Historic church decays as talks stall

The c.1877 church, right, is being preyed upon by vandals as security fencing lays flat on the ground earlier this year. 318679_01 Picture: GARY SISSONS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Calls are ramping up for a decaying and vandalised historic church in Keysborough to be saved before it’s “demolished by neglect”.

A community group hopes that the 146-year Gothic-style church – the oldest surviving building in the fast-developing suburb – may be home to a gallery and cafe.

They are backed by more than 2200 signatures on its Saving the Historic Keysborough Church online page.

But currently the church stands unused, and become a regular target of intruders and vandals.

This year, locks have been damaged, the exposed interior has been tagged with graffiti, and most recently a plain stain glass window destroyed. Its slate roof is in obvious disrepair.

The owner Uniting Church of Australia no longer uses the two buildings on the site.

It says it is looking to subdivide the site and transfer the buildings to a community group at a “peppercorn” rate.

Community group member Gaye Guest says several years of negotiations between Uniting Church and Greater Dandenong Council were “taking far too long”.

“It needs to be handed over.

“We need it back in the community hands so we can start wrapping our collective arms around it and turning it into a functional community space.”

Ms Guest says the circa 1877 building designed by renowned architect John Beswicke should be given state heritage significance “in a heart beat”.

The largely-abandoned site is instead “vulnerable”, protected by padlocked waist-high gates and broken gaps in the security fence.

“Inside the heritage church hangs the heritage-listed WWI honour board right next to a (jimmy-opened) exposed window.”

Greater Dandenong city planning director Jody Bosman said the council had been working with the Uniting Church on ways in which to preserve and protect this site.

“The buildings on site have important historical value.

“Council continues to actively work with the Uniting Church to find a suitable future use for the site as soon as possible, and to ensure the site does not fall into disrepair.”

In an email to Ms Guest, Mr Bosman said progress was “admittedly slow” and shared the concern over the site’s “dereliction”.

“I do feel that it is in good faith the (Uniting Church has) entered into discussions to see these buildings ultimately becoming a community asset.”

He suggested the community could be involved in working bees with Uniting Church to maintain the property.

Uniting Church did not comment.

Earlier this year, a Uniting Church spokesperson told Star Journal the “discussions are progressing well” towards a subdivision plan with the churches transferred to community group ownership.

The council had indicated it would “fast track” the subdivision and offer an open-space exemption in exchange for Uniting Church’s “in principle” plan for a “new long term ownership of the historic buildings”, the spokesperson said.