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Great churches, small congregations Print E-mail
17 January 2007

There are a number of breath-taking churches in Johannesburg that have been built to serve the needs of minority congregations. This is the third in a series of articles on Johannesburg's places of worship.

JOBURG'S many beautiful temples, churches and shuls are a reflection of its multi-cultural nature.

Almost every religion is represented and practised in the city. Some old churches have had many incarnations, and have been reborn as mosques or temples, and serve whole new post-apartheid communities in the suburbs. Some churches have no walls or roofs, with services simply taking place in the veld.

Tiny communities have worked to build their own places of worship, adding to the fine tapestry that makes up Jozi. One is the Our Lady of the Cedars church, which serves the small Maronite community; another is the Greek Orthodox Church in Hillbrow.

Some places of worship stand out because of their architecture, their history, their associations, or just their splendour. This, the third in a series of articles, looks at some of those.



Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon, Woodmead, 1991
South Africa's small Maronite community goes back to 1896, when the first Lebanese immigrants arrived in Durban and Cape Town.

The Maronite church can be traced back to the hermit St Maroun, who lived at the end of the fourth century in Antioch in Lebanon. He established an open-air monastic school dedicated to contemplative prayer. The first Maronite patriarch was chosen in 685 AD.

The Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon church complex

Joburg's first Maronite church was established in 1910 in a converted building in Commissioner Street; it later moved to a building on the corner of Diagonal and Kerk streets. In 1928 a former Dutch Reformed Church was bought in Mint Road, Fordsburg, which has served the congregation for about 80 years. A small congregation of about 300 still attends this church.

The new eye-catching shrine, which can be seen from the M1 north, was dedicated in 1991 and called the Shrine of Our Lady. It sits alongside the octagonal face-brick church, Our Lady of the Cedars, which is set in beautiful gardens planted with conifers and palms. A Garden of Remembrance was completed in 2002. The striking, cone-shaped face-brick shrine has a circular walkway to the top, and a beautiful, revolving 2m-tall statue of the Virgin Mary. It has a programme of 24-hour adoration prayers. The inside of the shrine has a cave-like atmosphere, with stalactites decorating the roof, uneven pillars and roughly finished white walls adorned with biblical figures, setting the scene for quiet meditation and prayer.

The cone-shaped face-brick shrine, with a beautiful statue of Mary, in the Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon church

Nationwide there are some 20 000 to 30 000 Maronite members, most of them based in Johannesburg. Here they have been under the leadership of the superior of the Maronite Catholic Church, Father Nadim Abou Zeid, since 1994. He, in turn, falls under Archbishop Buti Thlagale. A new church and shrine was opened in 2004 in Mulbarton in southern Johannesburg.



Greek Orthodox Church, Hillbrow, 1912
It's easy to drive past this little treasure at the southern end of Hillbrow, on the corner of Claim and Wolmarans streets. It's surrounded by high rise blocks of flats and noisy traffic, but it is open most days, and Father George Giannakopoulos likes it that way.

The ornate interior of the Greek Orthodox Church with brass jars, candelabras, chandeliers, granite tiled floor and beautiful carved wooden pulpit

The distinctive, classic Greek church exterior consists of several levels of roofs at different angles, topped with a modest dome. But step inside and you enter an ornate world of brass jars, candelabras and bowls, extravagant chandeliers hanging from the tall roof, green-marbled columns across the three-metre high Parthenon-shaped altar, granite tiled floor and beautiful carved wooden pulpit. This is complemented by sparkling white walls lined with large pictures of saints in carved wooden frames and rows of immaculate wooden benches, and the blue-painted dome stretching three storeys high.

The church originally drew its congregation from the Greek immigrants living in Yeoville, Berea and Hillbrow at the turn of the 19th century, but with their migration over the past decades to the northern suburbs the congregation now comes from a wider area.

The simple, attractive exterior of the Greek Orthodox Church

Giannakopoulos says the number of Greeks in Johannesburg has dwindled – from 70 000 to around half that number, living across a broad area, from Krugersdorp in the west to Brakpan in the east. In the past decade some 60 000 Greeks nationwide have returned to Greece or emigrated to Australia and the US, halving the national population.

There are three other Greek Orthodox churches in the city: in Sophiatown, Orange Grove and Rosebank. And, says Giannakopoulos, anyone is welcome to drop in at any time for one his services in Hillbrow.



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Last Updated on 10 January 2013