Since the first Greeks came to Bloemfontein, they had yearned to acquire a church of their own. As the years passed and their numbers multiplied, this need became more imperative. Even before the establishment of the first Community Committee in 1955, the members of the Greek community would contribute money with a view to building up capital. When the first committee was established in 1955, the acquisition of both a church and a hall for Greek events became their sole aim.
The Committee members worked diligently towards this end. They first had to gather sufficient capital, which came in little by little through the donations of the Greek community of Bloemfontein. They occasionally examined various options with regard to purchasing certain buildings – sometimes accompanied by intense disagreements about which building they should buy. Finally, in 1962, they bought the Methodist church with a hall and a yard on the corner of Andries Pretorius and Breë streets, for £12 500. According to a sign at the church, this building was erected in 1938. The committee did not have all the money and could only contribute £8 000; thus, three Greeks, Agelis Savas (then chairman), Panagiotis Sofianos and Georgios Vrahimis, stood surety and the church was bought. The remaining sum of £4 500 was paid off during the subsequent years.
In 1962 there were more than 30 Greek families in Bloemfontein, plus a few more in surrounding towns. The time to have their own church had come. It was a necessity and they could afford it, since most of them, through hard work, had become rich people. It must be stressed here that, while other Greek communities in South Africa (such as those in Cape Town and Pretoria) first acquired a priest and then a church, the opposite happened in Bloemfontein.
1. The initial church building and hall
Naturally, the church the Greek community of Bloemfontein bought in 1962 did not look at all like a traditional Greek Orthodox church. However, the cost of building such a church would be huge for the small community. The church was therefore a simple building with the following dimensions: length 19 m, width 7 m, and height 4 m. Next to it there was a hall: length 21 m, width 9 m, and height 4 m. The yard was 39 m long and 25 m wide. The church was sparsely furnished with a table for the candles and seven four-seater benches for the parishioners.
2. Improvement of the church
2. 1 A short description of a Greek Orthodox church
The main external features of classical Byzantine architecture consist of a square on ground level, a cross on the next level, and a dome on the next.
In the interior, the basic features are: the narthex, i.e. the entrance section of the church, used for the purpose of lighting candles and revering icons; the nave (where parishioners worship), containing two chanter stands and the Bishop’s chair (reserved for a visiting Bishop or Archbishop), and the sanctuary, with the altar for clergy and assistants, separated from the nave by a large icon stand (in Greek: templon).
The beautiful, often lavishly decorated interior of an Orthodox church accommodates many icons in predetermined symbolic places. Icons of saints and significant Biblical events are affixed to the walls of the church in the form of frescoes, mosaics, or moveable boards. This Byzantine interior transports the worshipper to a level of spiritual exaltation. It strives to create heaven on earth, so that the faithful may worship together with God and the saints.
2.2 The changes in the church
It is obvious from the above description that the church that was bought in Bloemfontein did not look at all like a traditional Greek Orthodox church. A lot of time and money would have to be invested in order to bring it up to the desired level. Efforts towards achieving this aim were initiated immediately after the purchase, and continued under the guidance of each priest.
It is customary for believers in Greece to donate money to the church for its preservation, or to buy essential objects such as icons or other decorations. Furthermore, after the donation of an icon, an object, or even part of the church construction, a plaque is usually placed with an inscription reading “prayer of … family” or “donation by …”, which is considered a great honour for the donor and his or her family. If a specific donor cannot be found, the expenses are covered by contributions from members of the congregation. The expenses of the Holy Church of the Annunciation of Virgin Mary, as the Greek Orthodox Church of Bloemfontein was named, were also covered in this way.
The modifications began with the essentials required for the functioning of this church as a Greek Orthodox church. Immediately after the purchase of the church, a plain wooden icon stand was made (donor: H. Savas), as well as the altar, the table of oblation, and the crucifix. Greeks from Bloemfontein, but also from Kimberley, donated money, and icons were ordered from Greece to be placed on the icon stand. These six icons were made in the Vogiatzis factory, Athens, in 1963-1964. Three chandeliers were acquired, as well as the cherubim, the artoforion (a large box made of precious metal with a cross on top that contains the consecrated bread), the Gospel Book, the Holy Cup, and a baptismal font.
In 1974, the members of the Greek community decided to extend the church. Additional rooms were built that linked the church to the hall in a Γ form, yet retaining a separate entrance for each building. The church thereby acquired its missing narthex, 7 m long and 3,5 m wide. The cost of this construction was R37 000, and was covered by contributions from members of the congregation.
In 1986, 14 new benches were bought to accommodate the parishioners. They were made in exactly the same design as the original benches. In 1990, a pedestal was made that raised the flooring of the church by 20 cm, beginning at the icon stand and covering about 35% of the total floor space. The purpose of this structure was to give the worshippers a better view of the services (baptisms, marriages, etc.).
The bell-tower, erected in 1991 (donors: N. Stavrou and L. Polidorou) at the entrance to the courtyard, has a height of 10 m. To enter the courtyard, one has to walk underneath the bell tower. The bell that now hangs there had been bought in 1981, but was not used for ten years. Though it could be operated electrically the bell was rung manually from the onset, according to the priest’s wishes and due to his nostalgia for the traditional bells in his village of Lesvos. The inauguration of the bell-tower took place on 6 December 1991, and a great feast followed.
The church had two metal chanter stands that were replaced in 1992 by a new three-seat wooden one on the right. An elaborately decorated Bishop’s chair was placed next to it, while the offertory was also acquired at the same time. The cost of R27 000 was covered by contributions from members of the congregation.
An Afrikaans-speaking person from Bloemfontein did the above-mentioned work. The Bishop’s chair and the chanter stand were made by using photographs in a pamphlet from an ecclesiastical shop in Greece as a guide.
2.3 The “epitaphios”
The funeral bier of the Christ (in Greek: epitaphios) is very important to the Orthodox faith although it is only used once a year, on Holy Friday. In the afternoon of this day of mourning the priest takes the body of Christ from the Cross (in Greek: apokathilosis), and puts it in the “epitaphios”, which is decorated with flowers and electric bulbs. Throughout Greece, from Athens to the smallest village, the “epitaphios” is then carried through the streets on parishioners’ shoulders. The procession winds through the streets, followed by the congregation, bearing lit candles and singing sad songs known as dirges (in Greek: Encomia). That solemn spectacle generally cannot take place abroad because there are no specific Greek neighbourhoods – yet in Bloemfontein the congregation holds it outside, around the church.
For many years, an overturned table was used as an “epitaphios” by the Greek community of Bloemfontein, but they later made a plain wooden one. In 1982, they ordered an “epitaphios” from Greece (donors: N. Spyropoulos and H. Giotopoulos), which is still in use today. It is made of wood, with beautiful decorative engravings.
2.4 The paintings of the holy icons
Since the acquisition of the church, members of the congregation have donated many additional objects, particularly icons. However, it is the icons painted on the walls that really make the interior of the church beautiful. This was a difficult and expensive task, completed over a period of twelve years.
The walls of the church were plain white until 1990, but the present priest, Father Manolis, had the wish to cover them with holy icons ever since he took up his duties in 1982. All these icons were painted in Plomari, Lesvos, by the painter Ekaterini Kavarnu in the traditional Byzantine style. They depict full-length icons of saints. The artist used oil on plywood, surrounded by a narrow wooden frame. Those portraying a single saint have dimensions of 80 x 180 cm, while those portraying two or more saints are 140 x 180 cm. There are 30 icons in total, at a cost of between R3 000 and R5 000 each.
Fourteen icons are placed on the walls of the church. The middle of the ceiling displays the icon of Christ as the omnipotent God (in Greek: Pantokrator), while the 12 apostles are placed to his left and right. Above the altar, the Virgin Mary is depicted as “wider than heaven” (in Greek: the Platytera ton Ouranon). On the opposite wall that separates the narthex and the nave an icon depicts the Archangel Michael, and another, painted on the sanctuary’s door, the Great Prelate (Christ as a Bishop).