As far as it is known, there were no Russians in Newcastle or the wider Hunter region until 1949, when about 100 Russians arrived at the Greta Migrant Camp. The site of an Australian Army training camp during World War 2, the Migrant Camp was a home for over 100,000 migrants between 1949 and 1960.
These first Russians all came from the city of Shanghai in China. They came to Australia via Tubabao Island in the Phillipines, the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) having established a temporary refuge there for 5,000 Russians fleeing communism in China. Arriving at first in Sydney, they were given refuge at Greta. Most left soon after to join the established Russian communities in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Shortly afterwards, another small group of Russian people arrived at the Greta Camp from Bathurst. They were “displaced persons”, refugees from Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia who were resettled in Australia by the IRO under a resettlement agreement or assisted passage scheme.
On 6/19 August 1949, the Orthodox Christian feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, a large group of Russians arrived in Newcastle aboard the MV Fairsea, a chartered passenger ship of the Sitmar Line that was to make more than 80 such trips to Australia. Upon arrival, this group was immediately transferred by train to the Greta Migrant Camp. Amongst them was a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Ivan (or John) Lupish, and his family.
Exactly a week later, Father John conducted the first known Russian Orthodox service in the Hunter Valley in the Anglican Chapel at the Greta Camp, the Chapel having been kindly made available by the Rector of Branxton, a village close to Greta, the Reverend R V Hannington. Like many Anglican clergymen of that era, Father Hannington was extremely well-disposed towards the Russian Orthodox Church and people.
Several weeks later, the Camp administration made a hut available to Father John for use as a chapel. This chapel, dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, served as a spiritual centre for the many Orthodox Christians of diverse backgrounds who lived at the Greta Camp. When Archbishop Theodore (Rafalsky), Ruling Bishop of the Australian and New Zealand Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, visited the camp in September 1950, over 300 people gathered for the Divine Liturgy.
From 1949 until 1955 the Russian Orthodox chapel was in a part of the Camp known as “Silver City”. It was later transferred to another part, “Chocolate City”, and remained open until the Camp closed in 1960. The different parts of the Camp were so named because of the appearance of the buildings in each area.
Although it closed over 50 years ago, the Russian Orthodox faithful of Newcastle preserve the memory of this small chapel, celebrating the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God with solemnity on October 1/14 every year.
Soon after establishing the chapel at Greta, Father John began to make monthly trips to Newcastle to minister to the needs of the Russian Orthodox faithful living there. Initially, Divine Liturgy was served each month at Saint Peter’s Anglican Church, Hamilton.
These trips obliged Father John to rise at 3.00am and walk four and a half kilometres to the Greta Railway Station. After travelling by train to Broadmeadow Railway Station, he would walk a further kilometre to Hamilton.
By 1951, services were being held each month in the Mission Hall in Wallsend. This venue was provided by another sympathetic Anglican clergyman, the Reverend J Bullough, Rector of St Luke’s Anglican Church, Wallsend.
In 1952, a block of land with a small weatherboard cottage was purchased in Irving Street, Wallsend, for £850.0.0. A working bee converted the cottage into a simple church able to accommodate 40 people, and so the life of the parish began. Dedicated to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra in Lycia, the church celebrated its feast-day on May 9/22, the day of commemoration of the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari in Italy.
This cottage church quickly became a focal point for the Newcastle Russian community. Many people who had, in the bitter years of war and revolution, only limited contact with the Church of their fathers, now found it at the centre of their lives.
The church also initially attracted many Orthodox Christians from other backgrounds: Ukrainians, Serbs, Macedonians, Romanians and Greeks. These “New Australians” gathered for social evenings to raise funds to assist the new parish. Some were held in the old YMCA Hall in King Street, Newcastle, and others in the hall at Saint James’ Anglican Church, Wickham. This was a lively period in the life of Newcastle’s Orthodox community.
In time, Orthodox Ukrainians, Serbs, Macedonians, and Greeks all went on to build their own churches. Father John nevertheless continued to work with Orthodox Christians of all backgrounds, conducting services for many years in the Serbian Orthodox parish of Saint Naum of Ochrid at Broadmeadow.
In 1962, the parishioners of St Nicholas’ Wallsend resolved to build a new church. A building committee was established under the leadership of Alexander Medwedew, Vitaly Korotokich and Michael Shalimov.
The foundation stone was laid on 4 August 1962 by the Diocesan Bishop, Archbishop Savva (Raevsky). The Mayor of Newcastle, Alderman F Purdue, laid the cornerstone.
The building of the church was accomplished entirely by voluntary labour. Constructed of brick in a traditional Russian style, it was completed in August 1964. Archbishop Savva formally consecrated it with the assistance of clergy from the Sydney parishes.
From his arrival in Australia in 1949 until his death in 1977, a period of 28 years, Father John Lupish was the spiritual leader of the Russian Orthodox community in Newcastle. Born in Borodichy, Belarus, in 1906, Father John undertook theological studies in the diocesan consistory at Pinsk. He married Maria Veremejchik in 1933, was ordained deacon in 1934 and priest in 1938. He served in parishes in present-day Belarus, Poland, and later in Germany. In the wake of the devastating war in Europe, Father John and his family emigrated to Australia with many of their countrymen in 1949. Upon arrival in Australia that year on the feast of the Transfiguration, he resided for some time at the Greta Migrant Camp, founding and then serving there in the Holy Protection Church from 1949 until the camp was closed in December 1960. Although he continued to serve for a short time in Greta at St Mary’s Anglican Church, he served chiefly at Saint Nicholas’ from 1960 onwards.
Father John declined a stipend from the parish, supporting his family and himself by working in various occupations including the State Dockyards, Newcastle City Council, Goninan Engineering and finally, the BHP Steelworks. In recognition of his diligent pastoral service, he was elevated to the rank of Archpriest in 1951, and awarded the right to wear the jeweled pectoral cross in 1971.
After a brief illness, Father John passed away, aged 71, on 22 November 1977. He had served as a priest for 38 years. Archbishop Theodosy (Putilin) presided at the funeral, and Father John was laid to rest in Newcastle’s historic Sandgate Cemetery, amongst the graves of many Orthodox Christians that he himself had escorted to their final resting place.
Father John’s memory is dear to the parish, and Divine Liturgy is now served each year on the anniversary of his death. Afterwards, a memorial service is customarily served at his graveside. In addition, there is a room named in his honour at Maximilian Kolbe House, an aged care facility in Sandgate, NSW.
In 1982 the parish built a hall, again with voluntary labour, on the site of the original cottage church. For the first time, the parish had a centre of its own within which to conduct social events and other parish activities.
In almost the entire period since the death of Father John Lupish, Saint Nicholas’ has been without a resident priest assigned solely to the parish. Visiting clergymen from Sydney for many years served in the parish on a regular, if infrequent, basis. Amongst those clergy who served our parish are Mitred Archpriest John Stukacz, Archpriests Michael Konstantinoff, Peter Sheko, Michael Boikov, and George Lapardin, the late and ever-memorable Archpriest Nicholas Grant, Hieromonk Benjamin (Forbes), and the Priests Nicholas Gan and Daniel Metlenko.
Despite the lack of a resident priest, the 1980s were to be a vibrant period of parish life. Many outings and social activities were organised. An active youth group was formed, and young people were involved in Russian dancing and other cultural activities, joining together with other youth of diverse backgrounds for performances, competitions, carnivals and festivals. A library and a Russian School operated in the parish hall. A monthly newsletter, ‘Resurrection’, was published in Russian and in English, and an annual family camp was held in the Hunter Valley, generally near Allynbrook. Each year, a Russian Ball was held, gathering hundreds of people from across Newcastle.
After the flourishing of the 1980s, the 1990s, unhappily, saw a bitter division within the parish. The Russian Orthodox Church of the Theophany in Mayfield (a suburb of Newcastle), initially a parish of the Antiochian Orthodox Church but later received by the Moscow Patriarchate, emerged out of this division in 1994. It was to be served by Priest Nicholas Gan, various visiting clergymen, and finally by Priest Alexander Filchakov, a young graduate of the Moscow Theological Academy.
At the time of the division St Nicholas’ was a home for the older emigrants and church founders, whereas the Theophany parish attracted many younger people and converts to Orthodoxy, carrying on much of what had been built up at St Nicholas’ in the 1980s. One maintained the exclusive use of Church Slavonic as the liturgical language, and the other incorporated the use of English into the services. Sadly a great many people, discouraged by the conflict that led to the division, drifted away from church life altogether.
As time went by, both congregations changed. New people became involved in the life of St Nicholas’, and English began to be used in the services. At the same time, the Theophany parish began to provide a spiritual home for many new Russian immigrants. In the mid-2000s links between the two parishes were formed, helped by the long-awaited reconciliation, in 2007, of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia with the Moscow Patriarchate. Upon the departure of Father Alexander to Russia for an extended period beginning in February 2009, the Theophany parish closed and parishioners began to attend services in Wallsend.
In 2009 we celebrated 60 years of Russian Orthodoxy in the Hunter Valley. In honour of this anniversary, we had a large and beautiful icon of the Mother of God painted by Archpriest George Lapardin. In the style of an icon of the Protection of the Mother of God, it shows the history of Russian Orthodoxy in the region: the arrival of the MV Fairsea in Newcastle Harbour, and the churches at Greta Camp, Wallsend, and Mayfield. In the background is the BHP Steelworks, the source of the livelihood of so many migrant families. The Mother of God is casting her protecting veil over all these things, flanked by Saint Nicholas and Saint John the Evangelist, Father John’s heavenly protector.
Today, St Nicholas' is a diverse Orthodox Christian parish of Russian tradition. Both Church Slavonic and English are used in the divine services.
Early in 2012, St Nicholas’ commenced a program of renovation in the church and hall. A new commercial kitchen was installed in the hall, and plans were made for the enlargement and improvement of the sanctuary, renovation of the church, replacement of the iconostasis, and the frescoing of the church interior in traditional Russian iconographic style. In September 2013, the parish will receive a beautiful new Cross in Russian-Byzantine style, the work of iconographer Dimitri Lihachov, and the first element in the refurbishment of our church. Later, God willing, improvements will be made to the church exterior.