How a Sydney parish church was restored

How a Sydney parish church was restored

John O'Brien

St Peter's Surry Hills is a vital inner city parish in the Archdiocese of Sydney under the direction of its parish priest, Fr Bill Milsted.

The suburb is undergoing a transformation as older couples move on to retirement and young families move in. The parish, whilst carrying on with its normal spiritual and pastoral activities, is also home to a number of significant Catholic institutions and centres: the Mother House (in Australia) of the Missionaries of Charity; a convent for the Sisters of Mercy; St Patrick's Business College; the headquarters of the Servants of Mary; the Benedict XVI Centre for Students and Young Adults, as well as the Actors' Centre, an institution for the general public. The parish will also be playing a significant role for World Youth Day in 2008.

In April 1999, a savage hailstorm swept through East Sydney and passed over Surry Hills. The parish properties suffered considerable damage, amounting to $1,000,000. This event presented significant challenges for Fr Milsted, who had just been appointed as parish priest - his first appointment in this capacity.

All the parish buildings were well insured through Catholic Church Insurance and speedy progress was made to rectify the damage. With all the scaffolding in place the parish embarked on refurbishment works at the same time. Fortunately a parishioner stepped forward and made a generous donation to augment the funds.

The Church interior was rather dark, with poor natural light and ceiling hung fluorescent lights. The front altar was constructed on a timber carpeted platform. The general interior, fittings and furnishings were all in need of refurbishment.

This writer was engaged by the parish to act as the Architectural Consultant and Interior Designer.

Skylights were introduced over the sanctuary and side chapel. The timber platform was replaced with terrazzo to match the original sanctuary. The carpet in the aisle was replaced and the remaining timber floors sanded and polished. The fluorescent lights were replaced with quartz halide lights and glass diffusers.

Additional stained glass windows were introduced to the Pieta Shrine Alcove while the side chapel was refurbished with significant art works by Michael Galovich commissioned. The fresco Stations of the Cross were also rejuvenated by an expert in art restoration.

The existing front altar and ambo were upgraded and repositioned to allow for the celebration of Mass on both sides of the altar and the future introduction of altar rails.

The original Baptistery, which was used as a store room, was converted into a chapel for 'after hours adoration', allowing visual connection with the sanctuary and tabernacle, security being controlled with decorative wrought iron gates into the main body of the church and key pad access from outside.

Upgraded pews, new candlesticks, processional cross, book stands, credence tables, altar crosses, celebrant's chair and altar servers' pews and kneelers completed the refurbishment works and have ensured that St Peter's is a worthy House of God in the Archdiocese of Sydney. The parish also ensures that there is sufficient money put aside each year for maintenance to ensure that the church remains that way.

John O'Brien, ARAIA, is an architect and landscape consultant in Sydney.

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