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History of Antiochian Orthodoxy in Australasia

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Similar to most other jurisdictions in Australia, and other parts of the 'diaspora', a detailed early history of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand is better told in terms of cities, which later formed into the diocese, rather than the other way around.

Community Churches

The first wave of Lebanese, then called Syrian, immigration was in the 1880-1890s, when work was found in hawking and peddling goods in the country areas of the eastern states of Australia and in Dunedin. The Antiochian Orthodox faithful in Australia took part in the construction of a community church dedicated to the Holy Trinity in Surry Hills, Sydney, and to the Holy Annunciation, East Melbourne, with the Greek and Russian Orthodox faithful. Priests able to speak Greek and Arabic and, sometimes, Russian, were later provided by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. Services were done in different 'old-world' languages, servers of the parishes were from various immigrant backgrounds, and icons were donated by people from all Orthodox ethnicities.


Problems overseas created local catastrophes. The 1898 deposition of the Greek speaking Patriarch of Antioch, and the subsequent 1899 election of an Arabic speaking Patriarch of Antioch, caused an adverse reaction on the part of hellenophonic patriarchates. The Patriarchate of Constantinople awarded the jurisdiction of overseas parishes to the newly-recognised Church of Greece in 1908, with the stipulation that services be in Ecclesiastical Greek.

In Sydney, the effect was virtually immediate; in Melbourne, a priest who could speak Arabic was there until the 1920s. In response, the Syrian communities took to meeting in individual homes, only going to the Greek Orthodox parish for necessities, mainly baptisms, weddings and funerals. Some of the Antiochian Orthodox, in lieu of another alternative, chose to send their children to Anglican or Protestant Sunday schools. However, neither the now-Greek Orthodox parish nor various protestant groups could meet the needs of the Antiochian Orthodox: it was obviously necessary to found Antiochian Orthodox parishes.

Church of St George, Sydney

In 1913, Father Nicholas Shehadie was sent to Australia as Exarch to determine the extent of the problem and to find possible solutions. While this was intended to be temporary, World War I intervened preventing Father Nicholas from returning to Lebanon where his family resided. Hence, his stay became permanent. He realised the need for a church for the Antiochian Orthodox, and determined to build it. Divine Liturgy was held in parishioners' homes until that time.

The state government leased a block of land to the church on the corner of Walker and Redfern Streets Redfern. The first Antiochian Orthodox church was built there and placed under the patronage of Saint George.

In 1934, Exarch Nicholas Shehadie, suffering from chronic asthma, reposed in his early 70s. Then his second son, Michael, became a priest. During the time of his presbyterate at the Church of Saint George, the government revoked the church lease, resumed the land for housing development, and demolished the church. Fr Michael vigorously pressured the government to provide a new site, and in 1950 they were granted land at the corner of Walker and Cooper Streets in Redfern, where the church - now a cathedral - stands today. However, Fr Michael never saw it built. In 1951, aged 56, worn out by the battle with the state government, he reposed.

In 1953, V Rev Malatius Hussney was appointed Patriarchal Exarch and rector of St George. During his time as rector, the foundation stone for the new church was laid, with the first services in 1954. He was succeeded by Archim. Anthony Woolf, who was Patriarchal Exarch and rector 1957-61. Following the death in Cairo of Archim. Anthony, Rev Fr Anthony Chidiac was appointed to serve the parish of St George in Redfern. He died in a motor vehicle accident on October 19, 1962. In January 1963 a visiting priest from Kousba, Lebanon, V Rev Exarch Emilianos Shehadie served the parish until 17 July 1963. On September 22, 1963, by kind permission of Archbishop Ezekiel (GOA), Rev Fr John Catsaras, formerly of Sfax in Tunisia, temporarily served the parish.

On June 18, 1964, Fr Nicolas Mansour arrived in Sydney from Beirut, Lebanon, and commenced duties as parish priest with a liturgy on Sunday June 21, 1964. Soon after his arrival, the church was consecrated by Bp Dionysios (GOA), and in 1967 the church hall and presbytery were completed. However, the spread of Antiochian faithful all over New South Wales was too much for one parish priest.

At the request of Fr Nicolas, the Church of Antioch sent Archimandrite Gibran to Australia to find out how to solve the problem. On Archim. Gibran's recommendations, the Holy Synod elevated the Exarchate of Australia and New Zealand to a patriarchal diocese. Archim. Gibran was consecrated a bishop and appointed Patriarchal Vicar of the new diocese.

Church of St Nicholas, Melbourne

In 1929, James Batrouney visited Lebanon/Syria, met Archimandrite Antonious (Mobayed), and on his return to Melbourne, Archim. Antonious was recommended as a suitable priest (being well-educated and speaking Arabic, Russian and Greek) for the church in Melbourne. Patriarch Arsanios of Antioch commissioned Archim. Antonious as the first priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Victoria. He arrived on November 12, 1931, bringing and donating everything essential for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Some of these items can still be found at Saint Nicholas Church today.

The first services were held in Saint George Anglican Mission, the beginning of a long and amicable relationship between Anglicans and Orthodox in Victoria. In March 1932 the community purchased a church, where Saint Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church stands today, using four £125 donations from John Batrouney, Joseph & Walter Davis, and Alex Malouly. The iconostasis, based on the iconostasis of the Holy Resurrection Cathedral, Tokyo, was completed by Palm Sunday, 1932, when the first service was held in the Church. At the first council meeting of May 1932, it was decided to name the church after St Nicholas. The church was consecrated on October 1, 1933 by Metropolitan Timotheos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Australia and New Zealand. The consecration, attended by an Anglican minister, Rev. F.E. Maynard, and the Greek and French consuls, was chanted in Arabic, English, Greek, and Slavonic.

Saint Nicholas included both Arabic members and Russian members, the latter group also contributing to bringing Archim. Antonious to Australia, converting the church into an Orthodox church, writing icons, and organising a choir which would chant the Liturgy in Slavonic on every fourth Sunday. When the Russians established their first church in Melbourne in the early 1950s, the committee of Saint Nicholas donated a Slavonic Bible in memory of Archim. Antonious, and as a symbol of the enduring friendship between the Syrian/Lebanese and the Russians.

With Arabic and Slavonic choirs, a youth society, Syrian/Lebanese youth that knew the service in Arabic, and a priest willing to travel to Sydney, Adelaide and New Zealand to raise funds for the fledgling church, St Nicholas had been built into a strong, pan-Orthodox church. However, after a short illness, Archim. Antonious reposed on November 9, 1943. He was buried by Metropolitan Timotheos, assisted by Archimandrite Theophylactos and Fr Michael Shehadie.

The Second World War precluded any replacement priest from either America or Antioch until after World War 2. In 1948, Exarchos George Haydar arrived, and was ideally suited to minister to migrants from Lebanon. A rectory was built in 1953. Exarchos George reposed in 1962, and his funeral was conducted by Patriarchal Exarch Archim. Anthony Woolf of Sydney, assisted by clergy from many jurisdictions.

In 1963, Fr Gabraeel Fadel arrived to serve at St Nicholas, and the parish entered a period of consolidation. Fr Gabraeel left in 1967, to be replaced by Fr Malatius (Essam) Hussney, who was ordained in 1968. Fr Malatius worked for the second wave of Lebanese immigrants to be actively involved in the running of St Nicholas.

Church of St Michael, Dunedin

A small, modest, wooden church in the south of New Zealand has the distinction of, in 1911, being the first Orthodox church to be built in New Zealand, and the first Antiochian Orthodox church to be built in Australasia. The church has since been made part of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a category 2 building.

In 1890, a number of Syrians immigrated to New Zealand, settling in Dunedin. Many went to Auckland, however, about fifteen Orthodox families, mostly from Syria and Lebanon founded and built the church.

Mrs Anthony Idour wrote to the Patriarch of Antioch, through the Bishop of Tripoli, and permission was given to proceed with building a church. A committee headed by Jack Idour raised 480 pounds in just over 6 months, paying for the building. Generous donors included Acton Adams of the Moa Flat Station, and Bishop Nevill of the Dunedin Anglican Diocese.

More money was required to pay for furniture, so the Lebanese produced material for a bazaar, held in the St Kilda Town Hall in 1911 and opened by the Mayor of Dunedin. Yielding several hundred pounds, St Michael's Antiochian Orthodox Church opened debt free.

Hmk Nicholas (Manovitch) had arrived in New Zealand in 1910, and celebrated services. A site had been acquired in Fingall St, South Dunedin by September 1910. On January 14, 1911, St Michael's Orthodox Church was opened, having been consecrated by Archim. Nicholas (Manovitch). Services were held regularly until 1913 when Fr Nicholas moved to Sydney.

During times that there was no Orthodox priest, which were always visiting until 1971, the church was closed. In 1916, Fr Nicholas Shehadie spent 2-3 months in Dunedin, holding Orthodox services. In 1937, Archim. Antonious (Mobayed) stayed in Dunedin for several months, during which time it was arranged that, having instructed them in the rudiments of Eastern Orthodox Liturgics, Canon A.P. Pywell, and then the Vicar of Holy Cross Anglican Church in St Kilda, would look after the congregation as an interim measure. Archim. Antonious visited Dunedin for the last time in 1939. The care of St Michael's became an accepted responsibility of the Vicars of Holy Cross, St Kilda, until 1971.


In 1969, Bp Gibran, having been consecrated by Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) of New York, arrived in Sydney, Australia.

In 1971, an Anglican priest in New Zealand decided, seeing the trend of Anglicanism away from its traditional roots, to convert to Orthodoxy, and was ordained in September 1972 by Bp Gibran. Fr Jack Witbrock served as rector of St Michael's, Dunedin, for the next 12 years until he was succeeded by Fr Ilyan Eades.

In Melbourne, the desire of Fr Malatius Hussney to actively involve new arrivals to Australia led to a split, with the older members of St Nicholas feeling unwanted; as a result, St George was founded in Thornbury, Melbourne, in 1972. The next year, Bp Gibran wanted a new church built in the western suburbs of Sydney. Fr John Shehadie, son of Exarch Nicholas Shehadie, was appointed priest of the new church of St Nicholas, Punchbowl, and served there until his 1987 retirement.

Fr Malatius worked very hard for St Nicholas, including going to Lebanon and Cyprus to help refugees of the Civil War to obtain visa's to come to Australia. After Fr Malatius left to serve parishes in the United States, Fr Emile Assaf was assigned to St Nicholas from 1977 to 1990. Fr Emile continued to serve newly arrived migrants, and also renovated and redecorated St Nicholas - rendering external walls, erecting a fence, replacing the floor, purchasing new pews, painting the walls with icons and, towards the end of his tenure, renovating the rectory.

In 1982, Fr Elias Khoury was ordained to the priesthood, and assigned to St Nicholas, Punchbowl. In 1985, he was elevated to Archpriest. In the same year, a new parish was established in Mays Hill and named St Mary's, for the Nativity of the Mother of God. The first priest was Fr Hanna Shehadie, and the community worshipped in Granville. In 1987, St Mary's - now led by Fr Stephen Godley - moved to Merrylands; also in 1985, a parish in Wollongong was founded and named for St Elias.

In 1986, St George's decided to purchase its own church from the Anglican Church. Renovation started immediately, and were completed in 1988, when renovations of the hall began - these were completed in 1991, making the hall one of the most attractive Arabic special events halls in Melbourne. In 1994, the property adjacent to St George's (including a rectory) was purchased.

1987 was a landmark year, with the Antiochian Orthodox Church of St George, Redfern, Sydney, being elevated to the Cathedral of the Diocese.

In 1989, Bp Gibran appointed the first committee of a new parish in Brisbane, which was registered in 1990. In 1993, Fr John Abdel-Karim became the first parish priest of the Church of St Paul, Woolloongabba, Brisbane.

The site for St Mary's, Mays Hill, was purchased in January 1991, with Fr Emile Assaf being transferred from St Nicholas, Melbourne, to pastor the new church with Fr Aziz Abwi. The first services were held in the church hall of St Mary's in 1994, with the first services in the church being on Good Friday, 1999.

In 1994, Fr Elias Khoury, parish priest of St Nicholas, Punchbowl, began working with the Department of Community Services and administered a new program, Ortho-Care, designed to help those requiring financial and spiritual assistance.

In the mid-1990s, changing beliefs and practises in the Anglican Communion, culminating in the ordination of women to the priesthood, caused a number of clergy to leave the Anglican Communion and join the Orthodox Church. Many of these moved to the Antiochian Orthodox Church, creating St Barnabas Parish, Gold Coast; St Anthony the Great Parish, Perth; St Anna's Monastery, Melbourne; and a parish in Canberra (which later moved to ROCOR), along with other clergy, including Rev. Fr Geoff Harvey, who were assigned to pre-existing churches.

In 1998, a parish at Mt Pritchard was founded and dedicated to St Mary, for the Dormition of the Mother of God. Bishop Gibran reposed on 16 January 1999 after thirty years of service for the Church in Australia and New Zealand. Fr Elias Khoury was named as the temporary administrator of the diocese.


In September 1999, the Holy Synod of Antioch 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. He arrived in Australia and took possession of the archdiocese on 29 November 1999.

1999 prompted a flurry of activity. In December, Met. Abp Paul visited Newcastle and Brisbane, and prompted the decision to build the church of St Paul in Woolloongabba, Brisbane. Three parishes were formed in 1999, including St Ignatius Mission, Canberra, Buna-Vestire Church, Bankstown (NSW) and St Herman of Alaska, Canterbury (Vic).

In January 2000, Fr John Vesic was appointed parish priest of St Mary's Church, Mays Hill, which is especially notable as Fr John does not speak Arabic. In June of the same year, Fr Nicholas Gan (in Newcastle) was released to join the Moscow Patriarchate. The Holy Synod of Moscow accepted him on 19 July 2000, along with the Eastern Orthodox Parish of the Theophany at Mayfield West, Newcastle, which had been under the care of Bp Gibran on behalf of Moscow.

2001 was another time of great activity for the Archdiocese, particularly in New Zealand: St George, Auckland, St George, Wellington, and Sts Gregory of Nyssa and Marina, Diamond Harbour, were all founded in this year. In Australia, St Paul, Dandenong (Vic) was founded; and in December 2001, Fr John Vesic was appointed parish priest of the newly-formed Ss Michael and Gabriel parish, the first English-speaking Antiochian Orthodox parish in New South Wales. The new parish worshipped in rented premises in Homebush until 2005, when it moved to West Ryde.

In the meantime, the Church of St Paul, Brisbane, celebrated its first services in their new church in 2002, with this church being consecrated in 2006.

2003 was a third time of great activity. The first English-speaking Antiochian Orthodox parish in Victoria was established, with Fr Geoff Harvey as the founding priest, under the patronage of the Good Shepherd. Later, worship was moved to Monash University, with Fr Geoff becoming the first Antiochian Orthodox university chaplain in Australia. Also in 2003, two parishes in New Zealand were founded, along with the Melbourne Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, where studies began in 2004.

In 2004, at the instigation of Met Abp Paul, the parish of St Nicholas Bankstown, bought the land that the church is on from the NSW government. The property is held for the parish by the Antiochian Orthodox Church Property Trust.

In August 2005, Archpriest Nicolas Mansour retired from full-time pastoral work, ending 42 years of service at the Cathedral. Archim. Nabil (Kachab), formerly of St Nicholas, Punchbowl, replaced him as Dean of the Cathedral.

December 2006 saw Fr John Vesic released to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Australia and New Zealand, when he was replaced at Sts Michael and Gabriel by Fr Luke Bell. After Fr Luke left the Archdiocese in late 2007, he was succeeded by Fr Antonio Cagnoni.

Since his conversion from the Church of Christ and his ordination in 2006, Fr John D'Alton has made several inroads in a number of very important areas. In the first 18 months after his ordination, he was made the university chaplain of La Trobe University, the first Orthodox military chaplain in Australia, is the rector of the Holy Transfiguration Mission, Belgrave Heights, and is the president of the Melbourne Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

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