Advent I: Charles La Trobe


The Rev’d Dr J. Hugh Kempster

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jer. 33:15

Firstly today, I would like to acknowledge the hard work of our Director of Music, Andrew Raiskums; our Music Administrator, Sue Wuttke; our organist, Rhys Arvidson; the choir; and all who worked so hard behind the scenes to make last night’s most glorious rendition of Handel’s Messiah such a resounding success. What a night we had; thank you!

This year, as most years, we are blessed with a dual celebration on Advent Sunday. At this beginning of our preparations for the great feast of the Incarnation, we also give thanks for the life of the most well known founder of St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Charles Joseph La Trobe, who died on the 4th December 1875.

Charles La Trobe was born in 1801 in London, into a Moravian family. The Moravian Church is one of the oldest Protestant denominations, with its heritage dating back to the German Bohemian Reformation in the 15th century. One of Charles’ forebears, Christian Ignatius, was a Moravian bishop and friend of Hayden, and Charles’ brother, Peter, was a Moravian cleric and secretary of the London Moravian Association. Charles himself was probably educated in Switzerland, with the hope that he too would become a cleric, but his life ended up taking a somewhat different course.

On arrival in Melbourne, after being appointed the first Superintendent of Port Phillip in 1839, La Trobe’s religious formation shone through in his opening speech; purportedly to the bemusement of many of his listeners. He was well aware of the high expectations of the early Melbourne colonists, and their perception that all the Port Philip revenue was being syphoned off by Sydney, and he noted: “I … fear that the wishes of the inhabitants of the district may have led them to over-rate both my official and my personal powers.” He then went on to deliver something of a sermon to the gathered crowd:

I pray to God, to whom I look for strength and power, that whether my stay among you as chief organ of the Government be long or short, I may be enabled, through His Grace, to know my duty, and to do my duty, diligently, temperately and fearlessly … It will not be my individual aggrandizement, by the possession of numerous flocks and herd, or of costly acres, that we shall secure for the country enduring prosperity and happiness; but by the acquisition and maintenance of sound religious and moral institutions, without which no country can become truly great. (cited in Dianne Reilly Drury, La Trobe: the Making of a Governor, p. 168).

A key component of putting these homiletic words into action was the establishment of what was to become something of a religious quarter of the early city, up here on Eastern Hill. Land was set-aside for the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the German Lutheran Church and even a Synagogue. The Anglicans were first off the mark, and on 18th June 1846 then Superintendent La Trobe laid the foundation stone of our church.

For Charles and Sophie, this was in a very real sense their local parish, living in the relatively humble Superintendent’s cottage they built in Jolimont, from 1839 to 1854. Subsequent Governors lived in much grander surrounds at Toorak House, then what is now Bishopscourt, and finally in the present Government House that was completed in 1876. The La Trobe’s did not rent a pew at St Peter’s, but a number of the then Lieutenant-Governor’s staff did. After Sophie tragically died on 30 January 1854, and Charles’ term of office concluded soon after, he sent over from Europe two gifts for St Peter’s church: a marble font and a large marble memorial plaque in memory of his beloved wife. Powerful symbols of life and death, to be placed in this church that clearly held a very significant place in his heart.

So, today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we join in prayer with the Vicar and congregation of St Michael the Archangel, in Litlington, England, where Charles is buried. We are blessed again to share this day with the President and Members of the La Trobe Society, and also for the first time this year, members of the East Melbourne Historical Society. We give thanks for one of the foremost founders of St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Charles La Trobe, and his wife Sophie. May they rest in peace … and rise in glory!

And now, the work is over to us. The foundations of this church were laid with such hope and promise in 1846, and built on through the eras of Fathers Handfield, Hughes, Maynard, Taylor, Bayton, Farrar, and most recently Fr John Davis who we are blessed to have with us today. But the work is now ours to do. Last night’s Messiah was one of the most recent beautiful layers of ministry to be added. Our Lay Minister, Alae Taule’alo, has been working away all year at RMIT, building on student-ministry foundations that Fr Rob Whalley, also here today, laid more than a decade ago. You will have seen in the pew sheet that we have reached our fundraising goal of $400,000 for the completion of the Corner Plaza development and Wayside Cross renovation. A huge thank you to everyone who has contributed to this ambitious project, which started with a very simple desire to start up a coffee cart social enterprise to assist the homeless, and has turned into a magnificent project that will well and truly put our church back on the East Melbourne street frontage. So, thank you to everyone who supports, ministers and worships at this little old church on “The Hill.” The Lord be with you!


Dianne Reilly Drury, La Trobe: the Making of a Governor (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2006)

Jill Eastwood, “La Trobe, Charles Joseph (1801–1875)” in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1967)

Colin Holden, From Tories at Prayer to Socialists at Mass: St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne, 1846-1990 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996)

Alae Taule'alo