Establishment

St Francis’ Church was not as impressive as the Congregation’s pioneers had expected, but they understood that the little church was a place of history. St Francis’ was the ‘mother church of Victoria’– a place for beginnings.

On their arrival in Melbourne, the seven men moved into a ramshackle presbytery which had been built in the 1870s on the eastern side of St Francis’ Church. Among themselves, they continued to speak in French. Their lives were ‘cloistered’ according to Eymard’s Constitutions, sheltered and separated from worldly affairs and the company of outsiders. They observed silence to remain still and attentive to God.

Their daily activities revolved around adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, celebrating masses and hearing confessions. The priests also undertook a number of chaplaincies, including a demanding chaplaincy to the Melbourne (later Royal Melbourne) Hospital.

During Easter 1930 the changes at St Francis’ became widely known, when the ‘altar of repose’ featured a thousand or more flowers in a tiered pyramid that covered the main altar and much of the sanctuary. Statues of angels rose above the blooms, where over a hundred tall candles burned in the midst of a glorious, spectacular display.

As word spread, huge crowds visited St Francis’ Church that first Holy Thursday. The Blessed Sacrament Congregation was different. And Melbourne people liked the difference. Within months of their arrival, some two and a half thousand men and women had joined the Guards of the Blessed Sacrament, each pledging an hour of adoration every month.

When Australian men began joining the Congregation, a novitiate was established at St Francis’ in 1931. As more priests were posted to Melbourne from the Congregation’s North American province, the community’s range of activities broadened.

Fr Peter Goulet became chaplain to St Francis’ Choir. Fr Raymond Tartre started convert classes. And Fr William Fox began a monthly magazine called The Monstrance in 1935. A Catholic Action initiative called ‘Men’s Night’ became an annual event after fifteen hundred men turned up to the inaugural meeting in 1937.

By then, the old presbytery, built to house only four or five priests, had eighteen men in residence. Archbishop Mannix allowed the Congregation to purchase the eastern half of the St Francis’ block and begin building a monastery, which was largely paid for by the generosity of Melbourne Catholics.

A crowd of 10,000 people saw the monastery blessed and opened on 1 May 1938 by Archbishop Mannix and Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. The Congregation’s United States provincial Fr Alphonse Pelletier travelled to Australia for the occasion.

‘This is the day the Lord hath made’, Pelletier declared, citing Psalm 118.

» continue