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Calvin Chai: The treasure hunter at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Calvin Chai

Manager of St Patrick's Cathedral Shop

"A few years ago, I met a lovely Aboriginal Christian man in Queensland who now hand paints Aboriginal crosses for me. These crosses are selling like hot cakes!"

Nothing ever happens purely by accident. Especially not when it involves one’s life purpose.

Malaysian-born Calvin Chai found that out when he was idly scrolling through Australia's employment site, Seek.com, despite already being employed.

A job listing at St. Patrick’s Cathedral caught his eye. Melbourne’s largest church building needed someone to run its cathedral shop.

Unperturbed by the fact that he was living in Tasmania at the time, Calvin submitted his application and promptly bought a flight ticket when he was called for an interview.

“After the interview, the dean and the human resources manager offered to show me my workplace,” Calvin recalls. “We walked down here and they opened the door to an empty room.”

“Up to that moment, I had assumed they needed a manager to run an existing shop. It never occurred to me that the shop didn’t exist yet.”

“I was shocked when I saw the room and I said, “Father, there’s nothing in here!” And he said, “That's why we need you. This is your baby. You need to look after it.”

And for the past 11 years, that is exactly what Calvin has done.

It is a glorious summer day as this interview takes place on a bench in the cathedral grounds with only the sound of rustling leaves and running water filling the air.

“Many changes have taken place in Melbourne and I’m so happy this cathedral wasn’t demolished to make way for something more modern,” Calvin says. “It’s an amazing place to work in terms of its beauty and tranquility. I really love being here.”

Take us back to that time when you accepted the job – and the challenge. What were the next steps?

I had to design the entire room from sourcing the display shelves and suppliers to deciding on the right software for a retail business. It was overwhelming and I had no idea where to start.

The dean had told me he didn’t want the shop to sell common items. He wanted people, when they walked in, to feel that there was something new about the faith.

It was tough finding the right suppliers to meet those expectations at the quality and price I wanted. Over the years, I built the business through research, relationships and a lot of travelling.


How different are your products to those sold in other religious shops?

A lot of shops in Australia stock typical religious items mainly from Italy. I personally find German, English and French-made religious items much more refined. And I’ve now established many wonderful suppliers across Europe, Peru and Bethlehem.

I get great compliments on the German products because they are modern, contemporary and mainly bronze items made in monasteries in Germany. Monasteries are the best makers of religious items but you really have to seek them out.

A few years ago, I met a lovely Aboriginal Christian man in Queensland who now hand paints Aboriginal crosses for me. Every single piece is different. Many tourists want Australian-made products and these crosses sell like hot cakes!

In 1858, an Irish Catholic community commissioned an English architect, William Wardell, to design a new place for worship due to the gold rush.

St Patrick’s is now internationally regarded as the finest ecclesiastical building in Australia and a pre-eminent example of the Gothic Revival style.

The Cathedral Church and Minor Basilica of Saint Patrick is also the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne in Victoria and the seat of the current Archbishop, Denis Hart.

Tell us about your clientele.

They come from all walks of life. We get the regular tourists who know that some of what we sell can’t be found anywhere else in Melbourne. I even get emails from as far as Hong Kong and Africa asking me to send certain items over. It’s all word of mouth, really.

Our biggest spenders are from Asia, particularly the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. They are wealthy, they buy in bulk and they don’t look at the price tag.

Priests and religious figureheads also come here and I’ve had parishes, churches and monasteries within Australia ask me for advice on where to source items. Australian schools are another of our main clients. The principals usually buy in bulk.

And then of course, there are the locals and parishioners who come in after Sunday Mass. Christmas is the busiest period for us because that’s when people are buying Christmas cards, nativity sets and gifts.

What about your work brings you the most joy?

Seeing people pleasantly surprised when they walk in. A lot of hospital patients, especially from the cancer unit, come here before their treatments. They tell me they find the shop tranquil and peaceful and that they feel rejuvenated here. That’s so heartwarming. It inspires me to keep working at making this place better and better.


What is it like working on the cathedral grounds?

I’ve been here 11 years and have never gotten tired of looking at this place. Every corner is beautiful whether you’re looking up, down or around you. In fact, the whole area around East Melbourne is wonderful to walk around. I love this part of the city.


What else do you love about the city?

Its vibrancy, multiculturalism, great food and coffee. I’ve travelled a lot and I can say with confidence that Melbourne has the best variety of food.

In A Snap:

Favourite Aussie phrase: “No worries!”

Favourite city café: Oh, I have so many! Ok, I like Self Preservation on the top end of Bourke Street. It’s very classy.

Best Malaysian restaurant: Mamak

Best place for quiet time in the city: Aside from the cathedral grounds, Fitzroy Garden.

Favourite city street: The top end of Collins Street. It feels very European. And Flinders Lane. It has character.

4 Comments

  1. Kevin Allsopp says:

    I met Calvin in the shop on my visit to Melbourne for three months, and we became friends.
    He is a lovely man to meet, and runs a very lovely shop,
    I recommend anyone to visit the shop, the cathedral, and to say hello to Calvin.

  2. sharon says:

    Love christian gift shops even though I dont always agree a the churches ideals.

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