Unique building providing a “sanctuary” to seafarers misses out on heritage protection
Volunteers of a charity that supports seafarers have expressed disappointment over a decision to exclude their 50-year-old CBD building from heritage protection, with one likening the process to a “heavy handed approach”.
The Stella Maris Seafarers Centre at 600 Little Collins St, which is land owned by the Catholic Church, missed the final cut of the 121 buildings and five precincts selected for permanent heritage protection announced in September after the City of Melbourne conducted an extensive review of the Hoddle Grid.
Although built in 1972, the centre’s volunteers believed their two-storey structure was “clearly of unique design” with its decorative concrete panels and a blue-green façade, a design not commonly seen in the city. But most importantly, it provided a “strong sense of connection and shared community identity”.
The Melbourne centre, which has 35 volunteers and three staff, is one of 300 branches worldwide providing pastoral care and support for seafarers who can work on merchant ships for as long as 18 months.
Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre president Seamus Quinn, a volunteer of 45 years, said their base was a “sanctuary” for the merchant seafarers who visited from all parts of the world including Korea, Ukraine, Vietnam, and India with up to 65,000 docking in Melbourne each year.
“It’s fairly basic. But they love it, compared to their cabins, it’s a palace,” he said, with their building containing a lounge, a bar, a small chapel, an outdoor green area, a kitchen, accommodation, and a souvenir and toiletries shop.
Planning Panels Victoria independently considered all submissions regarding the heritage review, including a report by The Roman Catholic Trusts Corporation for the Diocese of Melbourne, which objected to the Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre building – a move that blindsided volunteers.
According to the report prepared by heritage consultant Bryce Raworth, it argued that the building was “not of a sufficient degree of significance” to warrant protection either architecturally, socially, or historically.
“The place has had an association with visiting seamen as a community, although the extent and importance of this has not been demonstrated or documented, with seamen having associations with similar places at many ports,” it said.
It also noted, “the presence of the centre and its activities within the community are not, in my experience, widely known in Melbourne or considered iconic” and that there is “no evidence is provided to demonstrate that the building strongly contributes to Melbourne’s identity at a local level”.
In response, Stella Maris committee member Paul Kucera said, “disappointed is one thing,” but added it “raises the question of how does the church that owns the land actually view us when we seem to have a good relationship at a high level”.
“To use an analogy, it’s a bit of a bulldozer effect to really quash the City of Melbourne’s proposal to include our building within the heritage overlay,” he said.
Spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne Annie Carrett acknowledged the Stella Maris Seafarers ministry – undertaken by religious, lay and volunteers to maritime personnel in Melbourne – was valuable, but the panel “made a determination on the historical significance of the building itself, not on the significance of the overall history of Stella Maris’ care for seafarers in Melbourne, nor its future works”.
Ms Carret said the ministry “has held the support of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, who encourages its continuation and the strengthening of its works into the future”.
“Stella Maris enjoys the support and confidence of Archbishop Comensoli, who has reinforced his gratitude for this ministry through his own visitations,” she said.
“The Archdiocese has also publicly recognised the social significance of this ministry with a Statement of Significance on its adjacent heritage Church of St Augustine’s and with continued collaboration and promotion of its activities and outreach.”
Mr Kucera, along with the centre’s volunteers, confirmed they had a strong relationship with Archbishop Peter Comensoli whom they described as a “breath of fresh air” as he often praised their services as “the real work of the Catholic Church”.
However, Mr Kucera said the heritage objection was “perplexing” as the Catholic Trust appeared to be “a power in its own right; obviously when it’s dealing with land issues and things like that”.
“We’re not privy to, of course, a lot they do and discuss and say behind closed doors,” he said, but added there was “no hint of redevelopment”.
City of Melbourne councillor and heritage portfolio lead Rohan Leppert said the decision to ultimately exclude the Stella Maris centre and seven other buildings had been robust, but one in which the “council accepted the umpire’s decision”.
“Given we went into the planning scheme amendment process proposing 129 buildings (plus four changes to existing listings), ending up with 121 is extraordinary, and testament to the quality of work produced by city heritage planners and our consultants,” he said.
“I observed the panel hearings, including a fascinating debate about how buildings that are not architecturally distinctive are appreciated from the public realm, and how this translates to public expectations about what constitutes heritage value.”
“There is no denying the extraordinary contribution by Stella Maris to seafarers and the city, but I am confident that the process to propose, and then exclude, the Stella Maris centre and seven other buildings was robust.”
While disappointed by the outcome, it has not deterred the vital work of volunteers with its full-time nurse Lee-anne Diano coordinating COVID-19 vaccinations as soon seafarers disembark their ships late at night.
The centre also recently hosted film crews for an upcoming Robbie Williams biopic movie called Better Man which saw the part of the dining area transformed into an Indian restaurant, which resulted in an $11,000 windfall to the Stella Maris organisation.
While they love what they do, it’s not uncommon for volunteers to be brought to tears by the heartbreaking stories shared by ship workers.
Mr Quinn said one required hospitalisation in Melbourne after suffering a severe leg injury, while not long ago, a group of 18- to 25-year-old Ukrainians had feared for the worst when they return to their home country.
“They’re worried that once they do their eight-month stint they are going to go to the frontline,” he said.
Mr Quinn said they were always looking for more volunteers but expressed a particular call out for anyone interested in becoming a van driver to pick up ship workers from the docks.
Caption: Paul Kucera, Lee-Anne Diano and Seamus Quinn at the Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre.
Photo: AJ Viswanath.