This modest little wooden church, has the distinction of being the first Eastern Orthodox Church, to be built in New Zealand(1911) and is now under The New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a category 2 building. In fact, this Church was the first Antiochian Orthodox Church to be built in Australasia. About 1890 a number of Syrians immigrated to New Zealand and settled in Dunedin, towards the Southern end of the South Island. Many of them found Dunedin too cold and moved to Auckland, where some flourished, particularly the Corban family who later founded a successful vineyard.For those who remained in Dunedin, building a church here was the result of the faith and hard work of about 15 Orthodox families, mostly from Syria and Lebanon, who had arrived in NZ in the 1890’s. Some of them had attended Anglican Churches, but they desired to have a church of their own Tradition,customs and language.
Mrs Anthony Idour wrote to the Patriarch of Antioch, through the Bishop of Tripoli in Syria, and permission was granted to proceed with the plan. To that end a Committee was formed led by Mr.Jack Idour (President), Mr.Michael Idour (Secretary), and Mrs Anthony Idour (Appeal organizer ) raising 480 pounds in just over 6 months, to pay for the building.Most of the Syrians were Hawkers, and carried the appeal with them wherever they travelled. One generous donor was a Mr Acton Adams of the Moa Flat Station and Bishop Nevill of the Dunedin Anglican Diocese was also a strong and enthusiastic supporter.The Patriarch of Antioch formally sponsored and gave his blessing to the project.
However, more money was needed to pay for the church’s furniture, so to provide for this, the Lebanese put their talent for craftsmanship to good use, by producing material for a bazaar, which was held in the St.Kilda Town Hall in 1911, and opened by the Mayor of Dunedin. This enterprise yielded several hundred pounds, which allowed for the opening of St.Michael’s, debt free.
Earlier in 1910, Bishop Nevill’s interest in The Orthodox Church had been further encouraged by the arrival of Father Nicholas Manavitch,a Russian OrthodoxHieromonk( or priest -monk) who had served many years in the United States and Canada. The first Orthodox Divine Liturgy (Mass) was celebrated in St.Peter’s Church, Caversham. By September 1910, a site had been acquired in Fingall Street, South Dunedin and about 200 pounds had already been subscribed,(approx. half the total cost of the site and building.)
On 14th January 1911, the new St. Michael’s Orthodox Church was opened, Consecrated by Father Nicholas Manavitch, with the following Anglican Clergy in attendance: Bishop Nevill, Dean Fitchett,Canons’ Woodthorpe & Brian King, & Reverends’ Hoani Parata, G.C.Blathwayt, & G.B.Bryan King. Services were held regularly until 1913 when Fr.Manavitch moved to Sydney. Australia, to serve the large number of Russians there, so for a while there were no Orthodox Services in Dunedin.
In about 1916 however, Father Shehadie (Syrian priest) arrived in Dunedin, and stayed for some 2 – 3 months, during which time he held Orthodox Services. Then when he left, the church was again closed until about 1937. The Right Reverend Archimandrite Fr. Antonius Mobayed of St.Michael’s Antiochian Church in Melbourne arrived in 1937 and stayed with Mr.George Barbara for several months, during which time it was arranged with the permission of the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, for Canon A.P.Pywell of St.Peter’s Caversham, and later, the Vicar of Holy Cross Anglican Church in St.Kilda, Canon C.E.P.Webb, to look after the Lebanese Congregation as an interim measure. Fr. Mobayed instructed them in the rudiments of Eastern Orthodox Liturgics, and he visited Dunedin for the last time in 1939.
By the time that Fr Jack arrived in 1971 (he was not ordained until the following year) the care of St.Michael’s had become an accepted responsibility of the Vicars of Holy Cross, St Kilda. In September 1972 Fr Jack Witbrock was ordained by the previous Antiochian Bishop for Australia and New Zealand, Bp Gibran (Ramlawi), and formally assigned to St Michael's. Fr Jack served St Michael's as resident priest for some 12 years.
As Fr Jack had come from Christchurch, it was natural to make visits there in the school vacations and these included services performed for Antiochian Orthodox people in Christchurch. Until about 1978 these were held in the Russian Church (ROCOR) and after this became difficult for the Russian administration, services were held in S. Mary's Addington. When Fr Jack moved to Ashley (near Rangiora in 1984), to establish an Orthodox Community there, he continued to serve St Michael's for several years alternating Sunday Liturgies in Ashley and Dunedin - though they were later reduced to one a month before Fr Ilyan moved down to Dunedin from St.Ignatius Mission Parish in Auckland at the end of October 1992.
Father Jack was elevated to the rank of Archpriest in 2000, and appointed as Dean of the newly created Antiochian Orthodox Deanery in NZ in July 2003.
<>A view of the St. Michael’s Orthodox Church (the priest’s house appears in the foreground) >
Whereas Fr Jack had lived some distance from the Church in Eglinton Road, Fr Ilyan was fortunate to be able to buy the house immediately behind the Church. This has helped in providing space for meeting after services St Michael's always seems to be like a close-knit family, which may have something to do with its size and also being the only Orthodox Church available in the Southern region of NZ (South of Christchurch). This has meant that it is multi-ethnic and multi-jurisdictional eg: Antiochian, Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Macedonian, Romanian, etc. At this time, the majority of them happen to be Slavonic and Old Calendar. Archbishop Gibran gave Fr Ilyan his blessing to serve the Old Calendar feasts, where they fall differently to the New Calendar eg: Nativity, Theophany when this is requested.Due to the need, Fr.Ilyan uses English,Greek & Slavonic in the Divine Liturgy and other Services.
At different times there were visiting Orthodox priests holding Orthodox Services at St.Michael’s: one special and much loved priest who served ALL Orthodox faithful for many years, was the Very Reverend mitred Archpriest Fr.Alexey Godyaew (born in Russia.8th.Feb.1900-Died in Wellington.19th March.1991), of the Russian Orthodox Church, who used the church when visiting his Russian people (living in Dunedin), and at one time St.Michael’s was on the Gazette of the Russian Church, as one of its churches . As already mentioned, St.Michael’s has always served the needs of ALL Orthodox Christians in Dunedin regardless of their Jurisdictional or ethnic origins,
the Divine Liturgy at St.Michael’s, for Pentecost Sunday 2000 and the
Pastoral Visit of the new Metropolitan Archbishop Paul Saliba, Fr.Ilyan
was elevated to the rank of Archpriest, in recognition of his work for
Orthodoxy in NZ.
St.Michael’s now has a new sub-Deacon, Andrei Grenfell, who assists Fr.Ilyan, whilst undergoing studies for the priesthood .
the congregation at St.Michael’s is now rather small compared to the
times, it is multi –ethnic and close-knit, very much in the spirit of “the
Orthodox Christian Family” it has always been.
In 1998 , Fr.Ilyan was called to
Invercargill to give spiritual care to a terminally ill Serbian
woman and her husband , and sime time later to conduct her funeral. A
Marriage Service followed some years later , and in June 2004 ,
Fr.Ilyan began a monthly Divine Liturgy in Slavonic and English for the
mainly Eastern Europeans that had come to settle in Invercargill and
Southland (approx. 40- 50 families).
The Divine Liturgy in Invercargill is celebrated at 10.am on the last Sunday of each month , and our congregation is being given the use of the Anglican Church of St.Luke at Otatara (just south of the Invercargill Airport). For information on the Invercargill Mission of The Holy Dormition, contact Fr.Ilyan on : 03.4557078 or cell ph.027 2292421 or E-Mail. firstname.lastname@example.org .
Further, we would also like to express sincere thanks and appreciation to The Otago Settler’s Museum Association, for allowing us to use extracts from the book’Dunedin Churches, Past and Present’ by the late Charles Croot, and edited by Dr.Helen White: Chapter 19, South Dunedin, section 12.