London calling

The story of the first Orthodox Church in London; The Dormition of the Mother of God

The first Greek community and the first Greek Orthodox church in London date back to the eighth decade of the seventeenth century (1670-1680). Various learned Greeks had already come to England in the seventeenth century, either to study at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge or for the purpose of publishing their writings.
To one such learned priest who came to London for the latter purpose we owe invaluable and authentic information concerning the first Greek community in London and the first Greek church. This was the Metropolitan of Samos, Joseph Georgerinos, of the island of Melos.
In any case, the Metropolitan arrived and found that his compatriots, taking advantage, perhaps, of the presence of a Greek priest, had obtained the necessary licence for the erection of their own Church.
However, as funds were lacking to build it, the Metropolitan was requested by the priest and his compatriots to take all necessary steps to find the sum required. The church was erected in 1677 in the street in Soho which was known then as Hog Lane, and today is Charing Cross Road. It was dedicated to the Assumption of the All-holy Mother of God. It appears that the Metropolitan Joseph remained in London as the ecclesiastical superior of the incumbent already serving.
Little by little, the Greeks living near and around the church left this part of London, a vivid trace of their sojourn remaining in the street which to this day is known as Greek Street. They settled down in the city, the centre of all commercial and financial activity.
The Metropolitan Joseph, seeing that the church which he had erected could no longer serve the needs of the Orthodox Greeks, decided to sell the building and erect a church in the quarter of the city where the majority of the Greeks were concentrated. It would appear that he encountered financial difficulties which prevented him from realising his project.
This first church was consequently unable to continue the career begun amid so many struggles and efforts. In 1684 it came into the possession of French Huguenots, who had come to England as refugees.
In 1712, as a result of the exceptional financial difficulties in which his diocese was involved, the Patriarch of Alexandria, Samuel Kapasoulis, sent the Metropolitan of the Thebaïd, Arsenius, to England to visit the Stuart Queen Anne.
The Metropolitan Arsenius wanted to establish such a church undoubtedly in order to satisfy the spiritual needs of the Greeks of London. As is well known, Arsenius, during the time he was in London, came into contact with the English Non-Jurors and negotiated for their union with the Orthodox Church.
He considered that the erection of a Greek Church would be of assistance in the work of uniting the two churches.
No independent Greek Church existed in London, either for a long or a short period of time, subsequent to the one erected by the Metropolitan Joseph of Samos. The Greeks worshipped in the Russian Church.
The House of Prayer of Christ the Saviour
As time went on, the need for a Greek Church was increasingly felt among the Greek colony. In 1837 there happened to be a Greek priest in London, Galaktion Galatis by name. He was staying there, not on the invitation of his compatriots in London, but on his own initiative – he probably represented some monastery or church and had come for the purpose of collecting money.
The Greeks took advantage of his presence to rent a hall in the district off Finsbury Circus.
The other Greeks living in London were concentrated round the same district. During the same year, after the establishment of the ‘Greek Chapel’, as the newly-built House of Prayer was styled, the brotherhood applied to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, asking that a priest should be appointed; and the Archimandrite Dionysios Xenakis of Chios was chosen.
This first church was dedicated to Christ the Saviour.
The main, indeed, the only purpose of the formation of the Brotherhood was the establishment and maintenance of a church for the satisfaction of the religious needs of the brothers. The history of the Brotherhood is consequently the history of its church.
The Church of Christ the Saviour
With the passage of time, the number of the Greeks increased. To the first-comers were added others, and the little House of Prayer which had sufficed during those early years of the community’s establishment was already proving too small to accommodate the increased Brotherhood, more particularly on the great feast-days of the Christian calendar. On the other hand, the affairs of the Greek commercial houses were entering a wider sphere and receiving the blessings of Almighty God. Those who had lately passed through financial difficulties were already enjoying a certain prosperity.
The number of the commercial houses grew, and their profits multiplied; and those devout Greeks, closely attached as they were to the traditions of their fathers, their national language and the Orthodox Faith, soon realised the inadequacy of the existing chapel and the necessity of erecting a new, larger, and more dignified place of worship. As early as 1843, there was talk of the need for building a new Church, “since the church at 9, Finsbury Circus is too small for the numbers of the Brotherhood”. At many subsequent meetings the brothers occupied themselves with this question.
On July 1, 1846, it being agreed that “the time has come for a Church of the Brotherhood in London to be built”, a committee was formed, consisting of P.S. Ralli, A.A. Ralli, A. Ionides, X. Balli, S. Mavrojanni, K. Geralopoulos, M. Spartali, I. Cavafy, A. Argenti, and A. Mavrojanni. This committee was requested “to submit to a future General Meeting its views on the matter, on which the Meeting shall then decide”. This committee showed great zeal in its work; it found a suitable site for the erection of the Church in Winchester Street, London Wall, and succeeded in completing the building by 1849.
The new church was a true successor of the preceding one, like which was dedicated to Christ our Saviour.
The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God
The Greeks of the community were distinguished for their industry and their business acumen, and, being economical and frugal, especially during the early years of their establishment in London, soon became for the most part financially independent.
They now wished to enjoy a more comfortable life, both for themselves and their families. They kept their offices in the City, but took up their private residences in other parts of London.The favourite districts were Lancaster Gate and Bayswater.
These districts, which today are almost in the centre of the unending metropolis, were then only on its fringe, and to go from the City to Hyde Park, for instance, was considered a long excursion, which was undertaken, normally, only on holidays, as a relaxation and in order to enjoy the fresh country air.
After three decades had passed from the founding of the Church of Our Saviour, no one any longer had his private residence in the City; and whereas previously all had lived within a very short distance of the church, now five whole miles divided the church from the residential district of the faithful.
For the men, in particular, who had to make the journey to the city every day, a tiring one with the means of transport then available, it was hard to undergo the same fatigue on Sundays also, when they were supposed to not only perform their religious duties, but also to rest from the labours of the week.
Moreover, the number of Greeks had greatly increased, and there was scarcely room for them all in the church then existing. These various difficulties made it imperatively necessary to build a new and larger church, situated closer to the residences of the brothers.
By June 1877, the foundations of the church were marked out, and on July 18 of the same year the foundation stone was laid. The learned patriot Mr Emmanuel Mavrogordato delivered a speech appropriate to the occasion.
In explaining the reason for the name of The Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, which the committee had chosen for the church, he said the members of the committee had decided to so name it because the Orthodox Church had always been inspired in its policy by the highest philosophic principles, which had been developed by Saints John and Paul, and because the philosophical minds of the Greek fathers were attracted by the idea of giving the more important Churches of the first period of Christianity the appellations of the higher attributes of God: The Power of God, the Peace of God, the Wisdom of God.
The committee was further inclined towards this nomenclature because, ‘at the same time, it possesses a national significance from its historical association with our national fortunes and is a symbol of our national aspirations and hopes’. When we consider on the one hand the size and beauty of the Church, on the other the fact that today as in former times the construction of churches is a notably slow process, so that a building begun by one generation is not infrequently continued and finished by another, it is undoubtedly surprising to find that the building of the Church of ‘Aghia Sophia’ in London was completed in
the space of only one year and a half.
The first service was celebrated on Whit Sunday, the festival of the Church, which fell on June 1. The officiating priest was the Archimandrite Hieronymos Myriantheus, vicar of the Church, who delivered the festival sermon. The consecration of the Church was performed on February 5, 1882, by the Archbishop of Corfu, Antony Chariates, who then happened to be staying in London.
The decoration the Church was brought to a greater degree of perfection in 1926, when the electric lighting was installed. Beneath the Church is the crypt, which, until the building of the Presbytery, was
utilized for the General Meetings and deliberations of the Brothers.
After 1921, when the Presbytery, which has a ground-floor room for the purpose, was built, the crypt of the Church ceased to be used in this way.
Since 1927 it has, with the approval of the General Assembly of the Community, been suitably equipped by the administrative Council of the Educational Association in England, and it is now used as a hall for pastoral, social and other activities.
The chairman of the Building Committee, speaking before the General Assembly of the Brothers on January 16, 1879, describing the Church building from an artistic point of view, said:
‘For myself, I am convinced that for many miles around there is no church of the same type so imposing, so well-fitted for its purpose, and at the same time so beautiful and interesting from the historical, archaeological and technical points of view. As regards the beauty of the building, architects are unanimous. Furthermore, I am convinced that the in-terior, by its height, its spaciousness and the grace and harmony of its lines, is one of the most attractive of its type of design: in addition, it is most dignified. To all we can say, “come and see”.
References of this article are from: The Greek Orthodox Church in London by The Very Revd. Archim. Michael Constantinidis and The Legacy of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia, London, by Byzantine & Christian Museum, Treasured Offerings.