St Francis’ Church on Lonsdale Street has been a much-loved sacred space in Melbourne’s CBD for the past 182 years. It has also been a place of Eucharistic pilgrimage since 1929, when St Francis' was placed under the pastoral care of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, who travelled to Melbourne at the invitation of Archbishop Daniel Mannix.

Fr Ben Ho SSS, current Community Leader, who has been at St Francis’ for the last 10 years, says, ‘Archbishop Mannix had envisaged a Eucharistic shrine with a unique ministry in the city of Melbourne, at that time, and the Blessed Sacrament Congregation could offer that. So, he entrusted the church to us to become a sanctuary of prayer and adoration.’

Named in honour of St Francis of Assisi, the Church community offers a Eucharistic Mission, which Fr Ben describes as ‘primarily silent prayer, worship and reconciliation; a tradition that began since the Congregation first took over nearly 92 years ago’.

Since then, people have travelled far and wide to visit St Francis’ Church as part of their special trips into the city. Travelers from interstate and overseas also come to ‘pay their respects’ and visit the church when they arrive in Melbourne for events like the Grand Prix, and Australian Tennis Open.

Prior to the pandemic, St Francis’ Church was one of the busiest churches in the country, receiving up to 10,000 visitors in any given week.

‘I meet a lot of people who attend St Francis’ as their “pseudo” parish,’ says Fr Ben. ‘It’s good to hear that many people like to come to St Francis’ because of our Eucharistic and music tradition.’
Kumali Coree Choir St Francis Church
Kumali Coree Choir (founded in 1974 by Sr Kathleen Boschetti MSC at the request of the SSS at St Francis) St Francis' Church website

As St Francis’ is not a parish church but a City Shrine, connected with the Cathedral Parish, it does pose a challenge, in trying to ascertain how to best serve and reach out to the worshipping community.

‘In our community we don’t hold an official parish register and during this time of lockdown we have a very limited number of people we can reach out to,’ Fr Ben explains. ‘Our register primarily consists of hospitality volunteers, Church liturgical volunteers and other regular volunteers who share in our Eucharistic mission.’

‘Since the lockdown, we’ve been reaching out to our volunteers and urging them to be in touch with their local parish, because it’s important that their geographical parish priest understands where they are and how to reach out to them as well. They could tap into their local outreach program too.’

Young Adults St Francis
St Francis' Young Adults Choir St Francis' Church website

The Congregation has ‘one small external ministry’ that it offers to tertiary students through their RMIT chaplaincy, ‘an off-shoot’ of their presence in the city. Historically, the Congregation also once offered hospital ministry to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre when the original building was located in Little Lonsdale Street before moving to East Melbourne. Fr Ben was the last priest from St Francis’ Church to minister there.

Reflecting on some of the key challenges encountered over the past 20 months of the pandemic, Fr Ben says that ‘faith-life lends itself to communal gathering and not having the ability to attend a place of worship is the biggest challenge for most people.’

While he says that prayer and worship can be practiced in multiple forms, including in the privacy of your own home, ‘it’s very hard when people live alone, particularly for those in inner-city dwellings where social connection is limited.’

As a result, Fr Ben says that ‘the key challenge is not the actual ability to offer the Eucharist but the ability to allow communal involvement – the full immersion of the Eucharistic mission.’

To help remain connected, the Congregation offers a monthly newsletter on their website to their community and they have a ‘good group of people who gather online’ for Fr Anthony McSweeney’s Bible Study sessions during Lent. They also have a faith formation group, which meets via Zoom every Sunday to prepare people who want to become Catholic or to be received into the Catholic Church. The Bible Study sessions will continue again when Advent begins.

Fr Ben says, ‘It is positive in many regards that people want to remain connected. People continue to practice their faith in a way that suits them and the important thing is as Church ministers we need to get on board with these changes and provide the needs that people want.

‘I think that the tradition and the Eucharistic Mission that was asked of us from the start will continue and will play a very important role in the Church of Melbourne and in Australia because people will come here not just from Melbourne but from Greater Victoria, parts of Australia and some even from overseas.

'It’s like a place of pilgrimage for a lot of people.’

The feast of St Francis of Assisi is celebrated on 4 October.