A history of Antiochian Orthodoxy in Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines

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The history of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines begins with the immigration of Orthodox Christians from Greece, Russia, Lebanon and Syria in the last years of the 19th Century. 

The first wave of Lebanese immigration was in the 1880–90s. Immigrants found work hawking and peddling goods in the country areas of eastern Australia and in Dunedin. Along with Greek and Russian Orthodox faithful, they took part in the construction of community churches — Holy Trinity Church in Surry Hills, Sydney; and Holy Annunciation, East Melbourne.

In order to minister to these different groups, the Church of Jerusalem sent priests who were able to speak Greek, Arabic and, sometimes, Russian. These were pan-ethnic parishes. Services were served in the three languages, altar servers were from the three ethnicities, and icons were donated by people in each ethnic group.

St Michael’s Church, Dunedin, is a decidedly Lebanese community. Hieromonk Nicholas (Manovitch) arrived to celebrate services in 1910. Permission was obtained via the Bishop of Tripoli to build a church, with a committee raising over 480 pounds in just over 6 months. A bazaar payed for all the required furniture. Taken together, St Michael’s opened debt-free in 1911. Hieromonk Nicholas moved to Sydney in 1913.

Ethnic dislocations

The 1898 deposition of the ethnically-Greek Patriarch of Antioch, followed by the 1899 election of the ethnically-Arab Patriarch of Antioch, caused no small degree of problems for the Lebanese immigrants. In 1908, the Patriarch of Constantinople transferred jurisdiction of the ‘diaspora’ parishes from the Church of Jerusalem to the Church of Greece, on the condition that services were to be celebrated in Ecclesiastical Greek. This had immediate effects in Sydney, while in Melbourne, an Arabic-speaking priest was present until the 1920s. The Lebanese faithful took to meeting in individual homes while attending the Greek Orthodox parish for sacraments. Some families sent their children to Anglican or protestant Sunday schools. However, neither the now-Greek parishes nor the various protestant groups were able to meet the needs of the Antiochian Orthodox, and it was considered necessary to found Antiochian Orthodox parishes.

Establishing Antiochian Parishes

In 1913, Fr Nicholas Shehadie was sent to Australia, in the office of Exarch, to determine the extent of this problem and to find possible solutions.  A temporary visit turned into a permanent residence at the outbreak of World War I. Realising the need for a church for the Antiochian Orthodox, he was determined to build it. The Divine Liturgy was held in parishioners’ homes until the church was built. Help arrived in the form of the State Government, who leased a block of land to the church at the corner of Walker and Redfern Streets, Redfern. The first Antiochian Orthodox church in Australia was built there and dedicated to St George the Trophy-bearer. In 1916, Fr Nicholas spent 2-3 months in Dunedin, holding Orthodox services.

In 1929, James Batrouney made a visit to Lebanon and met Archimandrite Antonious (Mobayed). On Batrouney's return, Archimandrite Antonious was recommended as a suitable priest for the Antiochian Orthodox community in Melbourne. Well-educated and fluent in Arabic, Russian and Greek, Patriarch Arsanios of Antioch commissioned him as the first priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Melbourne, where he arrived on November 12, 1931, donating everything essential for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Some of these items can be found at St Nicholas Church, East Melbourne, today.

The first services were held at St George Anglican Mission, which marked the beginning of a long and amicable relationship between the Anglicans and the Orthodox in Victoria. March 1932 saw the community purchase a church, where St Nicholas stands today, using four £125 donations from John Batrouney, Joseph & Walter Davis and Alex Malouly. The iconostasis, based on that of Holy Resurrection Cathedral, Tokyo, was completed by Palm Sunday, 1932, when the first service was held. The first council meeting in May 1932 resolved to name the church after St Nicholas. It was consecrated on October 1, 1933, by Metropolitan Timotheos (Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Australia and New Zealand) in the presence of the Greek and French consuls and Rev. F.E. Maynard (Anglican) using Arabic, English, Greek and Slavonic. St Nicholas included both Arabic and Russian members, with both contributing to all costs and the Russian members having a choir that would chant the Liturgy in Slavonic on every fourth Sunday.

In 1937–39, Fr Antonious visited Dunedin. Having instructed the local Anglican vicar in the rudiments of Eastern Orthodox liturgics, the congregation was placed under the care of the Vicars of Holy Cross, St Kilda, as an interim measure. This remained the case until 1971.

Exarch Nicholas Shehadie reposed in his early 70s of chronic asthma. His second son, Michael, followed him into the priesthood and began serving his father’s church, St George's. During his time, the government revoked the church lease, repossessed the land for housing development and demolished the church. Fr Michael vigourously pressured the government to provide a new site, and the Antiochians were granted land in 1950 at the Corner of Walker and Cooper Streets, Redfern, where the present-day cathedral now stands. Fr Michael was not to see his new church built. In 1951, at 56 years of age, he reposed.

The pan-ethnic Church of St Nicholas, Melbourne

St Nicholas Church had Arabic and Slavonic choirs, a youth society, Lebanese youth that knew the service in Arabic and a priest willing to travel to Sydney, Adelaide and New Zealand to raise money for what was now a strong, pan-Orthodox church. However, after a short illness, Archimandrite Antonious reposed on November 9, 1943. He was buried by Metropolitan Timotheos, who was assisted by Archimandrite Theophylactos (Greek Orthodox Metropolis) and Fr Michael Shehadie (Sydney). When the Russian Orthodox established their first church in Melbourne in the early 1950s, the committee of St Nicholas donated a Slavonic Bible in Archimandrite Antonious’ memory.

Unfortunately, World War II precluded any replacement priest from either America or Antioch. In 1948, Exarch George Haydar arrived, and during his time until his repose in 1962, a rectory was built. Following Fr George was Fr Gabraeel Fadel, who consolidated the parish’s growth. He was followed in 1967 by Fr Malatius (Essam) Hussney, who worked for the second wave of Lebanese immigrants to be actively involved in the running of St Nicholas.

St George’s, Sydney

There were a total of five priests who served at St George's Church, Sydney, between Fr Michael's repose in 1953 and 1964. On June 18, 1964, Fr Nicolas Mansour arrived in Sydney from Beirut, Lebanon, commencing his duties as parish priest.  The church was consecrated by Bishop Dionysios (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese) soon after his arrival, with the church hall and presbytery being completed in 1967. Finding the need to minister to all Antiochian Orthodox faithful in New South Wales to be too much, the Church of Antioch acceded to Fr Nicolas’ request and sent Archimandrite Gibran to determine a solution.

Based on Archimandrite Gibran's recommendations, the Holy Synod elevated the Exarchate of Australia and New Zealand to a patriarchal diocese, with Archimandrite Gibran consecrated a bishop and appointed Patriarchal Vicar of the new diocese. Consecrated by Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) of New York, he assumed his responsibilities in 1969.

In order to alleviate the problems of one priest serving all of New South Wales, in 1973 Bishop Gibran gave a blessing for a new church in the western suburbs of Sydney to be built. Fr John Shehadie, son of Exarch Nicholas Shehadie, was appointed priest of St Nicholas Church, Punchbowl, where he served until his retirement in 1987.

A new wave of immigration for St Nicholas’

Fr Malatius Hussney continued to work very hard for St Nicholas Church. He travelled to Lebanon and Cyprus to help refugees of the Civil War obtain visas to come to Australia. His efforts to serve the new generation of Lebanese faithful, however, caused a split in the community, with the older generation feeling unwanted.

Establishment of St George’s Church, Thornbury

A new church, St George's Church, Thornbury, was formed in 1972.  Fr Emile was to replace Fr Malatius at St Nicholas, Melbourne, serving from 1977-90. He continued to renovate and redecorate the church and rectory.

A convert from Anglicanism

An Anglican priest in New Zealand, who observed Anglicanism trending away from its traditional roots, decided to convert to Orthodoxy. Fr Jack Witbrock was ordained in September 1972. He served as rector of St Michael’s Church, Dunedin, for the next 12 years.

The 1980s

In 1982, St Nicholas' received Fr Elias Khoury as priest. In 1985, Fr Hanna Shehadie was the inaugural priest for a new church in Mays Hill, St Mary's (for the Nativity of the Mother of God), worshipping in Granville. In 1987, now under Fr Stephen Godley, they moved to Merrylands. In 1986, St George's, Melbourne, decided to purchase its own church from the Anglican Communion, with immediate renovation being undertaken, completed in 1988 (after which, in 1988-91, the hall was renovated); in the same year, St George's, Sydney, was elevated to Cathedral. 1989 saw the first committee appointed for a new parish in Brisbane, which was registered in the following year.

The 1990s

St Mary’s, Mays Hill, purchased their property in January 1991, with Fr Emile Assaf being transferred from St Nicholas, Melbourne, to pastor the new parish with Fr Aziz Abwi. The first services being held in the church hall in 1994, and the first services in the church on Good Friday, 1999. The Brisbane parish was assigned its first priest, Fr John Abdel-Karim, in 1993. Fr Elias Khoury began working with the Department of Community Services in 1994, with a new program, Orthocare, being instituted to help those requiring financial and spiritual assistance. St George's Church, Thornbury, purchased the property with a rectory adjacent to the church.

A small flood of Anglican converts

1994 saw a number of people, particularly ex-Anglican clergy, accepting the Orthodox faith, including Fathers Ted Doncaster, Geoff Harvey, George Robinson, Raymond Smith, and Sister Virginia Hutchinson. This influx of consecrated talent allowed some new missions and parishes to begin, including St Anthony's in Perth and St Barnabas on the Gold Coast, Queensland. It also allowed for the formation of St Anna's Monastery and the strengthening of other existing Orthodox parishes.

Bishop Gibran, having led the Diocese for 30 years, reposed on 16 January, 1999. In total, Bishop Gibran established two missions in New Zealand, four churches in Sydney, one church each in Melbourne, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Adelaide and Perth. To many churches, he introduced English into the Divine services, fostered the beginning of Sunday schools and Ladies associations. Fr Elias Khoury was named the temporary administrator of the diocese.

Metropolitan Archbishop Paul

In September of that year, the Holy Synod decided to elevate the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand to Archdiocese with its own ruling metropolitan archbishop. Archimandrite Paul, parish priest in Washington DC, was appointed Metropolitan Archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand, arriving at his see on 29 November 1999.

On his arrival, in December, he visited Newcastle and then Brisbane, prompting the decision to build the church of St Paul in Woolloongabba, Brisbane. He further established a translations committee to revise the Divine Liturgy, Baptism, Marriage and Funeral services, updated the Sunday school curricula, established a Byzantine music school and formed the Australian Christian Orthodox Youth. A property was purchased in Illawong for use as the new Archdiocesan headquarters. The Board of Trustees was expanded. February was designated as Youth Month. The fifth Sunday of Great Lent was designated Ladies’ Day in appreciation for the Ladies Societies. The teaching of theology began in Sydney with the introduction of the St Paul Course. An annual Clergy Symposium was initiated. Three parishes were formed in Archbishop Paul’s inaugural year: St Ignatius' Mission, Canberra; Buna-Vestire, Bankstown, Sydney; and St Herman of Alaska, Canterbury, Melbourne.

Parish growth

New Zealand saw a great increase in its parishes in 2001, with St George, Auckland, St George, Wellington, Sts Gregory of Nyssa and Marina, Diamond Harbour, all founded this year. However, this growth was also found in Australia, with St Paul’s being founded in Dandenong, Melbourne, and Father John Vesic being transferred from St Mary’s Church, Mays Hill, to be the inaugural priest of Saints Michael and Gabriel, the first fully English-speaking Antiochian Orthodox parish in New South Wales. This new parish worshiped in rented premises in Homebush until 2005 when it moved to West Ryde. In 2002, the first services were held in the new church of St Paul, Woolloongabba.

Founding of The Good Shepherd

2003 saw The Good Shepherd parish being founded. Father Geoff Harvey was made its parish priest and, later on, was appointed Monash University’s Orthodox chaplain. The Good Shepherd soon commenced worshiping at Monash University, Clayton Campus.

Metropolitan Archbishop Paul’s Guidance

Two parishes were founded in New Zealand in 2003. The Melbourne Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies was established with classes commencing in 2004. Further in 2004, St Nicholas officially came under the omophorion of Metropolitan Archbishop Paul and purchased the land that their church was on from the State Government. 

The next year, in August, saw Father Nicolas Mansour retire from full-time pastoral work, ending 42 years of service at the Cathedral. He was succeeded as Dean by Archimandrite Nabil (Kachab), formerly of St Nicholas, Punchbowl.

In 2008, Metropolitan Archbishop Paul received into the Archdiocese two denominations in the Philippines, almost doubling the number of parishes (an additional 32) and adding  around 6,000 adherents to the Orthodox faith. (Though sadly, one of these two denominations left the Church soon after.) It was around this time that the Archdiocese was renamed the ‘Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines.’

At the time of his repose, there were 26 parishes, missions and communities in Australia, 5 in New Zealand, and 9 in the Philippines, in addition to one retreat centre (‘Antiochian Village‘) in Goulburn, NSW.

Soon after, Patriarch John appointed Archimandrite Basil Kodseie — a priest resident in Australia, having arrived a few years prior — to be the Patriarchal Vicar for the Archdiocese.

The history of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines continues to be written to this day.


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Adapted from ‘History of Antiochian Orthodoxy in Australasia’