On 14th March 1857, a grant of 1½ acres of land was made to St Thomas’ Church, Moonee Ponds, for the erection of a church and vicarage. Later on in 1857 hopefuls on their way to the gold diggings would have observed a ceremony taking place in a clearing near the intersection of Mount Alexander and Pascoe Vale Roads. Most of the diggers passing by may have been in too much of a hurry to stop, however, those who did, would have witnessed the laying by the Governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Barklay, of the foundation stone for a church building for the congregation of St Thomas’ Moonee Ponds. Due to the presence of the Governor, the ceremony would have been a very colorful one. No doubt a number of officers and troops in the bright uniforms of the day had accompanied and acted as a guard for the governor; and the settlers and families in the district would have attended so important an occasion.
The surrounding land was then mainly forest, with a few clearings around the houses of the white settlers. In those days the Essendon area existed in a very natural state, and apart from the occasional clearing, was remarkable for its abundance of huge trees and numerous water holes. This setting would have added additional charm and interest to the scene.
The actual church (as distinct from buildings), the Congregation, had existed for some years before the event referred to. On 23rd January 1848, the Rt. Rev. Charles Perry D. D. arrived from England to take up his appointment as the first Bishop of Melbourne, and with him on the good ship “Stag” was the Rev. Hussey Burgh Macartney D. D. The Rev. H Macartney was later appointed as Dean of Melbourne. He was appointed among his many duties to act as Administrator to “Heidelberg”, a large area in those days, which included Essendon and Moonee Ponds. An earlier Historical sketch of St Thomas’, written in 1909, and included in the Golden Jubilee Book issued at that time, claimed that the beloved Dean (as he was referred to), conducted church services at Moonee Ponds from 1849 to 1856.
St Thomas’ Building committee’s minute book 1853 to 1865 reveals that the first meeting of that body took place at Farmers Hotel, Essendon, on Tuesday, November 15th, 1853. At a meeting on 8th August 1854, it was proposed “That seeing the difficulties depending on the erection of a Church, the Trustees proceed with the erection of a School to be used as a Church ’till a Church is completed.”
As soon as this school building was completed, it was doubtless also used for church services until the present building was opened in 1859.
Early in 1856, following a meeting of all members of the congregation, application was made to the Bishop of Melbourne for the appointment of a full-time pastor. In response, the Rev. Edward Puckle was appointed the first Vicar of St Thomas’, and continued as such until his retirement in 1878.
Due to the efforts of the Building Committee and the love and devotion of the Vicar, the foundation stone of the Church was laid in 1857, completed and opened for worship by 1859, and consecrated in 1862, by which date it was free of debt. An organ was purchased and dedicated on 2nd October 1879. The district was changing in character from a quiet semi-rural place into a populous suburb, and growing congregations necessitated increased accommodation. In 1885 the Church was enlarged by the addition of the south transept, chancel and organ chamber at a cost of £1,600.
The erection of St Thomas’ Vicarage was commenced in 1889 and was completed in 1890 at a cost of £1,600. In 1891 the north transept of the Church was added at a cost of £663, and in the same year the brick Sunday School was erected at a cost of £1,500. The Church was growing rapidly and it was during this time that three branch churches were built. St Paul’s Ascot Vale was the first of these daughter churches, the others being Christ Church North Essendon, and St James Moonee Ponds.
In 1910 St Thomas’ Grammar School merged with Carlton College and St Thomas’ Grammar School opened in buildings on the church grounds, situated where the Public Library now stands. The Grammar School continued to flourish until 1934 when St Thomas’ Grammar School and Northern Grammar School merged and became one school, named Essendon Grammar School. During its short life from 1910 to 1934, the Grammar School was noted for its educational standard. It produced many fine scholars, including three Rhodes Scholars.
The War Memorial Hall and Club Room were built as a memorial to those who served during the Great War, the foundation stone being laid on 18th September 1920. It was at this time that the organ which we still enjoy was made a gift to the Church.
The second World War was still in progress when in September, 1944, the matter of a War Memorial was discussed by the Vestry, and it was considered that such memorial should take the form of a Tower as an addition to the Church. Accordingly a special meeting of parishioners was called on 6th November 1944. The Vicar said that when the church was built it stood on a slight rise, but the road had since been built up with the result that the church has the appearance of being in a slight hollow. Later the building of the high north wall of the Town Hall had also contributed to causing the Church to appear to be lower. He went on to say that the two greatest needs of the church are a tower to build up the height of the church and a more imposing entrance or porch. The tower project would solve both these problems as it would provide a suitable entrance.
The project had the full support of the parishioners, and later an appeal for funds was commenced. It was not until the end of 1953 that sufficient funds were in hand to commence the building. In October 1953 Mr Goette’s tender of approximately £6,500 was accepted. We were fortunate in that an old Church building at St John’s Essendon was currently being demolished and St Thomas’ were able to purchase the handsome stonework at the entrance of that old building. This did much to enhance the appearance of the entrance to the tower porch. The final total cost of the tower, including extras and Architect’s fees was £7,500.
During the period 1961-1967 the land and buildings which up to 1934 had been used by St Thomas’ Grammar School, and more recently by the Sunday School and other organizations was sold to the Essendon Council for the erection of their new Civic Centre and Library. The Parish Office was built during the period 1968-1971.
This history has been extracted from the booklet “130th Anniversary of Church Building1859-1989; Centenary of Laying of Foundation Stone of Vicarage 1889-1989″, St Thomas’ Church Essendon, 1989.
2006 sees a new era in the use of our church grounds with the redevelopment of the halls into a 90 place child care centre. The Parish Office has been relocated into the north transept and the Parish Office building has been renovated into a multi purpose room, now known as The Barnes Sommerville Room (after George Barnes (dec) and Betty Sommerville, two dedicated workers for God at St Thomas’). We pray that we can continue the good work of those before us in being good stewards of this place of worship. May our worship, mission and outreach bring glory to God.