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Community outrage over plans to overhaul heritage-listed Brisbane chapel

Villa Maria hostel

Villa Maria: Catholic Healthcare are planning to refurbish the popular Villa Maria chapel to create a gathering space.

CONCERNED Catholics and community members are questioning the decision of an aged care provider to refurbish a portion of a heritage-listed chapel in Brisbane.

Catholic Healthcare, an aged care provider for Queensland and New South Wales, is undertaking an expansion and refurbishment of Villa Maria residential age care home in Fortitude Valley.

The project will include refurbishing the St Gabriel’s wing, occupied by 50 residents, and the St Stanislaus wing, which is not in use, to develop a total of 125 aged care places.

This will require a reduction of the popular chapel to create a gathering space “for people to gather after Mass, funerals and other religious celebrations”.

The new space, which had been marked up on early drawings as a café, would be divided by a wall “treated for acoustic separation” to ensure privacy between the operational spaces and the chapel.

Catholic Healthcare said members of the community had raised concerns about the proposal, but said it would not be a commercial café and would only be available for use by residents and visitors who used the chapel.

Construction work will not restrict the use of the chapel, and on-site contractors have been asked to ensure privacy and minimal disturbance to residents.

The chapel is used regularly for Masses, including weekend worship, and is part of the former Villa Maria Hostel, which was classified as a State Heritage building on September 18, 2008.

A Catholic Healthcare spokesman said the organisation had developed their plans in consultation with the Brisbane Archdiocesan Liturgical Committee on chapels.

Catholic Healthcare has been granted all approvals for works proposed from Brisbane City Council and the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.

Design plans have not been finalised and discussions with relevant stakeholders, including the Brisbane archdiocese, are ongoing.

Villa Maria entryway

Development plans: The doorways into Villa Maria chapel in Fortitude Valley. Photo: Catherine Toomey.

Peter Bond, an altar server at Villa Maria, said he and other Catholics were disappointed that any part of the consecrated church would be turned into a space not intended for worship.

Mr Bond said he had been notified of early drawings of the refurbishment that included plans for a café to be built at the entrance of the chapel.

“We want it to be left intact and for the Mass,” Mr Bond said.

“The life of the church is the Eucharist and not a cup of coffee.”

As a regular parishioner, Mr Bond said a reduction of the chapel would affect the number of pews inside the sacred space, meaning congregation members and residents of the aged care home could be denied a seat at Mass.

He said the group had engaged the services of an architect, who is a parishioner at Villa Maria, who designed several concept designs for alternative plans but these were rejected.

He said Villa Maria was “the spiritual hub of Brisbane” and the chapel deserved to remain in its present state.

Mr Bond has organised a prayer vigil to protest any plans for a café to be built inside the chapel.

The event is being promoted by the Blessed Bartolo Longo Society Australia, an “informal group of Catholics praying for the preservation of Catholic culture”.

Members of the society and others concerned about the refurbishment plans are praying the Rosary in front of the Villa Maria chapel tonight.

They have also collected close to 1000 signatures on a petition against plans for a café.

Mr Bond said there had been a lack of dialogue between Catholic Healthcare and the wider community including Catholics who worship inside the chapel.

However Catholic Healthcare spokesman told The Catholic Leader that the organisation had directly liaised with relevant chaplains, parishioners and others who regularly attended Mass there about concerns.

“Catholic Healthcare has engaged and consulted with the Diocesan Liturgical Committee on chapels, together with having ongoing dialogue with the archdiocese, to resolve some of the concerns raised to date,” he said.

According to section 2.2 of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection guidelines for developing heritage-listed properties, developers are required to consult with local authorities, historical societies and assessing authorities as well as interested parties.

Villa Maria is owned by the Archdiocese of Brisbane, but is leased to Catholic Healthcare.

The building is next to the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a religious order founded by, Fr Julian Tenison Woods, a friend of St Mary MacKillop.

Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge received a copy of revised plans for the chapel on December 1.

Catholic Healthcare was established in 1994 by the Bishops of NSW and ACT and operates 40 residential aged care services, nine retirement living communities, and two healthcare services.

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