Saint John the Evangelist East Melbourne

ImageSt. John the Evangelist
East Melbourne
1866 - 2008 (143 years)

St. John the Evangelist Church
75th Anniversary
(1929 - 2004)

As one passes one of the busiest corners of Melbourne: Hoddle Street and Victoria Parade, East Melbourne, the huge red brick building of St. John's Church should not be missed. Looking down towards to Albert Street one can observe the complex of buildings which comprise St. John's Roman Catholic Church, Halls and its school where daily, some half a million vehicles pass by.

Each such building has its own history and over a period of three centuries (1866 – 2004) it is a very difficult task for me to write a detailed history of St. John's. I have considered it a great privilege to collect as much as I can about the past and present this information to you.

From 1857, the site of St. John's present Church (at the corner of Hoddle St and Victoria Parade) belonged to the Church of England (called the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity). The Church of England built a Church and a hall in 1857 which served parishioners until moving to George Street, East Melbourne in 1864. As was the custom of the day, the Church building served as both church and school. It ceased to function as a church in 1864, when the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Bishop Perry, opened a new Holy Trinity Church in George Street, near the Fitzroy Gardens . The old church building and the hall were still in service as a common school and Sunday school until the end of the 19th century. Subsequently, it was used as a Sunday School and gymnasium for many years. One of the parishioners, Mr Tom Sheehy, can recall “going to the fights” there on Friday nights and paying two pence to get in.

In 1921, the site and its rather dilapidated buildings were sold to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. The Church of England sold the land on August 3, 1921 for the future development; purchase prize was £3,151 (or £23 per square foot), although according to the 50th Anniversary booklet, 14 th October 1979, page 1 it is quoted: “ I seem to recall that the contract price of the Church during the depression was £17,000.”

It was in 1921 that St. John's came to exist. On that same block of land there was another building right next to the South of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. It was the first Roman Catholic Church of East Melbourne.

Brief History of St. John's Church

The First Church (in use 1866 – 1900)

On the South side of the Anglican Holy Trinity Church was a little well proportioned Gothic building. It was the first St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. It was opened in March 1866 by Archbishop Carr.

Further to the South at the corner of Hoddle Street and Albert Street, was another building which served as the school of St. John's which the Sisters of Charity opened in 1890. St. John's Primary School started in 1890 (Archbishop Carr laid the memorial stone on 5/5/1989) (see St. John's School history below)

The Second Church (in use 1900 – 1929)

Archbishop Carr opened this Church on 21/4/1901. It is a striking building and well worthy of inspection. It is described as a modern form of Romanesque architecture. Archbishop Carr claimed the whole building as a blending of Irish and Australian art. The front carried a magnificent Celtic Cross carved from Stawell stone with emblems of St. John the Evangelist and St. Patrick standing 34 feet high (11.3 metres) and weighting 21 tons. Above the cross is a gable front in pressed terracotta containing the stars of the Southern Cross; and most impressive of all, on the right hand corner rises an Irish round of the entrance to King Cormac's Chapel on the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary, built in 1137.

The Third Church (1929 - present time)

The great Archbishop Mannix laid the memorial stone for this building on the foundation of the Anglican Holy Trinity Church in 1929. It was opened in 1930 serving as the Church until now.

“It will be out of place in these notes to draw attention to something unique in regard to Saint John's at the Eastern gateway to the city. There, fronting Victoria Parade, is the beautiful Church erected by Archbishop Mannix. On the site also stands buildings erected by Archbishop Goold and Archbishop Carr, each of which in turn served as a church. Now they are used for other purposes. Thus three buildings erected as churches by three Archbishops in 100 years still stand on the same site. Can this be equalled in any other part of Australia ?” (Three churches – Three Archbishops. – The Advocate, June 11, 1947, page 21)

St. John The Evangelist
as of 31st May 2008 part of Saint Patrick's Cathedral Parish again

According to the Catholic Church definition, a Parish is a definite community of the faithful within a diocese. It is established on a stable basis by the bishop and entrusted to a pastor. Council of Trent decreed that parishes be established with definite geographical boundaries and that the pastor, or parish priest have jurisdiction over the faithful who resided within these boundaries.

The boundaries of St. John's East Melbourne are: Langridge St to the North; Smith Street to Victoria Parade and Elizabeth Street to the West; Along the north side of the Yarra River to Punt Road and Hoddle Street to the South and up the west side of Punt Road and Hoddle Street again to Langridge Street to the North.

As early as 1867, there came into existence an entity called St. John's Community and it was attached to St. Patrick's Cathedral at East Melbourne.

From the beginning, Priests from St. Patrick's Cathedral took care of St. John's. Until
St. John The Evangelist was established as a separate Parish in 1963.

From all kinds of records which are kept at St. John's archives, we can find records for Baptisms dating back to 1919. This means – in terms of canon law - that St. John's was counted as separate with its own record books. Canonically speaking, since then, the Priests who served St. John's were appointed as Administrators. Some of them became well known such as Father Brosnan (1949 – 1956).

Records in The Historical Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne show with the names of Reverend Father W Pietzsch (RIP 24/3/1988) and Reverend Father James Kierce and Reverend Father J. Peksa (Chaplain for the Czechs – Lithuanian), and St. John's Presbytery located at 88 Albert Street, East Melbourne.

For 1962 we found the name of another Priest Reverend Father J Lanigan (RIP). In 1964, another Priest Reverend Father J McCarter responsible for the administration.

In 1963, St. John's Presbytery moved to a new location: 576 Victoria Parade, East Melbourne, the large building on the west side of the Church which we can see today.

In 1983, following the new provisions of the Code of Canon Law (promulgated in the same year), the Archdiocese merged three parishes into a team ministry ( St. John's , East Melbourne, St. Joseph 's, Collingwood and All Saints', Fitzroy) and Father Brian Cosgriff carried the title Parish Priest of the team. At St. John's, Father Kevin Smith and his successors, Fr Bernie Mackin and Fr. Barry Robinson served as Administrators. The team ministry outlived its purpose, and in August 1992, St. John The Evangelist was re-established as a separate Parish and Fr Joe Bui Duc Tien received an appointment as Parish Priest.

Of particular historical significance, Fr Joe Bui Duc Tien was the first Vietnamese Refugee who was ordained Priest for the Archdiocese of Melbourne (or rather for the Catholic Church in Australia ). He also is the first Priest of Vietnamese origin appointed as a Parish Priest in Australia. He is also the Priest who will serve St. John's Parish for the longest term – Starting in 1992 and expire in 2006.

The Legends of St. John's

Reverend Doctor Greenan (1922 – 1936): Father Greenan lived at St. Patrick's Cathedral and came to St. John in 1922 and was responsible for the purchase of the land at the contract prize during the depression of £3,151.00. He also responsible for the construction of the building (its cost was £17,000.00) which is the third and present Church.

Reverend Father Cassidy (1936-1950): Father Cassidy had manage to pay off most of the debt allowing his successor to continue his great work. This Priest has often been described as the one who responsible for Saint John's becoming one of the finest Communities and Schools in the Archdiocese through this period and into 1950s', 1960s' and 1970s'. He established a kindergarten that was described as the: “ equipped in the state.. and 30 years ahead of its time and indeed politicians brought overseas visitors to show off. The hot lunches he provides for the children when their parents were down and out was a real test of his humanity.”

In 1937, extensive additions were made to the school. This consisted of the Eastern wing - currently the Staff room (lower floor) and rooms 13 and 14 (classrooms). The Archive room and Maths storage room (upper floor). The balcony of the Western wing of the school were also added at this time.

In the 1940's, Fr. Cassidy coordinated the building of the two metre high wall surrounding the school and installed the boilers and the hydraulic heating (1946) which are still in use today. The concreting of the school yard was done at this time as well.

Lived at the Cathedral and walked to St. John's or rode his bike. The brick wall (6') was built around school; there was a Kindergarten for 30 years. He repainted the Church; concreted the school yard; left St. John for Williamstown for 25 years and returned to Ireland

Reverend Father Scarborough (1946–1959): Father Scarborough was a man in contrast to his predecessor. He was not a promoter but steadfastly carrying on the work of the Church, being loved and liked by all. He had a good sense of humour and played an important role in the work of the Y.C.W., N.C.G.M. and C.Y.M.S.

Reverend Father James Kierce (1958-1965): Fr. Kierce is the man who built the large Presbytery in 1963.

Reverend Father Kevin Smith (1975-1987): Father Joseph Bui Duc Tien was there at his funeral at Williamstown. There was a purse (empty as usual) on top of his coffin. There was a legend about his purse. He would give a few “bucks” to nine cheaters in order not to miss a genuine one. There are so many people around who carry a debt to him in some way.

The following is the list of names of all Priest who served St. John's in the past. The list may be incomplete in describing their positions either as Administrator, Parish Priest or Assistant Priests


Reverend Father F. Greenan 1922 - 1936 Rip 04/09/1968
Reverend Father J Cassidy 1936 - 1949 Rip 23/02/1992
Reverend Father J. E. Perkins 1939 - 1944 Rip 22/05/1998
Reverend Father John Connellan 1944 - 1946 Rip 17/04/1987
Reverend Father Scarborough 1946 - 1956 Rip 15/05/1984
Reverend Father D. Conway 1949  
Reverend Father J. Brosnan 1949 - 1956 Rip 26/03/2003
Reverend Father P Vaseris 1950 Rip 29/10/1987
Reverend Father N. Coleman 1956 - 1957  
Reverend Father K. O’Donnell 1956 Rip 11/03/1997 
Reverend Father D. White 1957 - 1958  
Reverend Father William Pietzsch 1959 - 1961 Rip 24/03/1988
Reverend Father James Kierce 1958 - 1965  
Reverend Father J Peksa 1959 - 1975 Chaplain For The Czech Community
Reverend Father John Lanigan 1961 - 1966 Rip 04/01/1999
Reverend Father Leo Hornung Sac 1962 Chaplain For The German Community
Reverend Father John Mc Carter 1963 - 1966 Rip 30/07/1996
Reverend Father J. Hayes 1963 - 1966 Rip 19/08/1969
Reverend Father Peter Foley 1965 - 1966  
Reverend Father C. Barnett 1966 - 1967 Rip 01/01/2004
Reverend Father M. Day 1966 - 1968  
Reverend Father J Whelan 1966 - 1968  
Reverend Mons. B. O'Regan PP 1968 - 1970  
Reverend Father J. Flynn 1968 - 1971  
Reverend Father Paul Kane 1968 - 1969  
Reverend Father John Mullally PP 1970 - 1974  
Reverend Father Anthony Bongiorno 1971 - Rip 15/02/2002
Reverend Father L. Gilfedder 1972 -  
Reverend Father Eric Hodgens 1973 - 1974  
Reverend Father T Mulligan PP 1975 - 1980 Rip 04/11/1991
Reverend Father Kevin Smith PP 1975 - 1987 Rip 30/04/1995
Reverend Father Bernard Mackin PP 1976 - 1982 Rip 10/04/2005 
Reverend Father Neville Mckie Adm. 1982 - 1984 Rip 09/07/2005
Reverend Father Barry Robinson Adm. 1984 - 1992  
Reverend Father Joseph Bui Duc Tien PP 1992 - 2006  
Very Reverend Father Geoff Baron Adm 2006 - 2007  
Very Reverend Father Gerard Johnson Adm/PP/Dean  2007 - 2008  
Reverend Father James VO Thanh Xuan
2007 - 2013  

The second World War resulted in many Ethnic groups emigrating to Australia from Europe . The Lithuanian Community had their Mass and Liturgies at St. John's Church with its own Chaplains from 1949 until 1993.

In late 1970, the Vietnamese people started to arrive and moving into the high-rise flats at North Richmond. They now practice their religion at Churches nearby like St. Joseph 's, Collingwood, St. James' and St. Ignatius', Richmond and St. John's, East Melbourne.

In August 1992, the parish was re-established as a parish and Reverend Father Joseph Bui Duc Tien accepted the appointment of Parish Priest and continued to serve the Parish until late 2006.

Works at St. John's since 1992:

Renovated the Administration Offices:
Since 1988, the main Presbytery has been leased to The Catholic Family Welfare Bureaux (presently named Centacare for Adoption). The old billiard hall had to be converted for use as Parish Offices. In 1993, three offices were required for the Parish Priest, Assistant Priest and Parish Associate as well as a space for the Parish Council and other religious Groups' Meetings.

Rewired the Power system:
There were two power lines in the present Church, along with two switch boards. In 1995, Fr. Joe decided to relocate them together in the Sacristy. Power switches are numbered, making it easier for those who take care of the Church.

Strengthened the surrounding 2 metre high wall along Hoddle Street:
The wall was built in 1940s and over time, its foundations were damaged by the tree roots resulting 17 decrees incline. The City Council had suggested repairs. Forty meters of wall were straightened and repaired. Twelve cubic meters of concrete were poured to strengthen the foundations after all the tree roots were trimmed off.

Repaired the Bell Tower Cross:
Two pieces of brass from the cross were loosening. A crane, 40 meters high, was hired to access the cross for repair.

Repainted the Church:
St. John's Church has been a beautiful Church as everyone can see passing the corner of Hoddle Street and Victoria Parade. But inside, the original colour looked pale and the wall were dusty. Two quotes had been obtained indicating a very high cost between $68,000.00 and $72,000.00 dollars. Fr. Joe decided to use resources from Parishioners. First, a colour must be chosen to uplift the environment creating a warm and prayerful atmosphere, but highlighting the architecture of the building. Three times, one wall was used to the test the appropriateness of the colour.

A daily schedule was drawn up. Scaffolding of 12 meter high was hired. Eight parishioners (some of them professional painters) started painting on 5/10/1999. Each weekend the scaffolding was moved to allow weddings and other liturgy services to take place. Six weeks later, the job was finished (19/11/1999). The Church had been repainted after more than 40 years.

The Stations of the Cross: During the time the repainting was done, it emerged that the Stations of the Cross had to be repaired. Sign writers were involved in the restoration after the repainting of the Church had been completed.

New Sanctuary:
The sanctuary has always been the centre of worship but since the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, the original altar has been re-built, the floor beneath it raised and the original Eucharist rails removed. In recent times the new liturgical forms of celebration have arrested a decline in the number of people attending Church on Sundays.

The original timber and brown carpeted sanctuary floor has been rebuilt in Italian marble be Fr. Joe. Above it a new main altar in the same beautiful marble has been constructed and dedicated.

New Light System:
More advance techniques have been applied to all areas, light included. The light system of the church has been changed to a new system. It provides more light and low cost.

New Carpet for the Church:
No one remembers the age of the Church carpet, but it needed to be replaced. One of the parishioners included St. John's in her will. She passed away in 2003. Fr. Joe used her bequest as the main part of the cost of the new carpet.

New polished timber floor for Parish Offices: In the Parish Offices, carpet was replaced with polished timber flooring.

Polished Big Hall floor: People usually called the Big Hall floor a “Rolls Royce Floor”, but after so many years, it needed a repolish. The whole floor was repolished in January.

New Sound System in Church:
It is very important that people coming to Church hear what the Priest says from the sanctuary. The new technology was applied to make this possible.

New sound and audiovisual system in Church: The sound system needed upgrading and the overhead projector for Mass required replacing.

Rewiring of the Church was also undertaken so that it would not burn down like its neighbour, Saint Joseph's Collingwood. 

By 31st May of this year the new boundaries of what was the Parish of Saint John the Evangelist East Melbourne were established with the surrounding parishes and the remainder of what was the Parish became part of the Saint Patrick's Cathedral Parish.


In 1997, St John's Parish Priest, Rev. Fr. Bui Duc Tien decided to install in the grounds (Eastern side) of St John's property, a Memorial Garden, dedicated to deceased parishioners, who are regarded as still belonging to the Community.

This project required a building permit which came after a long delay as the Memorial Garden project had to be accessed as being in keeping with the Heritage Status already conferred on the Church property in view of its historical significance.

On completion of the project, the Memorial Garden was officially inaugurated in January 2000.

By July 2004, the ashes belonging to some 30 deceased persons had been allotted niches in the Garden Walls in remembrance of their association with the Community.

To guard the Memorial Garden is the Good Shepherd Statue (2.5 metres high) located just behind the main gate, and a replica of Michael Angelo's Pietà.


With the arrival of Reverend Father Bui Duc Tien as Parish Priest in 1992, an important Parish Social function was introduced. In November each year, usually coinciding with the Feast of Christ the King and on the initiative of Father Joe, “ St. John's Night” has been held.

Preceded by the celebration of Mass in St. John's Church, a concert is held in the Big Hall (formerly, the second Parish Church, 1900-1929). Singing is provided by the Church Choirs and other religious Groups, plays and pantomimes presented by Vietnamese adults and school children dressed in colourful costumes and parishioners in attendance enjoy free conversation and refreshments.

Not surprisingly, "St. John's Night” is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the parishioners of St. John's.

St. John The Evangelist Church 50th Anniversary, Oct. 14 th 1979
Record of St. John's at Historical Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne,
18 Brunswick St., Fitzroy, Victoria.
Memory of Yesteryear, Feb. 15 th Reunion 1998.
Some of the Fruits of Fifty Years - Ecclesiastical Annals A. H Massima Co.,
General Printers & Publishers, Howay St., Melbourne 1987.
St. John the Evangelist's, East Melbourne 1959.
The Age, Saturday 18 December 1999.

Thanks to:
Mr. Vincent Rice; Mrs Ann Quinn; Miss Margaret Gurry; Mr. Trung Le; Sr. Hue Pham;
Sr. Thuy Linh; Fr. A. Nguyen; Mr. Thomas Brosnan; Mr. Bill Davies.



Fathers Joseph Lentaigne and William Kelly were entrusted with the development of a Church and School in East Melbourne, on Hoddle Street in 1865. (The foundation stone was laid by Dean England). In March, 1866 a small Catholic Hall which served as St. John's Church and School was opened by Archbishop Goold. This building, which was designed by architect William Wardell, who also designed St. Patrick's Cathedral, is still on site and is used for school, parish and community activities.

The school was placed in the State School 's Directory in 1867 as ‘ St. John's Common School', the first Headmaster was Patrick Brennan and the first teacher was Peter Madden.

In early 1889, the growth of the Community and increasing enrolments made the building of a large, two-storeyed school a necessity. The foundation stone, on Albert Street, was laid by Archbishop Carr on the 4th May, 1889. The school, designed by Architects Tappin, Gilbert and Dennehy was opened by Archbishop Carr on 28th September, 1889.

The Gothic styled building served a two-fold purpose, a public hall and school. The hall was located on the ground floor and the upper floor was devoted to school purposes. At the time it was by far the largest school building in the diocese of Melbourne.

The Sisters of Charity took charge of the school on the 1st February, 1890.

“The attendance of pupils has increased to such an extent that five Sisters are now engaged teaching.” The Advocate, p. 11, 1st February,1890

In 1901 a second Church was opened by Archbishop Carr. This striking building described as modern Romanesque is on the Heritage Trust list and has two striking features; the large Celtic cross over 11 meters high features emblems of St. John and St. Patrick, traditional Celtic designs, all beneath the stars of the Southern Cross. The Irish round tower of over 13 meters in height is one of only two examples in Australia. This building is now used for school and parish activities.

Enrolments increased dramatically at this time reaching 793! The highest in the history of the school.

In 1920 handball courts and clubrooms were built and a classroom and some alterations were added in 1927.

A new church was blessed and opened in 1930 by Archbishop Mannix, this is on the corner of Hoddle Street and Victoria Parade.

“It will not be out of place in these notes to draw attention to something unique in regard to St. John's at the eastern gateway to the city. There, fronting Victoria Parade, is the beautiful church erected by Arch-bishop Mannix. On the site also stands buildings erected by Archbishops Goold and Carr, each of which in turn served as a church. Now they are used for other purposes. Thus three buildings erected as churches by three Archbishops in 100 years still stand on the same site. Can this be equaled in any other part of Australia?” Three Churches – three Archbishops. The Advocate p.21. 11th June, 1947

Father Cassidy, Parish Priest between 1936 - 1950 has often been described as the one responsible for St. John's becoming one of the finest Communities and Parish Schools in the Archdiocese through this period and into the 1950's, 60's, and 70's. He established a kindergarten that was described as the:

“... best equipped in the state... and 30 years ahead of its time and indeed politicians brought overseas visitors to show off. The hot lunches he provides for the children when their parents were down and out was a real test of his humanity.” In the forties he co-coordinated the building of the two meter high wall surrounding the school and installed the boilers and the hydraulic heating (1946) which is still used today. The concreting of the school yard was done at this time as well.

In 1937, extensive additions were added to the school. This consisted of the addition of the eastern wing, currently the staff room (lower floor) and Rooms 13 and 14 (Classrooms), Archive Room and Math Storage Room (upper floor). The balconies on the western wing of the school were also added at this time.

In 1946 a toilet block was built and in 1947 a ‘Milk Bar and Sweets Counter' was opened in the present Parish Hall.

The current toilet block was completed in 1976.

Alterations and renovations were conducted in 1982.

“Street traffic noise levels in the vicinity of six of the class-rooms have increased considerably in recent years, and it is now essential to reduce the level of noise ingress to the classrooms, all of which contain a mix of ethnic students who as well as undertaking their   primary school studies, are engaged in constant English language speech therapy. All of the open able windows and hopper vents on   the East and West ends and south facade to Albert Street are to be sealed off and new internal glass panels are to be added to produce a double glazing noise barrier.” G.C.Borrack - Architect - 18th September, 1981

The historic Gothic facade of the schools belies the modern interior renovations that were undertaken 1990.

The Sisters of Charity ended their 100 year long association with St. John's with Sr Kate O'Brien completing her Principal ship at the end of 1989.

Ms Margaret MacKay was appointed first Lay Principal of St. John's for over 100 years in 1990.

The school and the site is of historic importance, having now been strongly associated with five of Melbourne 's Archbishops.

In 2002, a new entrance to the school (now on Albert Street), Foyer and Administration Area including a new sick bay were built. 

Being an inner suburban school, our students have often reflected the immigration patterns of the past 50 years.

In 2008, the decision was made to close the School after 143 years of catholic education. It closed its' doors on the 31st December 2008 under the supervision of Mrs Fran Drysdale, Acting Principal and Very Rev. Fr. Gerard Johnson, last Parish Priest and current Dean.


Friday Night School

The Friday night school is a special work of the society of St. Vincent de Paul and owes much of its success to St. John's East Melbourne and to the generosity of Fr. Joe Tien.

The school was the idea of Margaret Gurry, one of the parishioners, and it commenced in 1996 to help children from non english speaking background with the day to day problems of their schooling. At first there was half a dozen children seated around a battered table in the small hall. Margaret and some of her friends tutored the children.

But news of the school swiftly spread, and the numbers swelled. Today over 200 students attend each Friday night during the school term. Every available space in the halls is being utilized.

The students range from pre-school to VCE. There is also a small group of women, mother’s of the students, learning English.

The students mainly live in the high-rise housing complex in Richmond, and come from all over the world, East Timor, Africa, Vietnam and China. An emphasis is placed on helping newly arrived migrant students, particularly those from trouble countries.

The school boasts of one on one tutorial help. There are a few devoted adult tutors, but the tutors are mainly students themselves, from Xavier College, Mandeville Hall, Star of the Sea, Sacre Coeur, Genezzano, Melbourne and Monash Universities.

Michael Gawenda, an editor of The Age newspaper described the school in an article he wrote some years ago as a schoolhouse of hope in a changing world”. And that is what the Friday night school is, in the hall of St. John's relationships are being forged that have a meaning beyond what is being learnt and what is being taught, wounds are being healed, opportunities are being created and hope is being fostered”.

Written by Margaret Gurry