The distinctive Greek Orthodox Church in Hania Street, correctly called the Cathedral of the Annunciation, was built in 1970. It was not the first church on the site, and represents a long and special association of the Greek community with the suburb of Mt Victoria.
A Greek Orthodox Church was first erected here in 1947. It was a prefabricated U.S. Army medical barracks purchased from the New Zealand government and transported from Trentham to Hania Street (then called Lloyd Street).
Even before that, the Greek community had been gathering to worship in the Greek Orthodox tradition. From 1924, New Zealand was part of the Greek Orthodox archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand. Until the 1940s, however, when the church was built in Wellington, the important sacraments of marriage and baptism could only be performed when a priest visited from Australia.
The first permanent Greek migrants arrived in the 1920s in search of better opportunities. Most came to Wellington – 76 percent of all Greeks in NZ lived here in 1966, mainly as a result of chain migration (relatives and people from the same towns following those who had already emigrated). Chain migration also meant that Greek people tended to live in the same areas, close to their relatives. This feature was most notable in Mt Victoria – 60 percent of the Mt Victoria Greek households in 1966 were contiguous* (next to each other). For a long time, ours remained the preferred suburb.
So, the fact that the first Greek Orthodox church in New Zealand was founded in Lloyd St was wholly appropriate, because the majority of Greeks lived in Mt Victoria. The church was the community focus and an important factor in continuity of language and culture. Stathi Yiavasis described how the church came about: “One of my uncles, John Kathistides, donated some land in Lloyd Street to the Greek People of Wellington. In order to avoid paying rates on the land, we decided to build a small church on that site. We didn’t have a Greek priest then, but we had Mr Bates, an Anglican priest. He could read Greek quite well, and he would conduct services for our congregation”.* Mt Victoria resident, Stathy Booleris once described how “if a Greek died, they had an Anglican priest who used to conduct the funerals in English but he knew a little bit of Greek which he put in his Anglican service.”
Sophie Anthopoulos told MVHS in 2006 how “When the church was built, I thought Greece had come here. And I’m glad I came to New Zealand. Not because they are good people, they support us, they are nice people; but because that church is there. It’s a building that looks nice to the city, it’s something special to be there”. Costa Christie shared his memories of the church, too: “Sunday, for argument’s sake, was church – home for a roast dinner. And then in the afternoon we would visit other Greek people, or other Greek people would come and visit us. It would be someone’s name day, someone’s birthday; it might have happened during the week but you’d go and pay your respects on the Sunday because that’s the day everyone has off.”
While priests have generally come from overseas, they have often not been ‘strangers’. The priest from 1980 to 1991, Reverend Polikarpos Neonakis, for instance, was a boy in World War Two when his home village heroically sheltered New Zealand soldiers from German troops occupying Crete. The memories of the Kiwis and the stories he heard about New Zealand stayed with him and he always wanted to come to this green and peaceful country. When a position arose in Wellington he applied for it. Along with Elias Economou (1949-1960), he was also the longest-serving priest.
In 1970 the first barracks church was demolished to make way for the current one. A community centre was eventually built next door. That same year, New Zealand became a separate diocese in the Greek Orthodox Church, with its own archbishop. Now the church has, amongst its objectives, upholding Hellenic ideals by co-ordinating community activities and supporting Greek schools to teach children the language.
* Verivaki, Maria, Petris, John. Stories of Greek Journeys, Petone Settlers Museum, Lower Hutt City Council, Greek National Tourist Organisation, c. 1991.