Historic church in Ithaca, with ties to Australia heading towards oblivion and ruin

Ithaca's Agia Marina church, built by Greek-Australian philanthropist Antonis Lekatsas, remains unrepaired after cyclone and earthquake damage, leaving local and diaspora communities disheartened

This year in Ithaca, the patron saint of Exogi, Agia Marina, will not be honoured with the traditional decorations for her feast day on July 17th. Nor will any church services be held in this historic church, which holds significant ties to the Greeks in Australia.

Nick Varigos, former President of the Ithacan Philanthropic Society in Melbourne, who is spending the summer in his ancestral home, informed us that the largest church in Exogi, gifted and built 101 years ago by the Ithacan Australian philanthropist, Antonis Lekatsas, (also known as Anthony J.J. Lucas), is no longer functional.

“After the passage of the Mediterranean cyclone “Ianos”, four years ago, which compounded the damage caused by the earthquake of 2015, there seems to be no confirmed plan or intention from the authorities or the Greek Orthodox Church to repair it.

“I doubt they even know or recognise the history of the benefactor and the philanthropy of the late Greek Australian, Antonis Lekatsas, who built Agia Marina with his money in 1923, in his birthplace, where his father was a priest,” Varigos told Neos Kosmos, in an effort to remind people of Lekatsas’ legacy and generosity.

The Church of Agia Marina in Exogi during its renovation and expansion in 1923, funded by the legendary Australian Ithacan, Antonis Lekatsas. Photo: Supplied/Stathis Raftopoulos Archive

In addition to the construction of the Holy Church of Agia Marina in Exogi, Antonis Lekatsas was one of the early Greek pioneers and a key player in the establishment of the Greek Community of Melbourne. Together with Grigorios Matorikos and Alexandros Maniakis, he played a central role in the construction of the first Greek Orthodox church in Melbourne that opened its doors 123 years ago. Lekatsas was also frequently the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Melbourne.

The philanthropy of this Ithacan is exemplary, Varigos says. He supported charities, and hospitals in Melbourne, and even in Ithaca, he built a diagnostic health clinic for the poor, whilst also sending funds to war-torn Greece (1943) for the destitute children of the Occupation. During this time, Antonis Lekatsas established a programme whereby Melbourne’s Greeks donated a day’s pay to the Greek war effort. He himself donated £10,000 to a fund for Greek and British child war-victims.

“This is a man who never forgot his birthplace or the inhabitants of his island and homeland,” Varigos added.

In 1939, in recognition of his services to Greece and Australia and the Greek Orthodox Church, he was the first Greek-Australian to be awarded the Brigade Gold Cross (Golden Cross of Taxiarchon). He was also appointed Honorary Consul-General of Greece in Australia, (in Sydney and then Melbourne), a position he held until his death in August 1946.

After the earthquake in 2015, and then the catastrophic impact of the Mediterranean Cyclone “Ianos”, four years ago, the church has been left to its fate. Photo: Supplied/Nick Varigos

It is not the first time that the church of Agia Marina needs help. The family of Antonis Lekatsa, and specifically his daughters, following in their father’s footsteps, were major financiers of the repairs and renovation of the church when it was severely damaged by the strong earthquakes of 1953.

“I remember as a young boy the Ithacan Society hosting fund raising events for the restoration, alongside the locals, who did their best in very difficult times (as 90 per cent of the homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed). Without the Lekatsas family the church would have been left in ruins back then.”

Today the Greek Church seems to be expecting that the solution, the repair of this Church, will come from Australia again, Varigos adds with some bitterness.

He feels that the Greek Orthodox Church has a duty to recognise and show appreciation of the generous gifts bestowed by the Lekatsas family, as well as acknowledge the help that the Greeks of the Diaspora so often offer wholeheartedly.

A wedding at the newly renovated church of Agia Marina in Exogi, in 1927. Photo: Photo: Supplied/Stathis Raftopoulos Archive

“Lekatsas was the son of a priest in a humble village, who never forgot his roots. He carried on his father’s work by establishing and building the first Church in Melbourne, and headed the Church there for years. Yet The Holy Metropolis of Lefkada and Ithaca, do not honour him or the people of Exogi, when they allow the church he built to fall into ruin, forgetting his religious and philanthropic benefaction.”

Hardly any funds (if at all) were allocated for the repair of the churches of Ithaca, according to a senior local Government official, Varigos adds.

“A local priest even asked me to arrange money from Australia to rebuild it… and I asked him if he knew where the money came from to build it in the first place, and then repair it in ’53? He had no idea that it was money from Australia that built it twice!”

“I think it is time that the Greek Church stepped up and repaired this “donated” church if for nothing else, but to honour and pay respect to their loyal diaspora benefactor Antonis Lekatsas”.

The Church of Agia Marina already existed as a small Byzantine chapel in the 16th century. The renovation and expansion of this church was completed in 1927 by Antonis Lekatsas and restored again by his daughters, following the destructive earthquakes of 1953.

Antonis Lekatsas among the members of the first committee of the Ithacan Philanthropic Society of Melbourne. Photo: Supplied/ Ithacan Philanthropic Society of Melbourne Archive