The burning of the Evangelismos church marks a historical watershed in our community, to which the historians of tomorrow will return
Just over a month prior to the recent conflagration which caused untold damage to the Annunciation (Evangelismos) Church in East Melbourne, Athena Giankoulidis undertook an extensive mission to photograph almost every inch of that church accessible to the laity. Her actions were prescient, as the community is now possessed of an archive of photos that could prove invaluable as guides to restoration, should it be determined that the church be restored to exactly the same condition or style as it was prior to the fire, or at least, bear historical witness to the décor of the church and the manner in which the restoration diverged from it.
Of course, much of the interior is irreplaceable. Granted, much of the iconography was executed in the hyper-mannerist, super-baroque Romanesque, cringeworthy style of the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds, still to be found in a multitude of Greek island churches and beyond. It is neither rare nor important from an art-historical point of view. Yet when I view Athena’s photograph of the now destroyed icon of the Nativity in the church, I cannot help but choke back tears. For the inscription below the icon informs us that this was a donation by Sophia, the mother of the first Greek Orthodox priest in Melbourne, Athanasios Kantopoulos, way back in 1902. The prayers of this pious woman, whose gesture, was made at a time when iconography was extremely costly, in support of a community she knew nothing about and her son’s mission in a completely unknown land have finally come to an end.
Being an old people, we Greeks have a strange, almost contradictory relationship with time. Centuries of history can be conflated into minutes so that the Fall of Constantinople or the Battle of Salamis can be treated in the popular consciousness as if they took place only recently. Conversely, time can also be surprisingly telescoped. The Macedonian struggle of 1908 or the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 are treated by many Greek-Australians as current events, (especially on facebook), but when it comes to our consciousness of our own community’s history, the year 1900, being when the Evangelismos Church was founded, is felt to have taken place aeons ago and is shrouded within the obscurity of the temporal nebulae.
Thus, while many Greek-Australians can identify with an imagined past of at least three millennia prescribed by a modern Greek historical narrative, there appears to be no analogous identification or sense of continuity with the founders of our community, a mere century ago. Rather than inherit a corpus of anecdotes or local lore, there seems to be an almost complete disconnect of knowledge or identification between successive Greek-Australian generations. For most of us, our Greek-Australian community creation myth begins with the arrival of our parents of grandparents on these shores, and it is their values rather than their deeds and those of their peers that are idealized and passed on.
Consequently, the works and deeds of our early pioneers are left to be discovered in the works of dedicated historians such as Hugh Gilchrist, which is where, incidentally, I first came to appreciate the significance of the Evangelismos Church, as a teenager. Prior to that, Evangelismos featured dimly in my own familial tradition as a place my grandparents and father had to travel an inordinate distance in order to celebrate Easter, prior to the erection of our own local church, which is when my own Greek-Melbournian temporal consciousness begins, though it intersects strangely with that of its first Greek priest, with whom being of Samian descent, we all sympathized as a compatriot.
Originally well regarded, Father Athanasios Kantopoulos of Samos, gradually alienated himself from the Greek parishioners of Evangelismos via his insistence upon ministering to the Arabic-speaking members of his flock (for contrary to our version of the founding myth, Evangelismos church was founded as a multi-cultural church for all Orthodox Melbournians, including the Lebanese, Syrians, Russians and Bulgarians), and not excluding them from church governance, despite the insistence of local Greek bourgeois powerbrokers. As a result, Father Athanasios was expelled from the church, along with the Arabic-speaking faithful, who eventually formed the parish of Saint Nicholas a few blocks down, in the same street, in 1932. It is therefore the height of historical irony, but also a lovingly symbolic act of absolution that the descendants of these same exiles from a community that was happy to take their money but not to respect their ethno-linguistic diversity, will house the faithful of Evangelismos in Saint Nicholas, until such time as Evangelismos is liturgical once more (pun definitely intended). In such cases, historical amnesia maybe for the best though sadly, the icons dedicated by the Syrian members of Evangelismos have been destroyed, erasing physical witness to their contribution to this church forever.
No amount of new iconography can bring this, or the fervent prayers of Sophia Kantopoulou back and perhaps the community could look into publishing a photo memoir of the church in its undamaged state in order to act as a point of reference for the future, for I feel that the burning of this church marks a historical watershed in our community, to which the historians of tomorrow will return.
The fact is that despite the rhetoric, Evangelismos was largely neglected and unloved by the majority of Greek-Melbournians. Caught between an ugly and ultimately useless turf war between the Community and the Archdiocese for decades, it remained a reminder of the type of strife celebrated only by the most fervent of partisans on either side. In the meantime, as everyone else built their local brotherhoods, in opposition to or complete disregard of the GOCMV and founded largely architecturally-challenged churches in suburbs close to home, Evangelismos was allowed to lapse into obscurity, the defacing of its foundation stone being symbolic of our lack of historical consciousness and continuity.
In this way, the past tradition of ecclesiastical strife as embodied by Evangelismos arguably constitutes a burden, especially for younger members of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, who question why their institution should be tasked with overseeing matters of religion and indeed, no longer view the terms ‘Greek’ and ‘Orthodox’ as inextricably entwined. Symptomatic of this, is the recent tacit dropping of the word ‘Orthodox,’ from that entity’s informal communications, hinting that a new direction away from the traditional, is being considered. If so, then the burning of the most significant symbol of the perceived fetters of the past, grants the casting of that new direction, immense bittersweet poignancy.
Nothing ever goes on as before and the real chord struck in the hearts of most of us at the devastation of our community’s foundation point, is that it constitutes evidence that the constant niggling feeling we have, that our communal works and deeds will prove to be ephemeral, is now palpable. Yet this does not have to be so. Already the leadership of the GOCMV, with the surprising energy and deep respect for the past that is so characteristic of it, has secured the devastated premises and in consultation with the Archdiocese, is planning its restoration. In doing so, it can tap into the immense groundswell of community sympathy and support it has been able to garner through its astute management of its other projects, as well as the residual and now, in the aftermath of the fire, resurgent attachment to Evangelismos church.
Regardless of the form that such architectural restoration takes, or of the future ideological and religious direction of our institutions, if we can as a whole, memorialise and celebrate the history of Evangelismos, granting it a unique and viable (rather than tokenistic) role within the Greek community, as well as restoring it to its rightful place as the fundament, not only of our own but of all Orthodox communities in Melbourne, making it a place of pilgrimage and a multi-cultural touchstone of identity for all ethnicities that played a role in its foundation, then we have its ensured its relevance and justified the prayers of its donors, if not for eternity (Orthodox conception of time is even more otherworldly than Greek), then at least for the considerable future.
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne based solicitor and freelance writer.