August 18, 2023
People & Places

Divine intervention

All Talitha Becker and Sandy Cameron needed was a “sign” as to whether they should buy a rundown, disused church along the Limestone Coast. When that sign came, the couple embarked on an incredible renovation that uncovered more than a century of secrets.

Talitha Becker and Sandy Cameron have transformed and restored the church to be enjoyed for generations to come.

“One of the rules in life is never to buy property on holiday. Ever,” Sandy Cameron says, with a laugh.

Of course, rules were made to be broken. So begins the story of the three-year transformation of Beachport’s historic St Nicholas Anglican Church, once filled with pews and parishioners, now one of the town’s most talked-about properties.

In late 2019, Melbourne couple Sandy Cameron and Talitha Becker were on one of their many return visits to Sandy’s childhood home in the Limestone Coast’s popular coastal town when an “Auction” sign caught their eye.  After decades of renting and negotiating busy schedules for a holiday shack, the couple was on the hunt for a property to call their own.

On first inspection, St Nicholas was ramshackle and uninspiring, the main hall dark and dreary with windows boarded up and dank carpet covering the wooden floor.

“I said ‘absolutely not, no way’,” Sandy says, deflating the more interested Talitha’s hopes of putting an offer in on the property.

On their way home, they happened to pass the auction in progress and an hour later, Talitha’s phone lit up. It was the agent, saying the property has been passed in and “would you like to make an offer?”.

The historic, but rundown, St Nicholas Anglican Church at Beachport was in desperate need of renovation.

“I knew it was a sign,” says Talitha. One successful offer later, the duo were the new owners of St Nicholas.

Originally opening in 1923, the church was used for local services for nearly 100 years, before congregation numbers dwindled and the final service held in 2018. Knowing the impressive main room, with its sense of space and vaulted ceiling, was the building’s hero, the couple set about planning the renovation, employing Adelaide-based Hosking Willis Architecture to take on the project.

Wanting a practical living space in theme with the original church, the main bedroom would have an angled roof to tie in the modern back section, which included a total of four bedrooms and three bathrooms, a games room and outdoor spa area. Then, in early 2020, the global pandemic hit and state borders were closed. In locked-down Melbourne, the couple relied on virtual communications with the team of local builders, architects and landscapers to see the transformation take shape.

“It was actually a wonderful distraction over Covid because life in Victoria was miserable,” Sandy says, matter-of-factly.

Talitha adds: “We always got excited when we got a picture through. We got over here only three times during the entire project for a total of four days.”

But gradually, the historic building was revealing her secrets. At one point, builders had been tossing limestone blocks into a utility when a discovery literally broke out of its hiding place and rolled across the car’s tray: a time capsule, wax-sealed containing newspaper articles and letters to Jesus.

The interior of the church now features an open plan living and dining area, with statement angel wings taking pride of place on one wall.

“We were hoping for gold doubloons and coins and diamonds, turns out not so much,” Sandy laughs.

One day, Sandy also got an excited phone call from builders who had stumbled upon what they thought was an old cellar out the front, yet mysteriously it was filled with old timber. Trying to get to the bottom of what had happened, Sandy called his dad who, having lived in Beachport for decades, knew all the goings on. Coincidentally, it turned out that Sandy’s father had been behind the stash of wood in what turned out to be a well, not a cellar.

“When I asked him about it, Dad just laughed and laughed,” Sandy says. “Maybe 40 years ago, he got dobbed in by mates to cut down an enormous Cyprus tree in the church’s front yard and thinking ‘this is such a pain in the ass’, he threw all the wood down the well.”

Understanding the original belltower was a highly unique feature, the couple’s original plans included an internal spiral staircase leading up to the viewing tower, to afford spectacular 360-degree views of Beachport and the surrounding coastline.

However, those plans quickly shifted when they realised the bell would have to be removed to accommodate it and they decided upon what would become one of the property’s most talked about features – an external spiral staircase.

Early on in the renovations, it was decided to make the finished house as environmentally friendly as possible.

Today, the church is spectacular and has become a talking point for town locals.

“There’s no gas, heat exchange pumps for the hot water, all electric appliances, 50,000 litre rainwater tanks, 12.5 kilowatts of solar and also, two Tesla batteries,” Sandy says. “It’s still connected to the grid but to all intents and purposes, it’s off the grid.”

The couple was also surprised to discover there were no heritage protections for the church, meaning a buyer could have potentially knocked the church down and developed the land.

“Sandy and I just love looking after old properties,” Talitha says. “I feel like we’re responsible for the next generation to still have some of this sort of thing around. Developers are knocking over everything in Melbourne, it’s quite sad.”

Meanwhile, the ongoing renovations were attracting some serious interest, particularly when the local paper came over to do a story.

“Once we convinced people we weren’t going to knock it over and once the building started to come up, we just had lots of interest,” Sandy says. “Mum and Dad were just thrilled because they had people approach them in the store saying, ‘We love what you’re doing with the church!’.

Perhaps the first time Sandy and Talitha understood the full spectrum of community investment was when they strolled up the stairs to enjoy the viewing deck, bedecked in bathrobes and with a leisurely Saturday morning coffee and newspaper session in mind.

The master bedroom features its own a private deck. Opening pages Talitha Becker and Sandy Cameron have transformed and restored the church to be enjoyed for generations to come.

“Well, forget peaceful because there were 10 people wandering past saying ‘Good morning!’ and calling up ‘We love your church!’” Sandy says, laughing.

In fact, the property’s notoriety around town remains such that Talitha and Sandy, who own and manage Sass Clothing in Melbourne, are now referred to as “the church people” whenever they come to Beachport.

With the renovations complete, there are some final touches still to come, with Talitha having design support from Georgina Kidd Interiors. Historic photos of the church, discovered at the local museum, will feature on the walls, along with the restored time capsule and its contents in a presentation case. The property will be rented out to small groups and special events in future, but Talitha said it will remain very much a family space.

“It’s very much a family connection for us and it’s our place,” says the couple, who are already looking forward to extended weekend breaks in their new holiday house.

The external spiral staircase, which leads to a viewing tower with stunning 360-degree views of Beachport, is now one of the most talked about features of the church and was built after original plans for an internal staircase meant the removal of the old bell.

But to cater for the strong community interest, Talitha and Sandy plan on holding an open day in late 2023 so that locals can come and see the new improved St Nicholas for themselves.

If they’re lucky, visitors may also get to see and hear one of the church’s most iconic features in action, once resonating out across the neighbourhood for service on Sunday morning.

“The bell,” Sandy says, with a chuckle. “Everyone wants to ring the bell of course.”


This article first appeared in the June 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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