By Shane Scanlan
The departed have been officially communicating with the living longer in our CBD than anywhere in the world.
Tucked away under towering new apartment blocks in A’Beckett St is the home of the Victorian Spiritualists Union (VSU).
The organisation was established in 1870 and is a surviving relic of the Victorian era when spiritualism took the intellectual world by storm.
VSU secretary Alan Bennett explained that “back in the day”, the organisation would pack town hall meetings with thousands of people and fierce public debate raged with the established orthodox religions.
Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle travelled to Melbourne as a guest speaker. And Australia’s second prime minister Alfred Deakin was three times the organisation’s president.
These days the VSU has almost no public profile, but remains true to the philosophies, techniques and rituals from that era.
President Lorraine Lee Tet explained that the VSU remained more conservative and firmly focused than the relatively-recent upsurge of so-called “new age” practices and beliefs.
“They are reasonably light on when it comes to the philosophical stuff,” she said.
Part religion and part philosophy, spiritualism is, at its core, a moral code on how to live a good life. The difference is that it relies for guidance on what the spirits of those who have died have to say.
But they don’t just listen to any old spirit. Mr Bennett said highly-trained mediums learned to filter and hold back distressing information when forming a connection between the living and the dead.
“They learn how to validate whoever is trying to make contact,” he said. “Is the conversation legitimate and does the spirit have something worthwhile to say?”
The VSU conducts church services every Sunday where the main event is a “demonstration” of the presence of spirits. Two guest clairvoyant mediums communicate between the dead and random attendees who are asked to attest to the accuracy of the messages from beyond the grave.
Mr Bennett explained that not all spirits making connection were influential on the wider guiding principles, but teachings of long-departed North American Indian Silver Birch were highly regarded.
“It’s simply the truth,” he said. “It’s a philosophy from the spirit world on how to live a good life.”
Mr Bennett said, as much as he understood people’s scepticism, spiritualism was 100 per cent scientifically validated and it was “tiresome having to prove it every day”. He said the evidence was clear and could not be made up.
Victorian spiritualism started around 1848 in up-state New York in the hamlet of Hydesville when a local family was alerted by the spirit of a man who was murdered in their house and buried in the cellar.
From there, the movement spread globally and was popular in booming Melbourne in the latter half of the 19th century.
The VSU claims to be oldest longest, continuously operating spiritualist organisation in the world. When formed in 1870, it was called the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists and became the VSU when it merged with the Melbourne Progressive Spiritualistic Lyceum in 1930.
The VSU has another branch in the suburbs but is unfortunately moving out of its CBD home next year.
It was the pressure of development and the physical pounding from the construction of skyscrapers around it (rather than spirits from the other-side) that has been shaking the building to its foundations.
Valuable paintings have been removed from the walls least they rattle off their hooks, and a marble statue at the top of the stairs looks a little odd without its top half (it too has been removed to prevent its breakage).
He said his committee attributed dropping attendances to reduced amenity and decided to sell up. The building was sold last month but, with a 12-month settlement, it will be business as usual in the interim.
“Regrettably, we cannot see ourselves still operating from the CBD as, wherever we go in the area, we will still be confronted with this current explosion of high rise development,” Mr Bennett said.
In the meantime, however, the VSU welcomes everyone to its weekly sessions. A Sunday service is held at its premises at 71-73 A’Beckett St between 3pm and 4.30pm. These sessions are preceded by an hour of healing from 2pm.
For further information, see www.vsu.org.au