Restoration of the ceiling completed in time for Christmas

December 2020

Balmain’s historic St Augustine’s Catholic Church has undergone a much-needed restoration of it’s ceiling and windows. The work took four weeks to complete during which time all Masses and other St Augustine’s activities were held at St Joseph’s Rozelle, the twinned parish of St Augustine’s.

St Augustine’s was built in the Federation Arts & Crafts style. The Arts and Crafts movement – emerging in the 1880s and 1890s – brought a breath of fresh air to Australian design. As its name implies, the Arts and Crafts style was concerned with the integration of art into everyday life through the medium of craftsmanship.

Consecrated in December 1907, it had been designed by Albert Bates of Bates Eaton and Polin a firm well known for their ecclesiastical work around Sydney. Built in an amazingly short time of 13 months, the foundation stone was laid on 7 October 1906 by Cardinal Moran who later congratulated Fr Michael Rohan, parish priest, for his excellent financial management of the project. The financial statement records that the church cost £5,990 11s 2d, but with interior furnishings etc the final cost was £8,054 3s 8d.

The church had been constructed of hard, well-burnt brick walling, stone tracery and cement rendered dressings. “The nave of is 103 feet long by 41 feet wide, with sanctuary 41 feet by 20 feet, and sacristy 18 feet by 12 feet. Running the full width of the church, the gallery is 20 feet deep.”

“Seating on the ground floor was estimated at between 800 and 900, and optimistically 200 in the gallery. Sanctuary marble work was executed by GE Crane and Sons, the altars by A Hordern & Sons, and the brass work by Castle & Sons. Topped by an arcaded gallery supporting a bellcast pyramid roof, the 125 foot tower is a landmark for all Balmain and the harbour.”

The church features a pressed metal barrel vaulted ceiling. Considerable attention was paid by the architect to ensure that the design enhanced the acoustics. It has been described as “a veritable stone sound garden” and is highly regarded by the many classical musicians who used the church for concerts and recordings quite regularly.

Decorative metal ceiling roses, concealing ventilation ducts, contribute to the overall arts and craft style however time and the elements had combined to corrode the metal sheeting in places and weaken the fixings of the stained glass windows in the stone work.

With the safety of Parishioners foremost and the expectation that the historic fabric of the church be maintained for future generations, the decision of the Parish Council was to accept the offer of  parishioner John Navarra of Navarra Venues to kick start the process by making a substantial donation and recruiting a contractor.

John recommended that the restoration work be carried out by Makka Constructions, a family business under the leadership of Pierre Makhlouf. The company has had considerable experience having completed works on some of the historic Navarra venues.

Using the more portable “scissor lifts” rather than traditional scaffolding, Pierre’s team was able to gain access to areas, investigate and devise solutions quickly and cheaply. Overall the sub structure appeared very sound however a section of timber that had become rotten on the lower far right bay facing the altar was able to be replaced while inspecting the ceiling.

The main area of concern was the ‘V’ section created where the lower one third of the ceiling slopes down to join the walls. Metal sheets in this area were more deteriorated than the remainder, largely due to debris being collected in the ‘V’ shape holding moisture and contributing to the corrosion of the sheets.

By removing sheets or via damaged sheets, they were able to extract debris that remained when nearly 10 ton of dust and slate were removed from much of the ceiling space about twelve years ago. At that time there was no safe access to the lower areas where the ceiling meets the wall.

Pressed metal sheets had been sourced for the ceiling restoration some time ago and stored on site, but extra sheets and trims were also required. It was fortuitous that the original company was still manufacturing them so that more could be ordered.

Once the ceiling was made safe and prepared it was painted using the colours found through paint scrapings taken at the time of the restoration of the body of the church by Arthur Rudman in 2012

During the course of the works, deteriorating stonework around the side windows was discovered which could have led to the windows falling in on Parishioners. The heritage implications of this were significant and it was critical that correct ‘heritage’ procedures were followed in making them secure.

The project was supervised by parishioner and architect David Morgan.

Fr Richard Waddell commented on completion “ I am sure that parishioners will be thrilled at the overall result.  We are deeply grateful to John Navarra for being the force behind this project and to David Morgan for putting an enormous amount of work into overseeing it.”

Barbara Howard ADLAH