15 July 2022
Who would have thought that the faithful initiatives of one English woman would still be reverberating in the Melbourne diocese 140 years on?
In 1875 Mary Elizabeth Townsend of Lambeth, London, stood strong and with determination to meet the challenge of her time. That time was the industrial revolution which saw many young women flooding from the countryside and villages to the major centres looking for work, opportunity and a new life.
And the Melbourne iteration of the organisation Townsend founded is set to celebrate 140 years in October.
But in much the same way that younger women are under pressure today, many encountered predators and others who sought to take advantage of them. They needed the support, friendship and encouragement which Mary Elizabeth Townsend and others provided. And so the Girls Friendly Society was born.
Read more: Whose job is it to fix the youth ministry?
Based on the United Kingdom model, the GFS began in the Melbourne diocese in 1882 and expanded rapidly, until about 300 branches had been established across parishes in the diocese and sometimes in other centres. The branches provided a four-pillar ministry program focussed on worship, study, work and play. It’s a model that the St Alfred’s Blackburn North GFS branch still uses, in a modern form.
From 1885 the GFS used various city buildings as headquarters and hostel. In 1913 it acquired a property at 37 Spring St, Melbourne using its own financial resources. This served GFS Melbourne well until around 1970 when a bold plan was agreed upon with the diocese, to buy a portion of land from St Mary’s North Melbourne and establish a 50-bed hostel.
This was opened in 1974 by the Archbishop Sir Frank Woods and the wife of Victoria’s then Premier. It was named Edith Head Hall, in honour of the wife of former Archbishop Frederick Head. Over the ensuing years this has been used to accommodate girls and young women coming to Melbourne from regional Victoria, interstate and overseas.
In the new millennium and amidst diminishing demand for this style of accommodation, Edith Head Hall has been tenanted by several groups whose rentals have been used to fund children’s ministry workers over seven years in more than 20 parishes within the diocese. In all, over $530,000 has been contributed and funds are still being paid to several Parishes.
Unfortunately, with accommodation needing to meet COVID 19 requirements, this building has reached the end of its economic life and its future is currently being negotiated with the Diocese.
Many people reading this article will have fond memories of involvement in GFS and or residing at Edith Head Hall.
An invitation is given to all current and past members to come and celebrate 140 years of GFS on Saturday 22 October, from 1.30pm at St Alfred’s Blackburn North. For information, contact secretary Valerie Murcutt at firstname.lastname@example.org.