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, New Zealand, and All Oceania 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, where 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 lease expired. Fr Michael worked with the government to find a new site and, in 1950, they were granted land at the corner of Walker and Cooper Sts, Redfern, where the church - now cathedral - stands today. However, Fr Michael never saw it built. In 1951, aged 56, 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 19 October 1962. In January 1963 a visiting priest from Kousba, Lebanon, V Rev Exarch Emilianos Shehadie served the parish until 17 July 1963.

On 22 September 1963 by kind permission of Archbishop Ezekiel (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand), Rev Fr John Catsaras, formerly of Sfax in Tunisia temporarily served the parish. The willing assistance of the Greek Orthodox hierarchs since their arrival in Australia in 1924 was notable, and was especially notable from Archbishop Ezekiel.

On 18 June 1964, Fr Nicolas Mansour arrived in Sydney from Beirut Lebanon, and commenced duties as parish priest with liturgy on Sunday 21 June 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 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 12 Nov 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 1 October 1933 by Metropolitan Timotheos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Australia and New Zealand. The consecration, attended by Rev. F.E. Maynard (Anglican) 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.


In 1969, Bp Gibran, having been consecrated by Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) of New York, arrived in Sydney, Australia. In 1973, 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.

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.

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.

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 1985, 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 1986, St George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, Melbourne, decided to purchase its own church, and did so from the Anglican Church. Renovation started immediately.

In 1987, St Mary's moved to Merrylands, led by Fr Stephen Godley, and in the same year, the Antiochian Orthodox Church of St George, Redfern, Sydney, was elevated to Cathedral.

In 1988, the church building purchased by St George's had completed its renovation. After this, the renovation of the hall began.

In 1989, Bp Gibran appointed the first committee of a new parish in Brisbane, which was registered in 1990.

In 1991, the hall of St George's church, Thornbury, was completed, and is now one of the most attractive Arabic special event venues in Melbourne.

In January 1991, the site for St Mary's, Mays Hill, was purchased, with Fr Emile Assaf being transferred from St Nicholas, Melbourne, to pastor the new parish with Fr Aziz Abwi.

In 1993, Fr John Abdel-Karim became the first parish priest of the Church of St Paul, Woolloongabba, Brisbane.

In 1994, the first services were held in the church hall of St Mary's, Mays Hill. Fr Elias Khoury began working with the Department of Community Services and administered a new program, Ortho-Care, designed to help those requiring financial and spiritual assistance. St George's, Thornbury, purchased the property (with rectory) adjacent to the church.

Bishop Gibran reposed on 16 January 1999. Fr Elias Khoury was named as the temporary administrator of the diocese. The first services were held in the new church of St Mary's, Mays Hill, on Good Friday 1999.


In November 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, New Zealand, and All Oceania.

In December 1999, Met Abp Paul visited Newcastle and then Brisbane. He prompted the decision to build the church of St Paul in Woolloongabba, Brisbane.

In January 2000, Fr John Vesic was appointed parish priest of St Mary's Church, Mays Hill. Fr John does not speak Arabic.

In June 2000, Fr Nicholas Gan of Newcastle was released to join the Moscow Patriarchate. The Holy Synod of Moscow accepted him on 19 July 2000, along with the Parish of the Theophany at Mayfield West, Newcastle, which had been under the care of Bp Gibran on behalf of Moscow.

In December 2001, Fr John Vesic was appointed parish priest of Ss Michael and Gabriel parish, the first fully English-speaking Antiochian Orthodox parish in New South Wales. The new parish worshipped in rented premises in Homebush until 2005.

In 2002, the first services were held in the new church of St Paul, Woolloongabba, Brisbane.

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 in trust for the parish by the Antiochian Orthodox Church Property Trust.

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