By Meg Hill
The gothic-styled Wesley Church on Lonsdale St, a congregation of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), is surrounded by scaffolding, with a 35-level office tower ascending next door.
In the car park behind the church, now hidden by the construction-site hoarding, is one of Melbourne’s oldest trees. It has its own fence and “tree protection zone”.
The olive tree is at least 140 years old, but its origins are not entirely clear.
One story says that a church founder brought its seed back from Jerusalem and planted it around 1839. The other says lay preacher Mars Miller planted it in 1875.
The first story, as mythical as it seems, could be true. The National Trust says that there is evidence to support both.
And Leonie Barber, a long-time member of the congregation and council, has a theory that combines them.
“My theory is that the seed was brought from the Middle East and kept until the site was available, when it was probably planted by Mr Mars Miller,” she said.
It makes sense if you note that the Wesley Church was built in 1858-9, and the site wasn’t owned by the Methodists in 1839.
Leonie says the more interesting question is: “Why would anyone of English heritage bring an olive to Australia?”.
“Settlers often brought beech trees and elms to make it look like England, but England didn’t have olive trees,” she said. “It’s about a connection to The Holy Land.”
The symbolism of olive trees in Christianity comes from the Garden of Gethsemane in the New Testament. The garden, where Jesus and his followers prayed before Jesus was arrested, was full of olive trees.
Leonie also references the William Blake poem Jerusalem, or “And did those feet in ancient time”.
“It has the line ‘Til we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’. In Australia is was an even greater challenge!”
70-year-old Leonie first visited the Wesley when she was 18, but became a regular in the 1980s. She says what drew her to Wesley was a combination: the quality of the preaching and music (Wesley still uses in every service what is possibly Melbourne’s first organ) and the social welfare provisions.
“You felt you had the whole package of what your faith was about in this one place,” she said.
Politically, Leonie says Wesley has had a formative role in many social improvements towards equity and fairness.
“There has been a lot of support for peace protests, advocacy for the eight-hour day and also a relationship with Trades Hall.”
Leonie also highlights Wesley’s work for women, both providing and receiving services and being consciously located in what was “a very poor part of town”.
There was criticism when the church was built with grand gothic towers and spires, with many arguing that Methodism wasn’t about aesthetics but, rather, meeting places where ordinary people would gather.
But the aesthetics of the evergreen olive tree also continues throughout the church’s story.
Twelve cuttings were taken from the tree around 2008, and cared for until 2014 when they were adopted by different members of the congregation.
And the original may soon bear fruit, literally.
Leonie says she isn’t aware of there ever being an olive harvest, but that once everything settles down on the site “it ought to be something we figure out how to do”.