Balmain, a senior parish of the archdiocese, was a flourishing suburb in the first years of the twentieth century. Fr Michael Rohan was appointed to the Balmain parish in 1902, and he found the existing parish buildings to be totally inadequate for a growing industrial population, and the decision was taken to build a large church. The architect chosen was Albert Edmund Bates. The foundation stone was laid on 7 October 1906. On 1 December 1907, the new church was dedicated by Cardinal Moran.
Built in the amazingly short time of 13 months, the hard well-burnt brick walling has stone tracery and cement rendered dressings. The nave of the church is 103 feet long by 41 feet wide, with sanctuary 41 feet by 20 feet, and sacristy 18 feet by 12 feet. Running the full width of the church, the gallery is 20 feet deep. Seating on the ground floor was estimated at between 800 and 900, and optimistically 200 in the gallery. The ceiling is pressed metal barrel vault, and architect paid considerable attention to ensure that the ceiling enhanced the acoustics. Sanctuary marble work was executed by GE Crane and Sons, the altars by A Hordern & Sons, and the brass work by Castle & Sons. Topped by an arcaded gallery supporting a bellcast pyramid roof, the 125 foot tower is a landmark for all Balmain and the harbour.
Other features of the church are the rose window above the altars (see below), the stained glass in the side windows (see Projects section of the website), the stations of the cross (see below), the altars(see below), the internal paintwork (see Projects section of the website), and the organ (see Organ section of the website).
The rose window
The most striking visual image in St. Augustine’s is the beautiful stained glass rose or wheel window in the eastern wall. Depicted in its centre is the Risen Christ. In one hand He holds over his heart the Scriptures, open to the Greek letters Α (Alpha) and Ω (Omega), while the other hand blesses us. This image refers to Christ as “the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 1:8, 22:13; Col. 1:15-20). Beginning and end of what? Christ is the maker, sustainer, redeemer, and judge of the whole universe: He through whom all things were made (Jn 1:1-5) and He who will come in glory to judge the living and the dead at the end of time, as described in Revelation.
The church designers included other visual elements to remind us that Christ is the express image of the God of all Creation. The sun’s rays are shown emanating from behind Christ’s shoulders in the central glass image and from around the upper half of the window. Gold and silver stars are painted on the upper walls and whirling star patterns are pressed in the metal of the curved barrel vault ceiling, itself a symbol of the curvature of the sky. All this expresses Christ’s radiance penetrating all the universe and that all Creation is blessed.
Emanating from this central image of Christ are rich floral patterns in glass, the sandstone cross of the window frame itself, and the glass roundels depicting busts of the twelve Apostles with deep gold and blue backgrounds. The latter are shown holding objects which help us identify them. Beginning at the one o’clock position and proceeding clockwise they are (I think): St Paul (sword & scroll), St Jude (lance), St Philip (cross-staff), St James the Lesser (club), St James the Greater (pilgrim’s staff & scallop shell on cloak), St Andrew (X shaped cross), St John (book & cup with serpent), St Thomas (builder’s square), St Matthew (book & ears of wheat), St Simon the Zealot (saw), St Bartholomew-Nathaniel (flaying knives), St Peter (keys). The objects relate either to a designation of the apostle made by Christ in the New Testament, or to events which legend says they performed later in life, or to their martyrdom. The objects emphasize the deeds of the first witnesses of the Risen Christ in spreading the news of Christ’s life, death and resurrection to the world. Like the sun’s rays spreading light, warmth and generating life, the message of Christ spreads throughout the world, first through the apostles and now with us in Balmain. As John 12:44 says: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”
As a whole this central window has a wonderful dynamic quality. The roundels of the apostles move around Christ, like the sun and moon discs across the sky; at the same time, a lush verdant growth spreads from centre to circumference. The same green spreads to the walls and the windows in the walls of the nave. Finally, the sense of a great flash of light is created by the large painted sun-rays. The church is wonderfully positioned atop the Balmain peninsula so that the actual rays of the sun – after crossing the immense expanse of space, sky and ocean, and then Sydney Harbour from the east – strike this main glass window bringing it to life. When all these elements are joined with the variegated light through the glass when morning breaks, the window is a profound illustration and reminder of the living, always moving and growing nature of Christ, His Body the Church, and of His works in the world.
The stations of the cross
After the rose window in the sanctuary, the most prominent images in St. Augustine’s are the 14 Stations of the Cross placed just above our heads on the two walls in the nave. (The Station images, like the rose window, were shipped from London.) These paintings depict the episodes of Christ’s arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. The sequence begins at the sanctuary on the left with the episode of Christ before the High Priest. It continues along the north wall towards the entrance, where it crosses the nave to the other wall. From here the sequence moves to the sanctuary and the Our Lady altar where the final image, near the statue of St Francis and the Child, is the Burial of Christ in the tomb.
These images serve their most obvious function as visual aids at Easter, particularly Good Friday when the accounts of the historical events depicted here are read in detail. However, every Mass is also a memorial of the events depicted in the Stations of the Cross. During the Eucharist the priest says, “On the night he was betrayed, he took bread … saying … Take eat this is my Body which is given for you”, repeating what Christ said to his apostles at the Last Supper. That night, after the Last Supper, Christ was arrested and taken before the high priest, as depicted in the first Station image to the left of the altar. Every Eucharist incorporates the events represented in the Station images on the walls. It brings them into our midst in the here and now.
As the first of the Station images really follows from the Last Supper celebrated at the altar, so too does the final image of the Burial of Christ on the right continue with the central icon of the Resurrected Christ in the rose window. From the burial scene where His body is shown limp, lifeless, sick, scoured and without energy, Christ is shown alive and radiant as the sun in the east. The visual leap between these two final images also depicts the hope we have of passing from death to the resurrected life in Christ, when we ourselves are placed before the altar in death, perhaps in this very church.