Saturday, 6 October 2018

Clinic of the Soul: a brief review of the Carmelite Library and its place in the history of the Carmelite Hall, Middle Park

A paper given by Philip Harvey as part of the Grand Centenary Celebrations of the Carmelite Hall 1918-2018, on Sunday afternoon, the seventh of October 2018

In his latest book called ‘Packing the Library’, the Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel reflects on some of the reasons why we read and why we build libraries for ourselves. He says:

“The only proven method by which a reader is born is one that, to my knowledge, has not yet been discovered. In my experience, what occasionally does work (not always) is the example of a passionate reader. Sometimes the experience of a friend, a parent, a teacher, a librarian obviously moved by reading a certain page can inspire, if not immediate imitation, at least curiosity. And that, I think, is a good beginning. The discovery of the art of reading is intimate, obscure, secret, almost impossible to explain, akin to falling in love, if you will forgive the maudlin comparison. It is acquired by oneself alone, like a sort of epiphany, or perhaps by contagion, confronted by other readers. I don’t know of many more ways. The happiness procured by reading, like any happiness, cannot be enforced. When Diodorus Siculus visited Egypt in the first century B.C.E., he saw engraved on the entrance to the ruins of an ancient library an inscription: ‘Clinic of the Soul’. Perhaps that can be a library’s ultimate aspiration.” (Manguel 139)   

We will never know if the Carmelites who started their Library proper in the 1920s thought of it as a clinic for the soul, but we can be certain that the health of the soul, yours and mine, was a priority for them. It still is.

The historian and previous Carmelite librarian, Paul Chandler, has written that “The Library was first established in Albert Park in 1928, although the core holding included books collected since the beginning of the Australian Carmelite foundation in 1881.” (Chandler 1) Many of the rare books have come from Ireland, as well as Rome, the oldest book in the collection being 1538, entitled ‘Disputationes adversus Lutheranos’, an attack on the Lutherans by a Carmelite of Ferrara named Giovanni Maria Verrato.

 “[The Library] was originally intended to cater to the needs of the Order’s novices and seminarians and their teachers. It was relocated to Kew in 1928, to Donvale in 1937, and returned to Middle Park in 2002 … Originally a rather modest collection, the Library was considerably expanded in the 1960s and ‘70s under the librarianship of Fr Brian Pitman, and developed some strengths in the areas of philosophy, scripture, systematic theology, and especially in spirituality and Mariology.” (Chandler 1)

We use expressions like ‘turning a page’ and ‘starting a new chapter’ to describe historical change, and both of these expressions are apposite when talking about the arrival of the Province Library in the Carmelite Hall at the turn of this century. By the time this happened though the Library’s character had already changed appreciably.

 “From 1990 a change in policy was suggested by the changing educational strategy of the Order, a desire to avoid duplication of resources, and a recognition that specialisation would allow the Library to become a more valuable intellectual, cultural, spiritual and ecclesiastical resource in Melbourne. It was decided to concentrate in those areas most closely associated with the life and spirit of the Order, and the Library is now specialised in three areas: Carmelitana [which is a fancy word] for all aspects of the life, history and spiritual tradition of the Order; Christian spirituality and mysticism; and Mariology, the theological study of the Virgin Mary.” (Chandler 1) It is due to this far-sightedness on the part of the Carmelites that we now have next door an incomparable library collection in these areas of theology, certainly unique and special in its kind of any such library, not just in Melbourne but in Australia.

“The owners of the Library now regard it principally as a specialised research collection in its specialist areas,” and in particular to support the research and teaching of the University of Divinity and the Carmelite Centre.

The installation of the Library was a matter of necessity. It had grown over seventy or so years to instruct and inspire the men who had studied, worked, prayed and been professed. The Library served their needs. But by installing the Library on the street front in Middle Park, the Carmelites fulfilled a second wish. In addition to being a research library, it became a public library, readily available to anyone needing spiritual nourishment, especially those many people for whom spirituality is a favourite or the main form of reading in their lives.  

The sale of the house at Donvale must have been a difficult, painful experience for those who had lived there. Formative and on-going learning has been an intrinsic part of life in that place. Curiously, the monastery and its site were bought by the Coptic Church, which meant that a new theological library was established in the same building as the library that was transported to Middle Park. The Saint Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Library was installed. 

I’ve had to be careful in explaining this change to Library users. Sometimes when I tell borrowers that the big monastery on the hill had been sold to the Copts, their response is, “Oh, you mean the Police Academy.” “No,” I respond quickly, “Not the cops, the Copts!” Normally one of the last things we think about when shifting house is the library. The task would have been a challenge for those who had felt so safely at home out in the East.

My own memories of the library at Donvale, where I visited for meetings in the 1990s, remain quite fresh. The collection itself was outstanding and already specialised beyond the obvious specialisations of Carmelite literature. Melbourne has a wealth of theological libraries but I had not seen, nor expected, anything quite like this. The focus was on spirituality and mysticism, even then, with an unrivalled depth of material. The reasons were simple. The Carmelites had slowed the acquisition of theology, as such, using their budget instead to build a special library that properly represented the literature of spirituality through time in a way that those other libraries did not or could not do, either because it was not priority in their selection policies or not the focus of their schools’ curricula. So here was something very special that no one else was doing, such that twenty years later (today) the collection is inimitable, outstanding, and essential.

The odd thing about Donvale though was that the Library gave new meaning to words like cramped. Close reading was unavoidable in the aisles of the Library, which could only allow passage for one person. Shelves towered to the ceiling like the north face of the Eiger, with too many of the books difficult to retrieve. It was not inviting to a visitor and not conducive to extended study.   

I say all of this to illustrate the contrast between the Library space at Donvale with that in Middle Park. The Library moved from rooms that were tight and narrow to a large room that is airy and spacious; from a place hidden from view of the public to one where anyone can visit and feel at home; from shelving that defied access to a layout where everything is readily available. It is easy to see why the shift, when it came, thoroughly improved the look and contact with the collection itself. All of which is thanks to the architectural design style of its architect, Augustus Andrew Fritsch (1864-1933).

Fritsch’s building style was solid and big. His structures were built to last. The Hall’s walls are four bricks thick and presumably constructed from Fritsch Holzer bricks, the family firm near Riversdale Road in East Hawthorn.
His death notice in The Argus in June 1933 lists some of his achievements: “Mr. Fritsch designed many ecclesiastical and other public buildings in Victoria and in other States. He was architect for Newman College, in conjunction with Mr W. B. Griffin, and he designed parish churches at Hawthorn, Malvern, Elwood, Middle Park, and Camberwell. St Patrick’s College, at Sale; Assumption College, at Kilmore; Magnet House, in Bourke street; and the Melbourne Spiritualist Temple, in Victoria street. His recent works included additions to the Redemptorist Monastery, Ballarat, and the Broadmeadows Home, which is under construction.” (Argus)

We learn from this notice that he was assisting Walter Burley Griffin on Newman College at the same time that he built the Carmelite Hall, both enterprises encouraged by the young Archbishop Mannix as part of a huge Catholic building program across Melbourne.

The Carmelite Hall’s foundation stone was laid in 1918 by Mannix and the Hall was considered one of the finest in Australia. Its most distinctive features were the highly decorated proscenium arch over the stage, complete with Irish motifs, the high windows that let in immense natural light winter and summer, and a raked, or sloped, stage. The stage of the Carmelite Hall is one the few remaining examples of its kind in Melbourne, and it was its rarity that assisted with its preservation when plans were developed to transform the Hall into a spirituality centre.

There are many here today who recall the different arguments for preserving the stage. I was not here at the time to witness that four act drama and can only say that, speaking strictly as a librarian, the stage creates a useful meeting space within the building but it is difficult to shelve books on a sloped floor.

The Library made a virtue of necessity when the collection arrived here at the beginning of the noughties. The Hall had become rundown, with poor quality carpet, a rabbit warren backstage, and an air of disrepair. The entire room was painted in outdated off-white and orangey brown. As Paul Chandler remarked at the time, dove grey and butterscotch were not his favourite colour combination. All of this was to change utterly with a plan to renovate the entire precinct, church, Hall, and everything in between.

The visionary renovations of 2005-2007 resulted in the precinct as we now see it: a church with a nave altar for greater communal worship; a driveway of paved stone and native gardens; and a Carmelite Hall redesigned, repainted, and renewed outside and in. Painting the Hall interior white, with beige on the mouldings and effects, gave the whole space a huge lift, making it a pleasure to enter into and work in. It became a welcoming place of reading and study, a sanctuary of refuge and reflection, but also somewhere for reading groups to meet, lectures to be conducted, symposiums held, invitations of hospitality offered and deeper needs met. The arrival of the Carmelite Centre, with its dedicated program of spirituality, a couple of years later, was the perfect completion of the Order’s original objectives.

The renovation though did have one serious implication for the Library: we had to shift the entire collection to a location in North Fitzroy, then back again. While this vital renovation work was in progress the Library still had to be kept open. However, moving forty thousand books twice in a year is the stuff of nightmares and I will spare you the details. When it was reinstated here in Richardson Street for official re-opening in 2007, it were as though the Library had found a natural home. There was room for expansion and it met the long-term dream of the Carmelites, which was to have their Library on the street front, available to anyone and everyone in need of the special literature provided.

The Library shares the building with the Agama Yoga School upstairs and many on many a morning in the Library visitors can enjoy hearing the chanting of the yoga attendees coming from the gallery. The Yoga School moved in when the billiard tables moved out, which is now thirty years ago.

Today the Library has more like fifty thousand than forty thousand books and continues to grow. The collection is now a by-word for those in Melbourne and beyond who depend on its irreplaceable treasures. But reminders of the Hall’s former glories have a habit of showing up. Older visitors will sometimes wander in and look around, not at the books but at their memories of attending dances here; some will declare effusively they were married in the church next door. Occasionally we still receive mail for the Middle Park Aikido Club, even though it hasn’t practised in the Hall for twenty years, and people even walk in hoping to take up karate because Google Maps has sent them here. The recent Open House Melbourne event had the Hall on its program, so on that day we learnt even more secrets about its past from visitors. The Library has, at present, a display of some of the things we know about and we fully expect to discover more.


The Argus. Obituary: Mr. A. A. Fritsch. Saturday 10th June, 1933, page 20.

Paul Chandler. Carmelite Library, Middle Park: collection development policy (2005)

Alberto Manguel. Packing my Library : an Elegy and Ten Digressions, by Alberto Manguel (Yale University Press, 2018) 

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