St Nicholas Orthodox Church, Brixton: 25th anniversary
This week the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johannesburg, will be celebrating its 25th anniversary.
It held its first public service on 24th October 1987, though it was not then in Brixton, nor was it, at that stage, a parish. The service was Vespers, held in St Matthew’s Anglican Church Hall in Fairmount, Johannesburg, and it was arranged by the Society of St Nicholas of Japan, a mission society, which hoped to start several new parishes.
In March 1988 the Society moved to holding services in a chapel at St Martin’s-in-the-Veld Anglican Church in Dunkeld, and in 1990 we moved to the chapel at the Russian House in Yeoville, Johannesburg.
The Russian House Chapel at least meant that we did not have to schlepp everything for the service out of a store room and back again afterwards, as we had had to do at St Martin’s, but it was too small for the growing congregation, which by this time had decided to form itself into a parish, also with St Nicholas of Japan as patron, and elected a parish council separate from the committee of the mission society.
The parish council set out to look for a more permanent meeting place, and eventually found one at 156 Fulham Road, Brixton. It was the Brixton Tabernacle, which had formerly belonged to the Full Gospel Church. After some alterations to make it suitable for Orthodox worship, we began holding services there in November 1990.
At the time that the Society of St Nicholas started most Orthodox Churches in South Africa were “community” churches, that is to say they were established and run by ethnic communities (kinotites) and they functioned more or less as ethnic chaplaincies, using the language of the particular ethnic community, such as Greek, Serbian etc.
St Nicholas was intended to be a mission church, and multi-ethnic, with services mainly in English. St Nicholas of Japan was chosen as the patron saint because he was a Russian missionary who went to Japan, but started a Japanese Church, not a Russian one. So the aim of the society and the parish of St Nicholas was to be a South African Orthodox Church, which people of any ethnic background could join. And there was a steady stream of people joining the Orthodox Church at St Nicholas. Among those who joined in the early days were Sean Noel-Barham and Zwelinzima Nyathela, who were chrismated on 25 April 1992.
After being chrismated, they went in procession around the font and, since it was Holy Saturday, the Epitaphios.
The Church of St Nicholas has had four parish priests in the 25 years of its history:
- Fr Chrysostom (Gary) Frank from the USA (1987-1996)
- Fr Bertrand (Iakovos) Olechnowicz from the USA (1998-2001)
- Fr Mircea (Mihai) Corpodean from Romania (2002-2008)
- Fr Athanasius (Amos) Akunda from Kenya (2008-present)
In 1996 Fr Chrysostom left to join the Roman Catholic Church, and for the next year St Nicholas was without a permanent priest, and on many Sundays we had the Reader’s Service (Obednitsa, Typika), though priests from neighbouring parishes came to help with such services as the Presanctified Liturgy in Lent, and served the Divine Liturgy on some other days, though on Sundays they were busy in their own parishes. In many ways St Nicholas became stronger as a community in the year without a priest.
We celebrated Holy Week with the next-door parish of SS Cosmas & Damien in Sophiatown but Gustav Prinsloo was nevertheless baptised on Holy Saturday by Fr Alexandros Gianniris, who said he found St Nicholas’s music “addictive, like cigarettes”. We gave him a tape of the parish music disguised as a cigarette packet (complete with addiction warnings) as a farewell present when he left to become Bishop (now Archbishop) of Nigeria.
At the beginning of 1998 we got a new priest, Fr Bertrand Olechnowicz (later known as Fr Iakovos) from Pennyslvania in the USA. Sadly one of his first duties was to conduct the funeral of Gustav Prinsloo, who had been baptised nine months previously. He was killed in a car accident while going home from church one Sunday. After the funeral service in church at Brixton the congregation travelled 250km to Petrus Steyn in the Free State for the interment, and many people were so impressed by the funeral that that there were 11 baptisms the following Pascha.
Father Iakovos returned to the USA at the end of 2001 and the then Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria (Metropolitan Seraphim), asked Fr Mihai Corpodean, who had come to serve the Romanian community in South Africa, to look after St Nicholas as well. That meant that many Romanians from Johannesburg joined in regularly, and for big occasions, like Christmas and Easter, some came from as far afield as Cape Town.
Fr Mihai also introduced some Romanian liturgical customs — I was ordained as deacon while he was in the parish, and learned the Romanian pattern of censing from him, or at least the Romanian modification of the Russian-American pattern established by Fr Chrysostom. Also, the Romanian version of the prayers at the Poskomide (Preparation Service) listed just about every possible way in which a person could die. I think nearly everyone was moved when he prayed, at the Great Entrance, “for those for whom no one is praying any more”.
As a multi-ethnic parish St Nicholas has been rather eclectic in such things, drawing on customs from different parts of the Orthodox world. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday we have had the Greek custom of the bringing out of the cross, and the taking down from the cross, which doesn’t seem to be part of Russian practice. And at Pascha we have the Russian style Easter kiss, which many of the Greek parishes seem to neglect. We have adopted the Serbian custom of the Slava, which seems to fit in very well with the understanding of the importance of ancestors in many parts of Africa. And perhaps from these different strands, a truly African Orthodoxy can be woven.
Fr Mihai and his family left in 2008 to go to New Zealand. Fr Athanasius Akunda, who was then Deputy Dean of the Catechetical School in Yeoville, was asked to look after St Nicholas as well. Some of the students from the Catechetical School also attended the services, and after the School closed, some of the former students still join us occasionally.
Father Athanasius was originally from Kenya, and introduced some customs from Kenya too, such as praying for students at the beginning of school and university terms. He also encouraged the parish youth to meet more regularly and be more active, and there are now people meeting in houses for Compline, and visiting and praying for the sick and bereaved.
Father Athanasius has also taken teams of people from St Nicholas to mission congregations to help in teaching the Orthodox Christian faith.
The light of Christ is not simply to be shared within the Church of St Nicholas, but is to be taken out into the world.
In spite of being a small parish, St Nicholas has not only received ministry from four different parish priests who have come from elsewhere in the world, it has also raised up people from within its own ranks who have ministries within the church community and beyond it.
Deacon Irenaeus now serves in the Church of the Virgin Mary (Pantanassa), which was the “mother” church of St Nicholas. Cathy MacDonald works for Twilight Children, which tries to help street children. Father Kobus van der Riet serves in Eldorado Park and in other parishes in the diocese. Father Andrei Kashinsky is a parish priest in a small village in Russia. Olga d’Amico is now Sister Paisia, in a monastery at Serres in Northern Greece.
Costa Couvas was ordained and is now studying in Greece; he and his wife Eleni live in Athens. Eleni’s parents, Maro and Costa Neocleous were active members of St Nicholas for many years, and now live in the USA.
Azar Jammine has served as chairman of the parish council for many years, and also sings in the choir. His wife Georgia is the choir director, and keeps us all singing. Azar is also one of South Africa’s top economists, and that too is a ministry, though outside the walls of the temple.
These are just a few of the people and events that have contributed to and made up the life of the Church of St Nicholas over the last 25 years.There is room for comments below if you think that anyone else deserves special mention.
We have experienced joy and sorrow; the joy of welcoming new people in Holy Baptism, and the sadness of bidding them farewell at funerals. But whether in joy or or in sorrow, we have received the light of Christ, and as our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Or, as we sing at every Divine Liturgy: One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
We will be celebrating with Vespers on Saturday 13 October at 6:00 pm, followed by a dinner party (at a cost of R280.00 per person).
On Sunday 14th October Archbishop Damaskinos will be joining us for the Divine Liturgy, and new Readers will be tonsured, and altar servers blessed. All welcome at both services, and if you can’t come, at least pray for us.