On February 26 1854 Capuchin friar Father John Aloysius O’Connell, newly arrived from Ireland, celebrated the first mass on the crown allotment where Saints Peter and Paul’s church now stands. This mass was held in a tent and served the tent dwellers who lived crowded into the settlement that had grown up south of the Yarra. On June 1st the same year the church tent was opened as a school for the children of the parish (which at that stage served the whole area down to the mouth of the Yarra).

The following years saw a rapid expansion in the population of the area and in the buildings to serve it: churches, schools, orphanages, a hall, a presbytery, churches, convents, etc. See Chronology. Through the riches brought from the gold fields and, more surprisingly during hard times too, the parish kept raising money for an expanding number of buildings and services.

The foundation stone of the first Sts Peter and Paul’s Church was laid in 1855. Meanwhile the population of the area had grown so much that Fr O’Driscol put it to the parishioners they needed a new church. They agreed that he should begin to prepare plans and collect funds. Of the designs submitted by leading architects T.A. Kelly’s was accepted and in November 1869 the foundation stone was laid.

The construction of the church was to be in three stages: first the nave and chancel to hold 400 people; then the rest of the church to hold 600, and finally, the spire and tower. The bluestone was to be hewn from the Brunswick quarries and the freestone was to be carted from Malmsbury and Kangaroo Flat. After delays caused by difficulties in fundraising, the first stage of the church was finally completed in April 1872. In 1875 the organ was installed.

Money towards the next stage of the church was raised at a gigantic bazaar in the Orderly Room of the Military Forces in Howe Crescent. This section was completed in 1879. The final stage with the design modified to accommodate 1230 was built in 1912. The building of the 40 m tower was left to a later generation, and still is.

Sts Peter and Paul’s School moved from its tent home to a brick building later in 1854. About 50 girls and 50 boys were separately educated there by Mr John Sargeois and Miss Anne Doolan. Over the years the parish raised funds for and played host to many other schools, among them, Loreto commercial college, Our Lady’s school and domestic science college, Christian Brothers college, St Joseph’s technical school, Our Lady of the Assumption primary school, St Peter and Paul’s primary school.


Selected from Sts. Peter and Paul’s, South Melbourne; 1854-1979; a historical survey. South Melbourne, St Peter and Paul’s, 1979


“St Peter and Paul’s is an imposing bluestone church built in two stages, the first of which was designed by T. A. Kelly and built in 1869-72, and the second was the transepts and sanctuary of 1912-13. The western facade is somewhat French in character and incorporates an elaborate traceried rose window, portal and tower base, and triangular nave clerestory windows comparable with those of St. Mary’s Geelong, also designed by Kelly. The eastern sections, also vaulted in plaster, are of a simpler style than the nave, and incorporate carved marble fittings and attractive stained glass but have been diminished by recent liturgical changes.”

From Miles Lewis (ed), Victorian churches; their origins, their story and their architecture, National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Melbourne, 1991.

History of the windows

The church contains a very fine matched set of stained glass by the German firm of F.X. Zettler. These windows were installed in the new chancel and transepts in 1932. The firm of F.X. Zettler and Co. was founded in Munich in 1870, and carried out many commissions in Catholic churches in Australia and elsewhere over a long period of time. The name of their Melbourne agent, Cledgewitch, can be seen at the base of the great east window in St Peter and St Paul’s.

They were interested in reviving the mediaeval style of stained glass, which involved use of different coloured pieces of glass with their lead lines to form a mosaic to represent the picture, rather than using larger pieces of glass and painting the images over them. They felt that this obscured the natural beauty of the glass. The studios of the firm were unfortunately destroyed by bombing in World War II. The Zettler windows are not based on a single concept, but on a number of themes central to the Catholic Church, and which reflect the importance of Irish Catholics in the Australian Church. The windows are a very fine set, of great interest both because of their artistic quality and their subjects.

The main east end window is of St Peter and St Paul, the church’s patron saints. The two large transept windows depict the Ascension of the Lord (north) and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, designed as a matching pair and facing each other across the width of the church. A set of four lancets on the east walls of the transepts is of the four evangelists. Facing them is another set of lancets showing St Brigid and St Patrick in the north and St John the Baptist and the Education of the Virgin in the south.

Assumption organ side

These varied themes are united into a single scheme decoratively by the characteristic use of brilliant, rich jewel-like colour, emphasizing red, purple, blue and emerald green, with beautifully drawn details. It may be noted that where there are large areas of a single colour such as the blue of the Virgin’s robe, the colour is in fact made up of up to three or four varied hues, giving an effect which is rich but not gaudy. The strong style of the glass, symmetry, and the careful composition of both the individual lights and the overall scheme, ensure a sense of unity despite the variations in subject and size of the windows.

The windows were obviously ordered from Zettler’s as a complete set, without waiting for donors to come forward to pay for the glass. Later, when donors appeared, glass memorial plaques were fixed to the chosen windows in situ. This is an unusual but practical procedure.

The east end side chapels, the nave, west wall, and the free-standing screens at the rear of the nave, contain several windows which are unsigned, but which are most likely by the well-known Melbourne firm of Brooks Robinson and Co. This attribution is based on a comparison of the style, and in some cases the actual design, of the windows in question with that of other windows known to be by this firm.

The firm of Brooks Robinson was very well known in Melbourne and supplied large quantities of glass to churches and domestic residences all over Australia. It began in the late nineteenth century by importing glass and other products from England, but in the late 1880s was producing stained glass windows, often employing English craftsmen who had emigrated to Australia. The firm continued in existence, with many changes of management, until the 1970s. The dates of the windows in Sts Peter and St Paul’s are not known, but the style suggests the 1930s and 1940s.

The windows appear to have been installed at different times and are on various subjects. The two niches in the side walls contain windows on the theme of divine visions, one of the Lord appearing to St Margaret Mary Alacocque and the other, facing it across the church, of the vision of St Bernadette of Lourdes. These form an obvious pair. The remaining single lights (in the side chapels) depict the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ as the Good Shepherd, and (in the screens) St Peter and St Paul, St Brigid and St Patrick.

The remaining windows and the large elaborate rose window in the west wall are filled with clear glass. The description of the glass (below) has been arranged in sequence, entering at the west door and proceeding around the building from the north (left-hand) side round the south and back to the entrance.

Description of the windows

North Side of the Nave

2-light of the Sacred Heart appearing to St Margaret Mary Alacocque by Brooks Robinson.

In the left light the vision of the Lord appears standing on a cloud and reaching his hand out to St Margret Mary in the right hand light. She wears her habit and kneels in prayer looking up to the Lord. St Margaret Mary Alacocque was a Visitandine nun in 17th Century France, who had several visions of the Lord appearing to her and speaking to her. These eventually led to devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus being approved by the Vatican. The window contains some fine imported streaked blue and brown glass.

North side of the nave

A pair of matching lancets of important Irish saints by F.X. Zettler.

St Bridget is shown in her religious habit, standing in a landscape, holding her staff as Abbess of Kildare, a box with flames issuing from it and a crucifix. This refers to the cult of her shrine at which flames were kept burning for many centuries, and which men were not permitted to enter. St Briget, who lived in the 6th Century, was baptised by St Patrick (according to legend) and founded the monastery at Kildare. She is sometimes thought of as ‘Mary of the Gaels’ and as a patron saint of Ireland. A memorial to members of the Henson family.

St Patrick appears in a matching environment and pose. St Patrick is well known as the ‘apostle of Ireland’. He was born in Britain in about 400, and lived an exemplary life of converting and teaching all over the British isles. He is clothed in an emerald green chasuble, evoking ideas not only of the ‘Emerald Isle’ of Ireland, but also perhaps, as green is the liturgical colour of the Holy Trinity, of his great hymn of praise for the Trinity which is still sung today, I bind unto myself today. He wears a mitre and holds a church in the crook of his arm, signifying his role as bishop of Armagh and in founding the Irish Church. He holds a crozier while a snake coils at his feet, recalling the legend of his driving the snakes out of Ireland. A memorial to members of the Minahan family.

North face of north transept

A large 3-light by F.X. Zettler of The Ascension of the Lord.

In the centre light the Lord is shown rising up to Heaven, his hands outstretched showing the wounds of the Passion. He looks up to Heaven, while rays of light pour down on him. On the ground St Peter, shown as an elderly man, and St John, traditionally depicted as a beautiful youth because he was the “beloved” disciple, express their grief and amazement.

In the left and right lights the remainder of the disciples and the Mother of the Lord look up in amazement, while in the upper sections a crowd of angels gesture in welcome and adoration. A memorial to Frederick, Ellen and William Farnsworth.

East face of north transept

A pair of matching lancets of two of the evangelists by F.X. Zettler.

St Matthew has a scroll of his gospel in his hand, while a winged man, his emblem, kneels at his feet. St Matthew was a tax-collector for the Romans, who was called from his desk to follow Christ. The emblems of the evangelists are traditional and are taken from the description of the Four Winged Beasts in the Apocalypse of St John. A memorial to members of the Harford family.

St Mark is usually shown as a young man, identifying him with the youth wrapped in a linen cloth who ran away at the arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. His youthfulness also suggests the fact.

St Luke stands with his book in his hand and his emblem, the winged ox, near his feet. St Luke was probably Greek and is thought to have been a doctor. The smooth writing style of his gospel shows that he was an educated man and that Greek was his native language, whereas the others were written in Greek by native Aramaic speakers (i.e. the writers were Jewish). A memorial to members of the Brophy family.

St John is shown as the youthful and beautiful “beloved disciple”, the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper and who recognised the risen Lord walking by the sea while the disciples were fishing. He holds the book of his gospel and a quill pen in his hands, while his symbol of an eagle is at his feet. A memorial to members of the Byrne family.

South face of north transept

A large 3-light by F.X. Zettler of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This impressive window matches The Ascension of the Lord on the north side, which it faces across the transepts, in both style and content. The centre light shows the Blessed Virgin Mary in ‘heavenly’ blue robes, surrounded by a mandorla (whole body halo) rising into heaven. Below her, St Peter and St Paul gaze in adoration at the roses and lilies, symbols of her purity and chastity, which are falling into her tomb. In the right and left lights, the remainder of the disciples gaze upward in amazement and adoration. The youthful St John in the foreground is a reminder that on the Cross the Lord commended his mother to the disciple’s care. In the upper part of the side lights angels appear, carrying scrolls with the inscription from Luke: ‘All generations shall call me blessed.’ A memorial to Patrick, Mary and Kate Farnan.

West face of north transept

A pair of lancets by F.X. Zettler to match those of St Bridget and St Patrick in the north..

St John the Baptist is depicted in rough robes and barefoot. He holds a staff with a scroll which he points to, bearing the motto ‘Ecce Agnus Dei Qui Tollis…’ (‘Behold the Lamb of God, who Bears [away the sins of the World’). The lamb at his feet symbolises Christ, the sacrificial Lamb of God. This stresses his importance as a prophet who recognised Christ and prepared the way for him. A memorial to John Jensen.

The pair of lancets is made up by a window showing the Education of the Virgin. St Anne, the mother of Mary, is depicted teaching her daughter to read. This is a traditional subject emphasizing the piety of the Mother of the Lord and the idea that her early education must have prepared her for her great role in later life. The blue tunic she wears as a girl both refers to this role and unites the girl in this window with the grown woman in the other glass in the church. A memorial to David Powell.

Side niche

A 2-light with quatrefoil of The Vision of St Bernadette of Lourdes.

This window is probably by Brooks Robinson, or possibly by Mathieson and Gibson, a Melbourne firm which took over much of Brooks’ work in the 1940s. The window depicts St Bernadette in the right light, with her apron and rosary, while in the left the Blessed Virgin appears to her in a vision. The church of Lourdes is shown in the background. An angel with a lute occupies the quatrefoil above.The window appears as a pair to that of the Sacred Heart appearing to St Margaret Mary Alacocque, which faces it across the nave. Bernadette Soubirous was a simple peasant girl who lived near Lourdes in the 1850s. At the age of fourteen she experienced a series of visions of the Virgin Mary, who described herself as ‘The Immaculate Conception’, giving rise to Lourdes as the place of pilgrimage it has become today. She later entered a convent where she died at the age of 35.

North side

A lancet by Brooks Robinson of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

St Mary holds a lily, emblem of her purity, in her left hand. She stands looking out at the viewer with a halo of twelve stars around her head. The stars identify her with the ‘woman clothed in the sun’ described in Isaiah and taken to refer to the Immaculate Conception, while the number of twelve denotes the twelve apostles.

The nave screen North

This pair of screens contains two pairs of lancets that were removed from the nave windows in the 1970s. The subjects replicate some of those in the transepts. These, however, are a matched set by Brooks Robinson and Co, probably dated to the 1930s. It may be noted that in the upper, arched part of each lancet is an ornamental letter denoting the name of the saint below.

On the north side are St Patrick and St Peter. St Patrick is shown as mitred abbot of Armagh, with a book of the gospels, emerald green cope and a snake twined around the foot of his crozier. St Peter, shown as an older man, holds the keys of Heaven and a book of gospels.


The nave screen South

On the south side are St Paul and St Bridget. St Paul holds the sword with which he was martyred, and which is also a reference to the ‘sword of the Spirit’ mentioned in Ephesians. St Bridget is dressed as a nun and holds her abbey of Kildare in her arm.