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    GRAND PLANS: Matthew Harris and Dianne Cook, with their dog Madame Ci Ci, are celebrating a significant achievement in their plans to redevelop Willaura’s St Patrick’s Catholic Church. The couple bought the church in 2015 and plan to renovate the building to include living, gallery and community spaces. Picture: PAUL CARRACHER

Church buy lifting spirits in Willaura


When Dianne Cook went to inspect a Willaura church on the market in 2015, she took one look and thought, ‘Too much work’.

She bought it anyway.

Built circa 1910, St Patrick’s Catholic Church, in Ayrey Street, had served the Willaura district community for a century.

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But she had seen better days.

“My Dad, who was with me at the time, said, ‘You couldn’t pay me to buy the church’,” Ms Cook said.

“But something happened when Dad and I walked into the church – because we didn’t intend to buy it. 

“There was something about the way the sun filtered in through the windows, lighting up the whole building, that just did something to me.

“It must have done something to Dad, too, because once the auction started, he was elbowing me to keep bidding.”

After buying the church, Ms Cook and her husband Matthew Harris spent the best part of four years ‘searching high and low for the right highly skilled company to lift and restump the historic building’.

“We had all these grand plans for the church, but it had continued to deteriorate because we couldn’t find anyone to fix it,” Ms Cook said.

“We were at the stage where we were tempted to just walk away and let the building fall down. It was so difficult.”

Ms Cook said in rural areas, tradesmen ‘willing and able’ to faithfully restore heritage buildings were few and far between.

Then she discovered A and B Pope Relevelling, a small family business from Horsham.

“Thanks to them, we witnessed a spectacular feat in just three days,” Ms Cook said.

“Employing their state-of-the-art equipment, internal-external bracing and their years of seasoned experience meant there was no need to dig extensively underneath this historical building’s interior. 

“It also meant they didn’t have to pull up all of the magnificent wood flooring to get to the original stumps – the building was left fully intact.”

Positive future

Ms Cook said the tradesmen used innovative hydraulic lifters to raise the church almost six feet in about 15 minutes. 

“It is the biggest building they have ever lifted. But they not only lifted the church, they lifted the town’s spirits,” she said.

“They changed our lives and ensured our church’s future.”

Ms Cook said the process was amazing to watch.

“When the old lady was being raised you could hear her moan and groan like an old battleship,” she said.

“We felt a true sense of relief, as if the weight was being lifted from our own shoulders. She would be saved, after all. It was really spectacular, when they sat it down on the stumps.

“There was definitely a case of smiling-face ache all around that day and for the rest of the week.”

Ms Cook said the lifting of the church was a source of entertainment for passers-by.

“The whole community is excited, because the old building could have just been left to decay,” she said.

“A lot of Willaura residents came for a look, curious to see what was happening. A lot of them stopped to express how happy they were for us and for the town.

“Many of them said, ‘You know we were married in that church?’. There is a lot of history there.”

Significant step

The restumping was a significant step forward for the couple, who have grand plans for the building.

Ms Cook said she and Mr Harris planned to renovate the church to create living quarters along with a gallery and community space.

“We are creative and we want to help breathe life into the town,” she said.

“We want to create a community asset. I want to have Gypsy caravans down the side and run art and women’s workshops.

“I’m an artist and I want space to display my work as well as space for the community to be able to do creative things.”

Ms Cook said producers of television show Grand Designs, which features unusual and often elaborate architectural homebuilding projects, were interested in the project, however pulled out over difficulties surrounding a potential heritage overlay on the church.

She said while final design plans were still up in the air, she and Mr Harris planned to retain the building’s soul.

“Once all the work is done, we are hoping to have a big opening celebration,” Ms Cook said.

“Small towns are really struggling at the moment and I’d love to have something to energise the community. 

“I’m thinking along the lines of a ladies back-to-church day, where all the ladies have to bring a plate of food to enter – Willaura has the best cooks in the state.”

The entire May 27, 2020 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!

The entire May 27, 2020 edition of AgLife is available online. READ IT HERE!