The fact that, after many efforts, the Greek community in Bloemfontein finally acquired its own church in 1962 did not mean that they had resolved the problem of their regular church attendance. They now had to find a priest who was willing to reside permanently in Bloemfontein and undertake the duty of leading the congregation.
1. Reasons for a Greek priest to go abroad
Certain priests, obeying an internal need to assist their fellow humans, leave their quiet and convenient lives in Greece to go abroad as missionaries. They are absolutely dedicated in this mission, usually going to countries with enormous humanitarian problems such as many regions of central Africa, as well as South Africa.
The motive for a Greek priest to come to Bloemfontein, however, was mainly economic. He received the community’s salary, which was enough to live a decent life, in addition to the salary he received in Greece. In addition, a priest also receives the so-called “fortuities” (in Greek: fakelaki), a remuneration or a gift from parishioners for personal services such as conducting a baptism, wedding, funeral, house blessing, etc. This is not “legal”, but happens to such an extent (in Greece as well) that it has become customary. However, since the Greek community of Bloemfontein was always very small, the “fortuities” were never of great significance.
Orthodox priests in Greece are always dressed in full black regalia: a tall hat (in Greek: kalimaphcki), and flowing black robes. This attire commands respect. However, any inappropriate conduct of the priest obviously immediately attracts attention, and is usually exaggerated.
In South Africa, as well as in many other countries abroad, the appearance of the Greek priest is totally different. He dresses in Western clothes, has a short (trimmed) beard, and the only thing that distinguishes him as a priest is a characteristic collar. When a Bishop visits Bloemfontein, the priest wears his cassock and tall hat to show respect for the visiting church dignitary. Certainly, the Greek Orthodox priest in Bloemfontein has to be very careful concerning his behaviour, with a view to avoiding misunderstandings and running his church smoothly and successfully. Until the 1960s, the Orthodox priests in Bloemfontein dressed in exactly the same way as those in Greece, while even today, the archimandrites (unmarried priests who will become anointed bishops) only wear a dark blue robe.
As far as the services are concerned, no significant differences can be found between the churches in Greece and the one in Bloemfontein. The only difference is that certain sections of the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer may be repeated in both the Greek and the English language. Furthermore, every first Sunday of the month almost the entire Divine service is conducted in both of these languages, with a view to attracting young Greeks who understand little or no Greek at all.
The Divine Liturgy is written in the so-called “language of the Gospels”, the Greek of the Hellenistic period. It is the ancestor of modern Greek and because it is no longer in use, is difficult to understand; even more so for the Greeks abroad. However, the young Greeks in Bloemfontein believe the spiritual experience in the church is more important than whether they understand everything that is said.
3. Archimandrite Ierotheos Petrakis
Archimandrite I. Petrakis was of Egyptian origin. Prior to 1965 he was stationed in Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), but wanted to move. He was a Theological Faculty of Athens alumnus, and could speak five languages. He reached Bloemfontein on 25 January 1965 at the age of 35, and was the first permanent priest of the Greek community. A dignified person, he practised the Orthodox faith correctly, and never accepted remuneration for his services. “God’s word is not a merchandise”, he used to say. Father Petrakis was also a frugal man. Although the Greek community annually granted him a salary increase, he refused it, saying that he didn’t need more money and that it would be better to give it to the church. An “old-fashioned” priest, he commanded respect wherever he went. He was also a pleasant man with a good sense of humour.
Most of the Greeks in Bloemfontein admit that Father Petrakis was very good at performing his duties. He kept everything in the church in perfect order. By collecting money from the parishioners, he managed to create a delightful garden in the church’s yard. Together with G. Manidis he translated the Divine Liturgy into English, which was pioneering work for those years. He also had a programme of the liturgy printed, according to which the service was conducted.
Father Petrakis was a natural and gifted speaker, and he never read his sermon. Usually it was very long, which kept the older Greeks happy, but was tiring for the youngsters. An intelligent man, he had an answer for every question.
He was also a great cook. He often went to Greek houses, donned an apron and cooked delicious food for the guests. In addition, he taught the children Greek when there was no schoolteacher in Bloemfontein, and entertained the members of the community by showing films in the hall.
While the majority of the parishioners agreed with the values of Father Petrakis, some of the Greeks accused him of being excessively strict and stubborn. He did not allow talking during the service, or women wearing pants. Once, when the chanter (who is the present priest) resigned after an argument with the priest and the chairman of the committee, Father Petrakis did not give up. Despite many parishioners’ objections, he taped the Divine services. Some committee members consequently resigned.
Rumours regarding his reputation compelled Father Ierotheos Petrakis to leave Bloemfontein in mid-1974. Many members of the Greek community considered his departure a great loss. They believed that he was the one who built up not only the church, but also the community. Furthermore, they say that the high standards he set regarding the clergy made it difficult for them to accept the priests who succeeded him.
4. Father Georgios Paraskevadakis
Father Georgios reached Bloemfontein in March 1975, at the age of 38. He was married and had a child, but had left his family behind in Greece. Unfortunately, during his stay he acted in a way unbecoming of a clergyman. The committee appealed to the Archbishop of Good Hope in Cape Town, Pavlos, to bring him to his senses, but Father Georgios did not conform. They subsequently decided to dismiss him, paying for his ticket to return to Greece. He stayed in Bloemfontein for about a year, until mid-1976.
5. Father Anastasios Fragiskos
Father Anastasios arrived from Cyprus in Bloemfontein in April 1977. Since the committee had already invited another priest for the Holy Week that year, it was the first time that two clergymen conducted services in the Greek church.
Father Anastasios was a simple, uneducated man who just did his liturgical duties, and nothing more. He requested one month’s leave and a salary increase, but the committee did not grant it because he had not yet completed a year’s work. He returned to Cyprus in March 1978, having lived in Bloemfontein for 11 months.
6. Father Kyriakos Mihail
After Father Anastasios’s departure the Greek community in Bloemfontein was left without a priest for more than two years, despite the committee’s continuous efforts. Father Kyriakos had a daughter in Zeerust, and travelled there to baptise his grandchild. Negotiations took place with the committee, and in July 1980 he took up his duties in the Orthodox church of Bloemfontein.
He was 50 years old, an “old-fashioned” priest. His wife had to follow behind him when they walked. It seems that certain committee members offended him, and consequently Father Kyriakos stayed in Bloemfontein for only three months. He left at the beginning of October 1980.
7. Archimandrite Porfyrios Simeonidis
Father Porfyrios originated from Thessalonica, Greece, and for a month or so presented services in the Orthodox church in Germiston. In July 1981 he arrived in Bloemfontein. As a young man aged almost 30 years, he was a student of a theological faculty. He used to say that he was once a taxi driver, and was also a monk at the Holy Community of Agion Oros (in Greece).
Although he was responsible with regard to his ecclesiastical duties, Father Porfyrios’s behaviour caused great problems for the community. The way he dressed and acted socially were not fitting for his vocation. Additionally, a rumour was spread regarding an affair of his, creating a great scandal. It appears that this matter brought to the surface other problems that existed between the prominent members of the Greek community in Bloemfontein, as to who should lead the congregation. As a result, the committee was divided, as was the whole community.
In April 1982 the Archbishop of Good Hope, Pavlos, suspended Porfyrios in an effort to preserve the unity of the flock. A few days before his departure, Father Porfyrios – despite the fact that he was being punished – went to the hospital to pray for a terminally ill Greek. There he was overheard saying: “Mr Hristo, you are a good man and a good Christian. As you are passing away, help me as well to leave this place”, and he was crying. Finally, someone paid for his ticket and he could return to Greece.
8. Father Emmanuel (Manolis) Vasladelis
Father Manolis (as Father Emmanuel Vasladelis is popularly known), was born in the village of Plomari in Lesvos. His father’s house was situated next to the village church, and he had the desire to become a priest from an early age. He wanted to study towards this aim, but the circumstances at the time did not allow it. Although he only completed his primary school education, he regularly acted as a chanter in the church.
He came to South Africa in 1962 and to Bloemfontein in 1963. Initially he worked as an employee in a Greek business, and later acquired his own shop. When he arrived in Bloemfontein he was happy to learn that the Orthodox church had just been purchased, and immediately took up the role of chanter there. He therefore possesses a wealth of knowledge about the Greek ecclesiastical history of Bloemfontein.
As has already been pointed out, the community had experienced problems with regard to several priests over the years. Father Manolis already expressed his desire to join the priesthood in 1976. To achieve this, he had to obtain the approval of the community council, as well as the Archbishop of Good Hope. Afterwards, a special general community meeting was held so that the opinion of the parishioners could be heard. During the discussion regarding Father Manolis’s request, a member of the Council (who was also a member of Father Manolis’s family) opposed the request, and persuaded the majority not to vote for Father Manolis.
A few years later (in 1980) he was about to be anointed in Welkom, since this was not possible in Bloemfontein, when another problem arose – neither his daughter nor his wife wanted him to become a priest.
In 1982, the General Meeting finally accepted Father Manolis’s request with a great majority (87%), despite the protests of the same council member who had opposed the request before. Furthermore, an attempt was made to tamper with the voting outcome. After all these difficulties Father Manolis was finally elected, and declared that he would be the priest of the entire Greek community of Bloemfontein.
On 18 October 1982 the Archbishop of Good Hope anointed him as a deacon, and on 7 November 1982 as a priest. After the ordination, a relieved Archbishop Pavlos assured the congregation that, as long as they have a priest who is one of them, they would be able to settle down. From that time onwards, Father Manolis has been the priest of the Greek Orthodox church of Bloemfontein.
During this period (1982 until the present) the most important additions to the church were made, such as the painting of the holy icons and the bell-tower. These years passed quietly with regard to the ecclesiastical life of the community, but not without other problems. Various circumstances arising from family or personal disputes between members of the community affected Father Manolis, and on two occasions he tendered his resignation. However, on both occasions the Committee requested him to continue with his work, which he did.
The great majority of the Greeks in Bloemfontein respect Father Manolis, and accept him as their spiritual father. Despite the fact that some of them point out his lack of formal education, they tolerate him because the community has burnt its fingers with priests in the past. Besides, he is one of them – a member of their community – and they don’t really need a “professor priest”.