Benalla’s St Joseph’s Church has been standing tall on Arundel St since 1908. The second incarnation of the church, it replaced the original building, which was erected in 1866. In its time it has survived fires, floods and minor tremors. On Wednesday, however, it shook and swayed with the rest of Victoria as the magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit.
Sadly it did endure some damage, which the parish now needs to be repaired as soon as possible to ensure it remains standing for another 113 years, and beyond.
Approaching the grand red brick building you can see something is not as it should be. Red “danger” tape blocks the entrance to the grounds. The closer you look the more you see.
A man is at the front picking up bits of masonry. Cracks are visible up and down the structure. When you head inside the extent of the damage is much more apparent.On the far wall cracks have appeared above and below the stained-glass window. Window frames along the side walls are cracked.
The floor is littered with rocks and dust. Rendering has come away revealing the bricks beneath.
However, it is the grand arch supporting the ceiling and towers on the inside of the front entrance that is causing most concern. It has cracked in the middle. Temporary bracing is now in place and engineers have advised that the structure is safe.
The structure of the arch is keeping it standing, but engineers had warned it needed to be supported with a temporary brace while it gets repaired. The cracks that are visible as you look at the church from Arundel St run through the wall and are visible from the inside.
Standing in the church did not feel safe on Friday morning (September 24). Parish Council chair Gabrielle Downie said a structural engineer was due to visit the church later that day.
“He is going to do a propping report,” Ms Downie said. “And a builder has been assigned to come and prop up the arch as there are concerns about its safety at the moment.
“Once we know what the engineer’s report looks like we’ll be able to move ahead with looking into how to repair the building, and how safe it is for use until then.
“We anticipate it will be quite expensive because of the uniqueness of the building and we want to preserve its look and heritage as close to original as is possible. “We know that insurance will cover a portion of it. “But at this stage it is unclear as to how much that is.”
With the church not usable right now Ms Downie said the Parish Council had a short-term and a longer-term solution, should it need one. “We are able to use FCJ College’s chapel,” she said.
“And then after that we can’t be on school grounds because of COVID restrictions. “So we may be able to use the parish centre, which is the old 31 building.
“However, it is not fit for use at the moment, so we would have to invest a little bit in that to have it as a temporary solution until we can get back into the church.”
Father Vijay was inside the church holding mass with eight people in the congregation on Wednesday morning (September, 22) when the earthquake struck. “I just began the mass and then felt that something was wrong,” Father Vijay said. “Then suddenly the shaking started.
“At first I thought someone might be working nearby, then after 10 seconds I saw cracks begin to appear near the roof and dust began to fall. “I said to the people this is an earthquake, please run out for your life.
“It was scary. I have never experienced such a thing in my life. “I have heard about earthquakes, but to experience one was scary. “There were only eight people inside, so we all got out very quickly.”
The Parish Council will investigate if any grants maybe available. However, St Joseph’s Church is a heritage-listed building and as such repairs will not be cheap. On Tuesday morning Ms Downie confirmed that temporary bracing is in place and engineers have advised the structure is safe. “Now that is all done the repairs will begin in the near future,” she said.