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St Nicholas Church 21st birthday bash

24 September 2008

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.

St Nicholas birthday cake

St Nicholas birthday cake

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.

Fr Athanasius and Fr Kobus with the Japanese Orthodox flag

Fr Athanasius and Fr Kobus with the Japanese Orthodox flag

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”.

Harry Tambourlas playing with his jazz band

Harry Tambourlas playing with his jazz band

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.

Jean-Emile Jammine on saxophone

Jean-Emile Jammine on saxophone

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 September 2008 5:37 pm

    Congratulations!

    Some questions: When and how did you come under the patriarchy of Alexandria?

    How have you been received in the Afrikaans community – I see you have Afrikaans liturgy as well?

    What is the age profile of your members?

    Just interested.

  2. 24 September 2008 6:55 pm

    Skylding,

    Patriarchate, not Patriarchy! Patriarchy is what feminists fight against!

    We have always been under the Patriarchate of Alexandria. When we started it was with the blessing of the then Patriarch Parthenios.

    I’m not sure how we have been received by the Afrikaans community (how do you tell?) but there are several Afrikaans-speaking members.

  3. 24 September 2008 9:28 pm

    Oops! Should have known better!

    But seeing all clergy are male, what is….o never mind!🙂🙂

  4. 24 September 2008 11:07 pm

    Glory to Jesus Christ!

    Congratulations to the St. Nicholas of Japan parish and its members for this anniversary! Surviving as a tiny minority in an indifferent crowd sometimes takes more perseverance and faith than surviving amid actual hostility. This is an accomplishment and a victory for Christ; I hope you see many more.🙂

  5. Isa Almisry permalink
    11 October 2008 4:21 am

    Many Years!

    I like to see the vision in the Patriarchate of Alexandria of spreading Orthodoxy to ALL nations. Alexandria is an example for all the rest of the Orthodox World on “jurisdictions.”

  6. Nicholas permalink
    19 January 2010 4:16 pm

    How nice it is to see a multi-ethnic parish, such as yours, named after St. Nicholas of Japan, whose name I took as mine when I entered the church. And how interstingly coincidental (or not) that your parish birthday is just one day later than my own.

    • 19 January 2010 7:58 pm

      We chose St Nicholas as our patron precisely because, as a Russian missionary in Japan, he did not go to start a Russian Church, but a Japanese one.

      • Nicholas permalink
        19 January 2010 9:02 pm

        Yes, that was what impressed me about him. I always remember the story of his being delighted seeing people carrying sakura sprigs in place of palms, as he wanted to encourage a nativization of the church there.

        I lived in Japan for about 17 years, so that is another factor – I could relate, to some degrees, to his life and could understant, again to some degree, what he was up against in that context.

        Btw, the church in Nagoya has just built a new church, the consecration of which appeared on Russian TV. It is an intersting watch, though, if you translate the text on that page, the bit about the church being funded by the faithful in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus is not only not true, but the source of much irritation to those involved in the project. It was all locally funded, and that includes money from local Japanese, Rumanian, Russian, American, Ukrainian, and Serbian parish members and a lot of fund raising events over the past many years. Quite a different story. As they say, the church in Nagoya will be in debt for decades to come. Anyway, the link is here if you’re interested: http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=335239

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