The construction of the Evanglismos Church in Melbourne, commencing in 1900, our first lasting endeavour as an organised community is the keystone of our foundation myth as a Greek community in Victoria. Yet what is widely not known, or intentionally left out of such a myth is that this endeavour was not restricted to Greeks alone. While founding of the Evangelismos Church did place the Greek community on the broader social map of Melbourne, it did so at the expense of the ecumenical vision of the Orthodox Church, and the aspirations of the small Syrian and Russian communities that had cleaved to the vision of a permanent Orthodox church being built in Melbourne,for all Orthodox faithful to enjoy. The founding of the church then is a triumph of willpower and a tragedy of petty nationalism, racism and exclusionist micro-politics that have blighted our community ever since.
According to historian Hugh Gilchrist, in April 1894, at the request of a group of Syrians and Greeks in Melbourne, Russian consul Poutiatin, wrote to his counterpart in Jerusalem, asking that the Patriarch of Jerusalem send a priest to Melbourne. According to Poutiatin, the Orthodox (not just the Greek) of Melbourne, had told him that they undertook to pay £1 a head per year to maintain a priest and wanted: “a middle-aged priest who could conduct the liturgy in Arabic as well as Greek and a man well educated enough to “repel the intrigues of the Catholics.” For the avoidance of any doubt, Gilchrist notes further that “their reason for addressing their pleas to Jerusalem than to Athens or Constantinople, was to attract an Arabic speaking priest.”
Three months later, a committee of Greeks and Syrians signed a letter to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, reminding him of their request and guaranteeing a stipend of £100 for a priest for five years. This committee called itself the “Provisional Committee of the Melbourne Orthodox Community,” and included such founding fathers of the later Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria as Grigorios Matorikos, Georgios Lekatsas and Konstantinos Raftopoulos, as well as the Syrians Salman Botros and Zakharia Golemi. The Patriarch was slow in replying and the Orthodox of Melbourne continued to use facilities provided to them generously by the Anglican church.
Hot off the heels of an unexpected visit to Australia in 1896 by Samian priest Dorotheos Bakaliaros, the Provisional Committee of the Melbourne Orthodox Community sent of its Syrian members, Souliman Keami to call upon the Jerusalem Patriarch. While he was in Jerusalem, Keami met Athanasios Kantopoulos, from Rhodes, who he believed would be eminently suitable.
On 7 March 1898, a meeting was held in Grigorios Matorikos’ shop in Swanston Street, attended by Greeks, Syrians and Lebanese. The committee was instructed to write to the Patriarch, requesting a priest able to conduct the liturgy in Greek and Arabic. Kantopoulos, a polyglot who spoke Greek, Arabic and Russian, duly arrived in Melbourne on 10 June 1898.
The Evanglismos Church foundation stone was laid by Kantopoulos on 6 December 1900. A collection raised towards the cost of the building, contributed to primarily by the three Greek businessmen Matorikos, Lekatsas and Maniakis but also by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne and the Syrian John Abicair. Some Lebanese parishioners donated icons and the first churchwarden was also Lebanese.
It was at this point that things went horribly wrong. According to Father Kantopoulos, the church committee, abrogated to itself the right to determine matters within his own ecclesiastical jurisdiction, worsening the relations between priest and committee. Further, the committee took it upon itself to draft a new constitution for the Community. That constitution, commencing with a preamble including the Ten Commandments and the Apostle’s Creed, restricted its membership to persons of Greek origin who could speak Greek. The Syrians and other Orthodox who had worshipped with the Greeks, shared their vision, contributed to the Church, did more than anyone else to secure a priest and were led to believe that they were an integral part of the same community, were thus excluded. At a meeting to ratify the constitution, a journalist who was present reported: “For some time there appear to have been strained relations between the Greek and Syrian sections of the congregation over the question of control.”
Father Kantopoulos, as an Orthodox priest, could not accept the alienation of part of his flock, especially on racial lines, as ethnophyletism, or ecclesiastical racism was condemned by the Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople on the 10th of September 1872, as a heresy. At that Synod, it was held that the Church should not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race. As a result of Father Kantopoulos principled stand against the racism of the proto-Greek community, he was locked out of the Evangelismos church and sacked. As one of the trustees of the church, Maniakis, later commented: “He practically suspended himself. We suspended him because he mixed with the Syrians and the others.”
The Community went on to defame Kantopoulos, and to arbitrarily resolve to leave the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, making attempts to place themselves under the Church of Greece. The reason they did so was also stated by Maniakis, who stated that the Greeks wanted to be “under the protection of a free corner of the Greek race.” This stance, caused a further division within the small community, pitting those, predominantly Ithacans who had come from areas that belonged to the Greek kingdom, against those Greeks who came from areas that were still subject to Ottoman rule.
There is significant evidence that despite his ignominious treatment, Father Kantopoulos continued to enjoy the support of many members of the Greek and Syrian community. In August 1903, a Melbourne Greek, Panayiotis Peppas, addressed an emotional letter to the Jerusalem Patriarch, declaring that Kantopoulos “was beloved and esteemed by the entire Orthodox Church in Melbourne, – Greeks, Syrians, Russians and Serbs – except “three brass-headed speculators – Maniakis, Matorikos and Lekatsas – and about ten people working in the fish-markets.” A similar letter, signed by a combined group of Greeks and Syrians, denounced the “scandalous and wicked extortionist faction,” which had deprived the Syrians of their “legal rights.” All this was to no avail and in September 1903, the Community’s council erased Kantopoulos’ name from the foundation stone of the Evangelismos church. In that year, also, Alexander Maniakis registered himself as the head of the Greek Orthodox Community of Victoria.
Father Kantopoulos remained in Melbourne until 1907, and retained his ecumenical vision, ministering to the Orthodox believers of all nations, even preaching in New Zealand and to the Australia aborigines. He most notably survives in public Australian discourse as a footnote in the pages of Federation, the artist Tom Roberts painting him in his canvas depicting the ceremonial opening of the first Federal Parliament. In the meantime, the Syrians and Lebanese, dispossessed of their rights, continued to attend the Evangelismos church until 1932, when they, along with some Russian families, constructed the church of Saint Nicholas on the same street, a few blocks further down from the Evanglismos Church. This was a truly polyglot church, with services in Arabic, Russian and Greek.
Even despite the appalling racism meted out to their Orthodox brethren by a few shopkeepers, the hierarchy of the Greek church did not abandon the Syrians. The aptly named Archbishop Timotheos Evangelinidis consecrated St Nicholas, Archimadrite Timotheos would occasionally serve the liturgy there and the Syrians and Lebanese, now under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch co-operate closely with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese today. Yet had not the ugly head of racism reared itself from the outset, arguably our communities would have been closer and much more integrated than they are today.
Quite apart from a legacy of racism that has inexplicably seen the Orthodox communities of Australia divided into ethnic jurisdictions, something that horrified the ecclesiastical authorities of 1900’s, the exclusion of the Syrians and the arbitrary governance of a church by a cabal of shopkeepers and petty-capitalists, who believed that their business acumen qualified them to minister to the spiritual needs of their less affluent brethren, in defiance of the doctrines and canons of the Church, created a legacy of fractiousness, jurisdiction hopping and strife that has blighted not only the organised Greek community until the present day but also has served as a precedent for intra-jurisdictional strife between other Orthodox communities run by businessmen ignorant of church traditions and the canonically appointed spiritual representatives of those Churches.
The founding of Evangelismos Church is rightly lauded as a great achievement. Yet it is high time that its negative aspects are also re-examined, and afforded their rightful place within the historical discourse of our community.