October 22, 2023
In an Australian countryside lies a Church
A magnificent edifice of red-brick and tall tower
‘Renaissance Art’ styled - a Sistine Chapel miniature
Each fabulous painting has a story of mighty power.
A Church of splendid proportions and unique heritage
The moment you walk in - the frescos will have you amazed!
St Mary’s Catholic Church is located in a small city called Bairnsdale, approx. 280 kms east of Melbourne. The Bairnsdale Railway Station is the ultimate stop on the V/Line sector along the Gippsland railway line. In February 2016, when V/Line distributed travel tickets for free, we made the train journey visiting the suburb along with a couple of our family friends - an Anglo-Indian and a Goan. Once we alighted at the Station however, we were joined by scores of others who had also made use of the free travel. I for one, became the unofficial tour guide of the ‘now big group,’ setting off to explore the commercial hub. Among the many things we did in this country town, one was visiting and spending time in this Church, located on the corner of Pyke and Main Street.
Bairnsdale set on the banks of the Mitchell River, is a welcoming city known for its gardens and coffee houses. Apart from my first visit in 2016, over the years I had the joy of dropping in at least half a dozen times by road on our way to other scenic places, my last visit being a mere 8 months ago. Hence, there is a variance in the photographs clicked, the Church also having undergone some renovations in the meantime.
When we exited the platform of the Bairnsdale Railway Station, the Church tower could be seen stretching into the sky, towering over other buildings of the town making a Statement. As you approach the Church - big and imposing from the outside, nothing prepares you for the wealth of decoration inside!
St Mary’s Church was designed and built in 1913. The front entrance and bell tower were completed in 1937. It replaced the Church which had been built thirty years earlier in 1883. The Church was designed by Augustus A. Fritsch and is listed on the Victorian State Heritage Database and the National Trust Register. On October 19, 2013 the Church proudly celebrated its 100th Anniversary.
The Church is constructed of red brick, with cement dressings, a slate roof and small copper dome to the dominant 42 metre high asymmetrically placed tower. The Church was reordered in 1978 and whilst a new altar brought forward into the nave required the part removal of the marble altar rail, there have been relatively few other changes since. Unlike many Australian Churches from the interwar period, St Mary’s is predominantly Romanesque in design, giving it a stylistic link with the Churches of Spain/Italy instead of Britain/France. At the rear of the Church is the presbytery, a two-storey red brick building built in 1939 in a neo-Georgian style that has other facilities.
INSIDE St Mary’s
What's particularly remarkable about the Church, however, is its interior which is stunning. Here, we go on a tour!
As one walks in, the eyes are immediately drawn to the altar and specifically the ornate tabernacle, which is surrounded by a series of highly-decorated stained-glass windows. From there, the eyes move around the rest of the interior of the building and discovers the beautiful art that lies within. They depict the saints, the trinity and the scenes of hell, purgatory, heaven and the crucifixion.
However, what caught my attention was the intricate artwork over the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The domed roof is unusual, but its decoration is gorgeous which have been ornately decked with painted murals that one would get a stiff neck gazing and admiring at the ceiling for long. Having been to the Vatican, our family friends who were with us during one of the visits compared the ceiling to that of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, however not with quite the same degree of artistry.
The interior of the Church was initially plain. Italian artist Francesco Floreani painted the lovely murals in 1939. He painted them over six years in two stages; the first between 1931-34 and the second between 1937-38. Floreani spent these six long years lying, kneeling, balancing and bending on a 15-metre scaffold.
Floreani’s work depicts many themes central to Christianity, as well as some themes unique to Catholicism. Above the altar is a depiction of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Cherubs hold a scroll around Her which reads “Immaculata in Luce Puritatis” (Latin for “Immaculate in the Light of Purity”). A straight look towards the altar flashes to some extent the design of Milagres Church in Mangaluru. On either side are paintings of the Nativity and the Taking Down from the Cross. In front of the main altar are themes of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. These paintings have the most effect, as we can clearly see the bodies of the damned and sinful burning in the eternal fire of Hell, whilst the angels attempt to recover those who sit in Purgatory.
The walls of the Church are also richly embellished and feature the Apostles, the Gospel Writers, the Crucifixion and the vision of St Francis of Assisi. Being a Catholic Church, St Mary’s also has a set of framed Stations of the Cross, but when compared to the attractive murals on the upper-walls and ceilings, they pale into insignificance.
The scope of the internal painting is exquisite, impressive and is definitely a star attraction. It is not uncommon to hear a gasp from a first-time visitor the moment he/she enters through the door. The Church is well lit, welcoming, remarkable and has its own poignant beauty. The atmosphere inside the Church is peaceful and serene.
During one of my visits, I took a guided tour with another family we were hosting from overseas. I am glad I did but for which I would not have known a few interesting details hidden in the paintings - like the hostile housekeeper painted in the scene of hell because she mistreated the artist. There is also a story of the Bishop who insisted on covering up of the angels’ privates because he thought it was vulgar. The Volunteer pointing to a section of vertical frescos narrated that it depicts some of the local people from the time it was painted.
Both the painter and his daughter are hidden in the paintings. The artist managed to work himself wearing a blue collar and kneeling in prayer in one scene. I was reminded of Bollywood Director of 1990s Lawrence D’Souza of ‘Saajan’ fame who used to appear with the film’s heroine in the same frame in the middle of the singing act in the movies he directed. There is also a little angel without a face. Interestingly, the Virgin Mary’s face is painted in the likeness of the painter’s wife.
If I could still delay writing this piece for a couple of years, I would perhaps have discovered many new things to put down here, as everytime I look around I tend to find something else in the murals that might have caught my eyes.
ABOUT the Painter
The entire interior painting of the Church is just the work of one man!
The painter Francesco Floreani was an Italian immigrant born in Venice and studied painting at the Academy of Arts, Turin. In 1927, Floreani emigrated to Australia where work was plentiful until the Great Depression of 1930. In 1931, Floreani met Fr. C.F. Cremin, the Parish Priest of St Mary’s Church on a farm whilst he was employed as a pea-picker in a town called Metung, about 35 kms further than Bairnsdale. Floreani asked the priest if he knew of any better jobs in town as he needed money to bring over his wife and daughter. When Fr. Cremin learnt that Francesco Floreani was an artist, he employed him to decorate the Church. Starting with statue-painting, it was a job that would last him six years!
The content of the painter’s murals is in flat, stylised manner inspired by Renaissance religious art.
Francesco Floreani died in Melbourne on the 3rd April 1980.
The plethora of painted images covering the front portion, the entire ceiling and part of the walls is no doubt impressive. Striking as is, but my take is that it would have been still impressive if the rest of the walls were covered in paintings as well. As it stands, we cannot say the interior of the Church is fully painted; The paintings are generally well-done, but in a few, I noticed the finishing has been a bit awkward. It was like someone having written a page with his/her neat handwriting with a black pen, then has criss-crossed a word that has doubled up after realising it.
The Stations of the Cross are painted in identical colours as the rest of the interiors. As a result, they do not stand out and are sort of gotten drowned. If the painter would have chosen a contrast colour, even charcoal or black/white, the whole Church would have looked more spectacular; If we look a bit deeper at the angels, they actually look much older, seldom have the glow on their faces and twinkle in their eyes.
Right above the altar, Cherubs hold a scroll around Mother Mary with the words in Latin painted in capitals in black as IMMACVLATA IN LVCE PVRITATIS which should actually read as IMMACULATA IN LUCE PURITATIS. I have no idea why the letter ‘U’ appears to have been painted as letter ‘V’ in those three words making it unpronounceable.
Every time, I visit St Mary’s Church brings me back nostalgic memories of stepping into our own St Aloysius College Chapel in Mangaluru during my High School and College days. As a young boy, when I walked through its open left door for those 8 years, it was just simply a feast for the eyes. Likewise, when I have walked through the door of St Mary’s, the first time my jaw dropped and everytime thence, the gem hidden inside has taken my breath away. Absolutely beautiful frescoes painted on the ceiling and walls make this an absolute awesome experience irrespective of one’s own personal faith.
All places of worship, no matter whichever religion they belong to are simply marvellous. Our earth glitters as it holds such masterpiece edifices. St Mary’s attracts nearly 100,000 visitors every year from all over Australia and the world. I can gladly count myself as one among them!