EDITED BY RICHARD CORNISH
IMAGES BY DANNY WOOTTON
The view from the bell tower at the Daylesford Convent is one of the most beautiful in the nation. Framed by masonry, our little town, built on the side of a volcano and around a lake, looks like a model village, all red roofs and towering deciduous trees. “There was a bell in the tower when this was a convent,” says Tina Banitska. “It would call the vespers for the sisters.” Tina is quietly spoken with a self-deferential manner. She is also the almost unstoppable source of energy who transformed this dilapidated former convent and school into an internationally renowned arts and hospitality destination.
She walks us through the maze of stairs and corridors that interlink the complex of historic buildings that has seen many incarnations throughout its 150 plus years. The Convent Gallery was originally built as a private residence in the 1860s for the Gold Commissioner. The home was grand in its imposing aspect on the slopes of Wombat Hill and it blended Victorian Italianate with Moorish influences. Locals took the Mickey and referred to the large home as ‘Blarney Castle’. Tina takes us to a view of the rear garden looking up to the soaring sequoias in Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens. “That was a vent for an old mine shaft,” says Tina, referring to a large opening in the steep sloping garden. “It was later covered in and used as a smoking house.”
Tina knows every square inch of this historic property. She bought the convent site and its buildings in 1988 when there was a real and present threat that it would be purchased by a developer who would turn the buildings and grounds into out-of-keeping housing. Tina, an artist and a ceramicist, was not flush with cash, but somehow found the funds to finance her dream for the convent. “If you let it, life will lead you somewhere to do something that is good and worthwhile,” she says matter of factly as we stand in the chapel. The walls of the chapel are covered with plaster and wood renditions of the Stations of the Cross lit by the dappled colours of the winter sun streaming through the stained-glass windows.
During the 1880s the Gold Commissioner sold his home on the hill to the Catholic Church for its presbytery. After ten years, however, it was recommended that the priest, “being denied many things that were conducive to comfort”, should at least have a good house to dwell in and a new presbytery was built. In 1891, Archbishop Carr of Melbourne envisioned a “source of light and edification” for the Central Victorian community of Daylesford. This vision was realized in 1892 when the building was deemed appropriate for nuns and boarders, and the Holy Cross Convent and Boarding School for Girls was opened. It was the first Victorian establishment outside of Melbourne by the Presentation Sisters. Extensions to the building were erected at a cost of £4,300. With the debt almost extinguished, the nuns proposed a badly needed addition – a new chapel. In October 1904, the new chapel was completed at a cost of £1,600.
Tina walks us through to the site of the former school rooms. A modern addition is the magnificent balustrade made from street-drain grating. With some parts removed and replaced with coloured glass it refers not only back to the stained-glass windows but also the great Scottish Arts and Craft architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. That is one of the wonderful things about the convent. It combines the old and the new. It preserves some rooms, such as the hospital room at the end of a long thing wooden staircase, as if the nuns have just left, the paint peeling to reveal older coats of pink and pale blue. One of the nun’s cells has been left as it was to show their life of penury.
Some spaces are filled with art, others left as voids. There are spaces for weddings, spaces for private dining, an elegant café and spaces to display ceramics that outstrip our best state-run galleries. The retail space is filled with both the works of local artists along with religious iconography that can be taken at face value for its artistic attributes, ironically or as devotional art. Tina passes no judgment on people who find the divine in her temple to art. “Daylesford has always been a place where people come to find some sort of solace,” says Tina. “It is such a beautiful place.”