen within parishes.’

But it is still early days for the Brunswick and Moreland Catholic Community. ‘The community still needs time to enter more deeply into the process of discernment, which has always been at the very heart of mission or change.’

Ultimately, he feels they are being faithful to Pope Francis’ call in Evangelii Gaudium to live a ‘missionary option’ for the church (§27).

Ms Murray speaks warmly of St Ambrose’s as a beautiful and multicultural community. ‘There are many young families in the Brunswick area, together with the older Italian migrants that came to Brunswick after World War II.

‘St Ambrose’s has always been a welcoming place, with a strong sense of outreach to the local community. Some of the good things are our regular “meals in small groups”, which give people an opportunity to get to know each other. We have a weekly Christian meditation group and an occasional Taizé prayer evening. There is an active St Vincent de Paul conference. Support of asylum seekers and visitation to the elderly and housebound are also an important part of our parish outreach.’

On the day of the celebration, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli will be celebrating Mass at 10.30am at St Ambrose’s Catholic Church. Following the Mass, everyone will be invited to a catered lunch in the church grounds, and at 2pm the musical group Progetto Corelli will perform a concert of baroque music in the church.

Ms Murray says that on the day there will be a ‘History Tree’ in the grounds of the church, with the leaves ‘representing those who have gone before us over these past 150 years, as well as ourselves and our families.’ People will be invited to contribute a leaf of their own to the tree.

For this event, she says, ‘All are welcome.’

Everything on the day will be free of charge. However, for catering purposes, please RSVP by 1 November to bmcc@cam.org.au or phone 9380 1023.