Montsalvat founder’s descendant stakes claim to live at farm for life

The granddaughter of the founder of Montsalvat has asserted her right to live at the arts centre’s Christmas Hills farm for life.

In an emphatic return-serve at moves to evict her, Rhiannon Jorgensen says she no longer requires the consent of the property’s owner, the Montsalvat Trust, to stay on.

Montsalvat’s Christmas Hills property.Credit:Joe Armao

Ms Jorgensen said it would be “unconscionable” for the trust to deny what she terms her “equitable life interest” in her home of 36 years — an 11.5 hectare property north-east of Melbourne that the trust wants to sell.

In April, the Montsalvat Trust applied to the Supreme Court to order Ms Jorgensen out, having issued her six requests to vacate in 2020.

Ms Jorgensen, 43, has lived there since she was seven years old.

In her defence and counterclaim filed this month, Ms Jorgensen states she has spent $150,000 to repair and maintain the property, which is 20 kilometres north-east of Montsalvat’s Eltham headquarters. She had hosted concerts, exhibitions and charity fundraisers.

There are no plans to sell the main Montsalvat property in Eltham.

She says that from about 1985 onwards, the trust had indicated to her father Sebastian that he and his family “would be permitted to reside in the property for the remainder of their lives”.

In the trust’s writ against Ms Jorgensen, it stated that the will of Ms Jorgensen’s late grandfather, Montsalvat founder Justus Jorgensen, left Montsalvat’s Eltham land and buildings for public educational purposes.

The will stated that the trust could sell Mr Jorgensen’s “residuary estate”, which includes the farm, at its discretion.

The running of Montsalvat was taken out of the founding families’ hands 15 years ago, and a new board appointed, as part of a state government rescue package when the centre fell into debt.

The late Sebastian Jorgensen in 2005 in the Christmas Hills barn.Credit:Cathryn Tremain

A Trust spokeswoman told The Age last year that the trust had allowed Justus’s son – Ms Jorgensen’s father, classical guitarist Sebastian Jorgensen – to live at the Christmas Hills property for the rest of his life, at no cost.

However, after Sebastian’s 2019 death, the trust decided to sell the Christmas Hills property to raise money for Montsalvat’s future.

The spokeswoman said Ms Jorgensen had no entitlement to continue to live there, which she does rent-free.

Ms Jorgensen’s defence says that when Sebastian’s brothers Max and Sigmund Jorgensen were directors, they had told Sebastian “that the property would always remain in the Jorgensen family and the Montsalvat Trust would not take steps to sell the property during Sebastian and his children’s lifetime”.

The defence says that between 2006 and 2008, the trust had said that if Sebastian Jorgensen withdrew a caveat he placed over the Christmas Hills house block, Ms Jorgensen and her siblings could reside in the property for the rest of their lives and the trust would only sell part of the farm known as the “back block” – which it did in 2007.

Ms Jorgensen also claims that Rob Hauser, as chief executive of Montsalvat from 2009 to 2018 had “from time to time” indicated in telephone calls to her, similar “life interest representations”.

The defence states that since 1985 “and at least 2006”, Ms Jorgensen “assumed or believed that she could reside at the property for the rest of her life and that the Montsalvat Trust would only ever sell the ‘back block’ of the property, as in fact occurred”.

It states that the Montsalvat trustees were aware of that assumption or belief.

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