The Orthodox religion plays an important role in Greek life. This deep faith kept them united during the 400 years of Turkish occupation. One of the Greek emigrants’ first concerns, no matter where they resided, was to build a church in order to be able to perform their religious duties – and this was also the case with regard to the Greek immigrants of Bloemfontein.
1. Priests from other cities
Whether a Greek community had a church building or not depended on the size of its population. If it had enough parishioners, it could afford the expenses of building and maintaining a church and paying the priest’s salary. Thus, the bigger cities in South Africa acquired an Orthodox priest and a church building earlier than the smaller ones. For example, the Greek community of Cape Town employed its first priest in 1901 and acquired its first church building in 1904, while the Greek community of Pretoria acquired theirs in 1911 and 1913 respectively.
Until the 1950s Bloemfontein had only 50 Greek residents, and this small group could not afford the expenses of a church building and a priest. However, this does not mean that the Greeks in Bloemfontein were not practising their religion. It was customary in those days (even today) for a priest from a bigger city to visit other, smaller cities once or twice a year in order to preach. These church services took place in non-orthodox churches.
A few clerics occasionally visited Bloemfontein in order to offer liturgies or sacraments, and are still remembered by the Greek residents today:
Archimandrite Athanasios Nikolopoulos was the first priest of the Greek community of Pretoria. He regularly came to Bloemfontein from 1912 until the 1950s, when he was a very old man.
Father Nikolaos Papahrisostomou, who also had the nickname “Black Moustache” (in Greek: mavromustakos), travelled to Bloemfontein on several occasions from Pretoria before World War II, but also in the early post-war years. He was later transferred to Durban.
Around 1938, a young priest from Johannesburg, Father Scandalis, preached in Bloemfontein on a few occasions. There was also one from the Aegean island of Hios who is remembered as the Hian priest, as well as one from the Greek community of Port Elizabeth.
1.1 Father Elias Bertolis
The priest who is best remembered by older Greek immigrants of Bloemfontein is Father Bertolis. He was a Greek Army Colonel during the Asia Minor expedition of 1922 and after the disaster of that year, he emigrated to South Africa and settled in Johannesburg. He officiated in a church there, and together with his son he ran the “Bertolis School” (a Greek school). They also published one of the oldest Greek newspapers in South Africa, named Africanis.
Father Bertolis, who was already in his 70s in 1960, used to set out from Johannesburg at two o’clock in the morning. He would drive right through the night so that he could be in Bloemfontein in time to preach. This would be followed by a feast in a Greek home. Father Bertolis would sit at the table and say: “I’m thirsty, bring me some whisky.” He could easily eat two plates of beans in one sitting, and when the time came to dance he would throw off his cassock and start dancing the “tsamiko” (a traditional Greek dance). Father Bertolis was seven feet tall, “a fine upstanding man” (in Greek: leventis), with a long beard and moustache. Being an athletic type, he would gather the young Greeks after the service to perform gymnastic exercises.
The above-mentioned priests did not come to Bloemfontein in chronological order, but whenever one was available. Father Bertolis was the one who officiated most often, from the end of the 1920s until the beginning of the 1960s.
1.2 Father Agathaggelos
Father Agathaggelos was the priest of the Orthodox church in Welkom, and officiated in Bloemfontein before the acquisition of the church building. When the building was bought (in 1962), he undertook to provide it with all the requirements for an Orthodox church building. Between 1963 and 1964, through his initiative, the parishioners ordered some icons from Greece to place on the large icon stand.
2. The Greeks in other churches
Arrangements to welcome the priest were made by a member of the Greek community several days beforehand. He notified the rest of the Greeks when the reverend would be in Bloemfontein. Thus, the parishioners had time to prepare themselves: three days of fasting for those who wanted to receive Communion, and all the necessary preparations for the families who wanted to participate in other sacraments (usually marriage or baptism). The Greeks in Bloemfontein were so few in those days that they could easily notify one another of such events.
Until 1962 there was no Orthodox church building in Bloemfontein. The priests who came from other cities sometimes officiated in the Anglican Cathedral, Saint Margaret’s church in Douglas Street, but more often in the small church building of Saint Michael’s School. This school was situated where the main provincial government building (formerly known as the Verwoerd building) is today.
The Bloemfontein parishioners often went without a visit from a priest for long periods of time. Thus, many Greeks, driven by an internal need for worship, attended Christian churches of other denominations in order to listen to the Holy words. “Same God, same religion, same Virgin Mary, same Apostles. The doctrine is not important. What is really important is the faith.” Others, together with their children, would attend the Anglican Sunday-school.
3. The great Orthodox feasts before the acquisition of the church building
The arrival of the priest was a momentous occasion for the small Greek community in Bloemfontein – not only from a religious point of view, but also socially. No matter what else they had to do that day (always a Sunday), they would put that aside, and go to the church where the service was held.
Because the priest did not visit regularly, there were often three or four children to be baptised and a number of couples to be married. Most Greek marriages took place in the Anglican Cathedral, while most baptisms occurred in the Greeks’ houses or even in their shops. The baptismal font (in Greek: kolimpithra), was brought from Johannesburg by the cleric for the occasion. All the Greeks in Bloemfontein were invited to attend the administering of these sacraments. After the ceremony, the parents of the baptised child or wedded couple offered a traditional Greek celebration at their home, with Greek food and dancing.
Holy Week and Easter is a very important period for the Greeks. However, Orthodox Greeks of Bloemfontein did not have the opportunity to celebrate these holy days every year, in view of the absence of a priest. When a priest was available, all the Greeks attended the services. On Holy Friday the women and the older girls decorated the funeral bier of the Christ (in Greek: epitaphios), using hundreds of flowers. On the evenings of the Holy Week the Greeks wore their formal clothes, the ladies their hats (obligatory on those days), and attended the church service together with a few Orthodox Lebanese residents of Bloemfontein.