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For the past year, I have been researching and learning about the history of early Lebanese and Syrian immigrants to Australia, accumulating information and resources as I go. For me, researching this history has not been exclusively for the purpose of improving my knowledge about one of Australia’s oldest immigrant groups; it is also tracing my own family history. I write this article in my grandparents’ home. Aged 14, I have been immersed in my grandparents’ culture my entire life and I listen to the stories my grandfather tells me of his childhood and relationship with the wider community when he migrated to Australia. Celebrated Lebanese singer Fayrouz chants hymns on vinyl, while eastern coffee cups and syrup-soaked pastries decorate the table. It became clear to me that despite all these years, my grandparents, like most Lebanese and Syrian immigrants to Australia, have flourished in their Australian communities also sustaining their beloved traditions from the ‘old country’.
I was eager to share with them the material I had amassed about an era more familiar to them than to someone three generations distanced, such as myself. Upon declaring my interest in this widely unknown, yet incredibly significant part of Australian history to my grandfather, he gestured at a photograph that took pride of place in his living room. Bordered with an ornate gold frame, the black and white photograph, although stained and faded, revealed the faces of the Syrians of Sydney. It should be noted that all immigrants from the former Ottoman Province of Syria, which incorporated modern-day Lebanon and Syria, were identified as Syrian. So, immigrants labeled ‘Syrian’ were not necessarily from the modern borders of Syria.
The people in the photo were unfamiliar to me, at least until my grandfather began to identify relatives. When he reached the centre of the group of people, he paused and stated, “This is Archimandrite* Chahoud”. Until that moment, I was unaware that anyone from the Chahoud family, of which my mother belongs, had been a priest. “The photo was taken in 1939, around five years after he immigrated to Australia”, my grandfather continued. Archimandrite Malatios Chahoud would go on to minister to St Michael’s until shortly before his death in 1967.
The imposing edifice that stood behind them, as I was later informed, was St Michael’s Melkite Church in the inner-city neighborhood of Waterloo. I could associate the exterior appearance of the structure and its gothic façade with the description my mother had given in tales of the “first ‘Syrian’ church” (as it was most commonly branded). The Melkite Christians worship in the Byzantine style, though recognise the primacy of the Pope.
“It had a long staircase, the building was relatively small and the marble altar was decorated with large golden candlesticks”, she would say when referring to nostalgic childhood bygone times spent at church with her siblings. I was determined and enthusiastic to discover more about St Michael’s. Why had I never heard of it previously, and why was it so different from the St Michael’s Melkite Church I attend now?
I met initially with the most prominent members and figures in the Melkite Church starting with the Bishop, His Grace Robert Rabbat. I learned that the church was sold in the late 1970s and that the current church location in nearby Darlington was obtained at the same time. Selling the church in Waterloo was controversial and the decision was debated and discussed within Melkite families. These debates and discussions, although passionate, were emotionally driven, particularly for the early families that had been ardent workers in the church or had donated to its construction and maintenance. It was also difficult for the regular congregation, whose beloved church would no longer be.
The leading motive (deemed legitimate at the time) for this transition to the ‘new’ church was the increase in population of the faithful and therefore the need to accommodate such a community in a larger space. The ‘new’ church grounds were formerly that of St. Kieran’s Roman Catholic Church and the ‘old’ St Michael’s was sold to the New South Wales Housing Commission. The ‘new’ church artfully blends western and eastern Christianity and architecture.
I wondered what remained of the original St Michael’s, and decided to visit and document the site. This initial visit was one of several I have made to this somewhat iconic and storied place. Golden chandeliers no longer illuminate the nave* and the vibrant Byzantine icons. Worshippers no longer chant hymns with immense gusto and reverence. The smell of incense no longer fills the air. It is an inconspicuous building for those who do not know of its illustrious past. Unlike the earlier beige walls, today the façade (which is the sole remnant today) is painted blue and pink. The entrance, now obstructed with concrete, is choked with overgrown florae and fractures on the walls indicate the consequence of time and little maintenance.
So, it is little wonder that we do not recognize a dilapidated housing commission complex as having great significance for its own residents, let alone for an entire spiritual community. Even in its present circumstance, St Michael’s projects an aura of permanence and monumentality, and remains, to this day a symbol of honour and unity for Melkites living in Australia as it is their ‘mother parish’. Some consider the site a ‘place of pilgrimage’, while for many others it is somewhere to reconnect and be exposed to the Melkite Church’s extensive history in Australia.
The remains of St Michael’s Waterloo, December 2018
St. Michael’s in Waterloo is more than just a crumbling beauty. Through its ornate arched windows and deep within its stone walls, an unlikely history can be discovered. The foundation plaque was first laid in 1891. From its inaugural mass onwards, the church quickly acquired an informal ecumenical status as it welcomed eastern Christians of all rites including Maronites, Antiochian Orthodox and Coptics. This is evidence of the rich and coexisting religious tapestry within the old Lebanese/Syrian Quarter (Redfern, Waterloo, and Surry Hills).
Conversations with the remaining Lebanese residents of Redfern include numerous references to the priests who served at St Michael’s (most often referred to as the ‘church with the stairs’). Whenever I stroll through Redfern, I seek to talk to these residents and hear their accounts of the church. Along Redfern Street, I met Damia Chyt, who, even though a practicing Maronite, regularly attended Mass at St Michael’s Melkite Church in Waterloo, and recalled memories there in a bittersweet manner:
My late husband and I were at Mass every Sunday. St Michael’s was a place where we could meet and interact with fellow Lebanese and most importantly, were able to pray in our native tongue. The church and the opportunities it provided, allowed us to have a greater connection with our new home of Australia and with our faith.
This is not a unique recollection but one echoed by accounts from many other former parishioners and those who continue to attend Mass at St Michael’s in the ‘new’ church. At its height, the church had importance for the non-Melkites of Waterloo. The former schoolchildren of Mount Carmel, situated directly behind the ‘old’ church, still pray in broken Arabic the Lord’s Prayer taught, they say, by the priest of St Michael’s as part of their compulsory religious curriculum. Pat Sullivan remembers running into the church after school with her friends, including Barbara Sakr (a Melkite whose father built his home next to the church). They would sample delicious food including Kibbe and try sweets like Knafeh prepared by the devoted women who volunteered to cook for the priest and the homeless who occasionally ate at the church.
The ‘new’ St Michael’s currently houses a selection of sacred vessels, scriptures, fitments and an iconostasis* from the original church, some dating over 150 years, brought to Australia with the arrival of the first priest, Archimandrite Sylvanus Mansour. The preservation of these pieces speaks to a continuity that has spanned over 128 years and will continue into the future. In the year 2021, St Michael’s will be celebrating the milestone of being founded in Australia for 130 years. The Dean of the Cathedral (as it became in 1987), Fr Gerges Albutros, is entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining this legacy and also that of a church rooted in history.
At the time of writing, the (former) St Michael’s Melkite Church is being evaluated as a potential heritage site. It stands as a vivid reminder and one of few remaining physical traces of the vanished ethnic community known to locals as the “Syrian Quarter”, and of the time when inner city neighbourhoods were the enclave of Lebanese and Syrian Australia. It also has a special character and is of distinct historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of Sydney.
I invite everyone who has their own story, connection or any archival items (photographs, text, film footage etc.) of St Michael’s to contact me at: [email protected]
*Archimandrite is an honorary title for a monastic priest used in the eastern churches (Catholic and Orthodox).
*The Nave is the central and/or principal part a church
*The Iconostasis is a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary (altar) in eastern churches.