St Nicholas Church 21st birthday bash
Last night St Nicholas Orthodox Church in Brixton, Johannesburg, had a party to celebrate its 21st birthday. It was the first English-speaking Orthodox parish in South Africa.
The party, appropriately enough, was held in the hall of the Pantanassa Church in Melrose, because that is where St Nicholas had its beginnings. Pantanassa was originally intended to be an English-speaking parish, at least to some extent. It was founded by people of Greek descent who were concerned that their children, growing up in South Africa, were becoming Anglicised, and were drifting away from Orthodoxy because they did not understand the language of services in the Greek parishes. An English-speaking priest, Fr Chrysostom Frank, was ordained in 1985, and the parish had services in Greek and English on alternate Sundays. But in Holy Week in 1986 a visiting Greek priest caused a row, Fr Chrysostom left to study overseas, and the Pantanassa Church reverted to having Greek services every Sunday.
A group of parishioners approached the bishop to ask for a multi-ethnic parish, open to all, but were told by his secretary that the church was Greek. It was also said that the government only allowed Greek clergy to have visas to come to South Africa if they undertook to confine their ministry to the Greek community. Missionary activity among black people was especially frowned upon.
Some of the group then formed a mission society, the Society of St Nicholas of Japan, most of the members of which were South African citizens, and therefore didn’t need visas like the Greek clergy, and invited Fr Chrysostom to return as chaplain to the society rather than as priest in a parish. He returned in September 1987, and we began holding services in St Matthew’s Anglican Church Hall in Fairmount. A few months later we moved to a chapel belonging to St Martin’s in the Veld Anglican Church in Dunkeld, and in 1989 at a chapel belonging to the Russian community in Yeoville. We bought an old Pentecostal Church in Brixton, and began holding services there in 1990.The new church, like the society which had founded it, took the name of St Nicholas of Japan, because it was the aim of the Society and the parish to establish an indigenous Orthodox Church that would be fully South African, and a home of South African Orthodoxy. St Nicholas was a Russian missionary to Japan, but he did not plant a Russian Church in Japan, he started a Japanese Orthodox Church which grew to 20000 members in his lifetime.
Father Chrysostom Frank, an American, left in 1997, and after a year with no priest (which was a time of tremendous spiritual growth for the parish) another English-speaking priest came from the USA, Fr Bertrand Olechnowicz, also known as Fr Iakovos. He left in 2001, and for the next six years St Nicholas shared Fr Mircea Corpodean with the Romanian Community, and when he left at the beginning of 2008, the Archbishop, Metropolitan Seraphim, sent Fr Athanasius Akunda, a Kenyan, as his replacement.
Perhaps St Nicholas also holds a record in that, though it is a small parish, more of its members have become clergy or monastics than any other parish in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Among them is Fr Kobus van der Riet, serving at Eldorado Park, an Afrikaans-speaking daughter parish of St Nicholas, in the Church of St Constantine & Helen. As a birthday present they presented St Nicholas with a Japanese Church flag, which has Christian symbols, yet also echoes of the Japanese national flag.
The chairman of the parish council, Dr Azar Jammine, one of the founder members, paid tribute to the clergy who had served the parish over the years, and also the founder members and those who followed, who had helped to make it a special community. Just how special was shown by Azar Jammine himself turning down a request for a TV interview — as an economist he is often asked for his views on the economic effects of political events, in this case the resignation of the Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel. As Azar put it, “this is spiritual, and is refreshing and more important. The other is work, and belongs to the head, not the spirit”.
Azar’s wife, Georgia, is the choir director, and the parish has become quite well-known for its English (and Afrikaans) siniging of the Divine Liturgy, and a CD of the service was on sale. It was recorded for a Sunday broadcast by the SABC, and the unexpurgated edition is now on sale. Their son Jean-Emile and daughter Aida also provided entertainment during the evening by playing the saxophone and singing. Another founder member of the parish, Harry Tambourlas (also a choir member), provided more music with his jazz group.
Much of the music the parish uses is in the Russian tradition, but, in keeping with its multiethnic character, we also use Byzantine, Arabic and Alaskan melodies. Perhaps one day we will have some talented South African musicians who can provide local melodies too.
Students of the diocesan Catechetical School and altar servers at the church acted as waiters and barmen, serving drinks and clearing the tables with quiet efficiency. Perhaps they are getting ready to serve as deacons.
Over the years the parish has retained its mission vision, though sometimes with difficulty. It has had people from many languages and cultures. There have been many from traditionally Orthodox countries — Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs, Greeks, Russian, Ukrainians. There have been Syrians and Ethiopians, Zimbabweans and Congolese as well as South Africans.
I hope that it will continue to grow and serve a mutiethnic community for the next 21 years and beyond.
O Holy Saint Nicholas, the Enlightener of Japan
You share the dignity and the throne of the Apostles
You are a wise and faithful servant of Christ
A temple chosen by the Divine Spirit
A vessel overflowing with the love of Christ
O Hierarch equal to the apostles
Pray to the life-creating Trinity
For all your flock and for the whole world.