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Joburg's many different people are represented in its myriad churches. One of the smaller congregations is at St Nicholas of Japan, in Brixton.
THERE are some 6 000 Catholics living in Alexandra, and this is just one of the many denominations represented in the township.

The unusual brick and plaster facade of the Ethiopian Church in AlexandraThe unusual brick and plaster facade of the Ethiopian Church in AlexandraChurches large and small appear on unlikely corners in Alex, adding a dimension to the township that deepens its significance for thousands of Joburgers.
Just as unlikely is a small church in one of the city’s oldest suburbs, Brixton. It has a small but loyal congregation, drawn from multiple ethnic groups – a demonstration of Johannesburg’s diversity.

This is the ninth in a series of articles on Johannesburg’s splendid places of worship.

Ethiopian Church, Ninth Avenue, Alexandra (1945)
The Ethiopian Church of South Africa was founded in 1892 by Mangena Mokone. Originally a member of the Methodist Church in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, Mokone was sent to Pretoria where he was ordained in 1887.

After his wife died, he moved to Johannesburg but in 1892 he resigned from the church, citing discrimination against black ministers, according to the Dictionary of African Christian Biography.

Shortly thereafter, his church was established. “In November 1892, Mokone and twenty others held the founding service of the Ethiopian Church,” reports the website.

Mokone learned about the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC), the church of the political and religious activist, Charlotte Maxeke; and he asked if the Ethiopian Church could join. In 1898, an AMEC bishop visited South Africa and ordained several ministers. Mokone became a prominent member and elder of the church, until his death in 1931.

The reference to Ethiopia comes from Psalm 68, verse 31: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”

The church in Alexandra was opened by the Right Reverend SM Macasela on 8 July 1945, records the founding stone. Its motto is “Christianity must conquer”.

Pastor Wellington Lumka says his congregation consists of some 50 members, drawn from Alex but also from the northern suburbs of the city.
The modest and unusual building consists of a tall, stepped facade with a central tower, in brick and plaster. White-washed walls inside hold stacked plastic chairs, while the small arched windows flood the interior with light, under wooden ceiling beams and a tin roof. A sign above the nave reads: “God is love”.

St Nicholas of Japan, Brixton
This quaint church in Brixton is Greek Orthodox, under the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, which traces its “history back to AD 65, when St Mark the Evangelist brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to Africa, and planted the Church in Alexandria, Egypt”, according to its website.

The blue and white St Nicholas of Japan church in BrixtonThe blue and white St Nicholas of Japan church in BrixtonWhereas Greek is spoken in the Orthodox church, St Nicholas is an English-speaking parish, drawing parishioners from a range of ethnic groups – Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Syrian and Lebanese.
“In 1987, a group of Orthodox Christians in South Africa formed the Society of St Nicholas of Japan to promote mission and evangelism among Orthodox Christians, and to make Orthodox Christianity better known to non-Orthodox people.”

Several years later, the community was large enough to become a parish, and after three years of worshipping in borrowed halls and chapels, in 1990 it bought the old Pentecostal Brixton Tabernacle in Brixton.

The small church has a tranquil and sacred atmosphere, described by a parishioner as “a very holy and spiritual place”. The interior, with its pressed-steel ceiling and small windows, is filled with icons of the saints running around its walls, culminating in a glorious wall of icons against a background of gold leaf along the front wall, surrounding the altar. All the icons have been painted by parishioners.

“St Nicholas of Japan was a Russian missionary who went to Japan in the 19th century, and is one of the greatest missionary saints of modern times,” indicates the website. He was born in 1836, and studied theology at the St Petersburg theological academy.

He undertook a journey, crossing Siberia by coach in 1860, staying over for the winter before resuming his journey. He reached Hakodate in the summer of 1861.

“At that time Japan was very xenophobic, and evangelism was very difficult. He studied Japanese the language, history and culture, and also gave Russian lessons to Japanese people who were interested.”

A samurai landowner and Shinto priest, Takuma Sawabe, saw him as a threat to Japan and its culture, and went to the consulate where he threatened to kill him if he did not stop preaching the Christian faith.

“Nikolai’s reply was to ask if he knew what he was teaching. Sawabe said he did not, and Nikolai asked if it was reasonable for him to kill someone for teaching something he did not know, and whether it would not be more reasonable to hear what he was teaching first. Sawabe agreed to hear, and was convinced of the truth of the Orthodox Christian faith.”

The congregation consists of about 40 families, with the church able to accommodate 100 people standing. Singing is along the style of Russian chants, sung acapella in four parts harmony.

Several offshoots of St Nicholas have been formed in the suburbs, but there is only one St Nicholas church in Joburg.

Parish of St Hubert, First Avenue, Alexandra (1930)
The peaceful ambience inside this Catholic church is testimony to the hard work of its dedicated priest and parishioners.

Father Ronald Cairns, who has been ministering to Alexandrans’ spiritual needs for the past 27 years, says his congregation attracts Catholics of many nationalities – Nigerians, Cameroonians, Angolans, Mozambicans and Rwandans, as well as South Africans of every language group.

He holds two services every Sunday morning, to allow his 1 600 worshippers to find a place in the pews of a church that seats 700.

He estimates that there are about 6 000 Catholics in Alexandra. “There has always been a very strong Catholic community here,” he says. His is the only Catholic church in the township.

Cairns recounts how the church, originally called the Church of St Phillip and St James, was built in 1919. That building, together with the whole site, was expropriated by the apartheid government in 1969. It is now used as a school.

The church only regained its church and site, although not the complete site, in 1984, when he took up residence in Alexandra.

The present church was built by Father Hubert Tremmelon and brothers in 1930. Tremmelon gave his name to it. It is built in the Romanesque style with a high, pressed-steel ceiling and square pillars running down the central aisle.

New wooden benches and charcoal slate floors, with a sky-blue altar area, add to the restfulness of the interior.

Cairns says the church is involved in a range of activities and outreach programmes. It runs an old age home for 37 people, a crèche for pre-schoolers to Grade 1, an Aids Centre with 14 caregivers, six youth groups, and a feeding scheme for 1 000 people.

Every month there is a special collection for the upkeep of the church. And parishioners take control of that maintenance, spending weekends fixing and cleaning their beloved church.

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Great churches, small congregations
Joburg's great places of worship
Some great places to worship
Joburgers gather to worship
City's melting pot
Faith writes the city's history