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Ugly as sin? Unholy row erupts as Anglicans plan to sell $12 million 'palace'

Bishop Wilson hopes the sale will free money for other uses.
Photo: Craig Abraham

The Age
By Barney Zwartz
20 May 2006

THE Anglican Church in Melbourne plans to sell Bishopscourt, the historic East Melbourne "palace" that has been home to the city's archbishops since 1853.

Vicar-General John Wilson confirmed the controversial proposal yesterday, saying it would free money for urgent ministries and save large sums in restoration and maintenance. He wrote to all Anglican clergy yesterday to explain the proposal.

The heritage-listed mansion, next to the former Mercy Hospital in Grey Street, is thought to be worth around $12 million.

Even before the church's council decided to try to sell or lease the property, senior Anglicans wrote to the diocesan newspaper, pleading for it to be kept.

Three historians — Dr Morna Sturrock, Dr John Moses and Dr David Wetherell — called it a sacred site and said they hoped the church would not inflate its estimate of the property's costs to justify selling it.

The diocese has considered selling it several times in past decades but this is the first time the diocesan council has voted to proceed. The Catholic Church sold Raheen, its episcopal residence, many years ago.

Bishop Wilson, who is administering the diocese until Melbourne gets a new archbishop, said some Anglicans would find it hard because Bishopscourt was greatly loved and part of the church's heritage.

"Personally, I feel considerable grief at the decision," he said. "I've been to Bishopscourt on hundreds of occasions. It's a place full of memories and has been used extensively for hospitality. But times change and needs change."

He said it was not a great house to live in, was expensive, and had heritage constraints. Meanwhile new churches, ministers and lay workers were urgently needed in growing suburbs, and Anglicans wanted to increase their work with young people, families and the aged.

If the mansion — archbishops' residences are sometimes called palaces — cannot be sold, it may be leased.

Melbourne registrar John McKenzie said the property was restored between each archbishop. "Each time we look at $300,000 to $500,000 on a five-year cycle, and ongoing maintenance is about $30,000 a year."

Archbishop Peter Watson, who retired last year, is overseas, but once told The Age he and his wife Margot lived in only a few rooms.

Some years ago, the church tried to sell part of the gardens, but the East Melbourne Residents' Association objected. After that, the Australian Garden History Society restored and tended the gardens, saving the church about $15,000 a year.

Dr Sturrock said the society had raised $40,000 in the past four years, all of which had been spent at Bishopsgate. "As a historian, an Anglican and a citizen, I would be sad to see it go out of the hands of the church. We all have a sense of ownership of it. It's not a grand mansion, not over-glamorous, not luxurious, but it has character."

Another historian, Dr Muriel Porter, said Bishopscourt belonged to a colonial establishment notion of church inappropriate for today. "It's a very uncomfortable and lonely house, and it's ugly as sin. Selling it is very sensible," she said.
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