St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Greek Church Street, Cardiff. Courtesy of Cardiff Local Studies Library.
St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Greek Church Street, Cardiff. Courtesy of Cardiff Local Studies Library.

Not far from the Islamic Centre on Alice Street, Butetown, in a long-since demolished terrace, there once stood Cardiff’s original Greek Orthodox church. Opened at 31 Patrick Street on 18 December 1873, the then Feast Day of St Nicholas in the Orthodox tradition, this was another of the town’s new buildings for its growing religious minorities, although because of the formal rules of the Church it was in practice a set of rooms set aside for worship rather than a formal religious building. As explored in this post, the Norwegian Church had opened just a few years earlier catering for the Lutheran population, and Cardiff already had its synagogue – opened at East Terrace, off Bute Street, in 1858 – and Roman Catholic churches. This was all symptomatic of a town that was cosmopolitan and worldly. Boasting that it was the ‘Chicago of Wales’, the ‘Metropolis of Wales’, and increasingly established as the only town in Wales likely to become a meaningful city, Cardiff by the 1870s was seeking to become more than a coal port.

The first service at 31 Patrick Street began at 11 o’clock, led by the Rev. Stephen Georgeson Hatherly and a Mr Shann, both down from Wolverhampton. Although the rites were familiar to all those present, most of whom were Greek seamen, it seems (if we believe the newspapers) that relatively few understood Hatherly’s sermon, which was delivered in English to an audience hardly fluent in the language. But who exactly was Hatherly?

Born in Bristol in 1827, Hatherly had grown up within the Anglican communion in a staunchly middle-class Anglican family. In 1853, he went up to Oxford to begin studying for a degree in music at New College. He was also an active church organist in the city. Engaged by the Oxford Movement and a correspondent of Edward Pusey, Hatherly soon began to reconsider his West Country Anglican inheritance and converted to the Orthodox Church after graduation in 1856. The ceremony was conducted by Father Morphinos at the Russian Orthodox Church in Welbeck Street, London then led by Evgeny Popov (1813-1875). Popov had previously studied at the St Petersburg Theological Academy and lived in London between 1842 and his sudden death (whilst in St Petersburg) in 1875. Following conversion, Hatherly then put his musical training to use and took up a position as conductor at the Greek Church in Liverpool.

Certainly it was to music that Hatherly was largely devoted until he entered the priesthood in Constantinople in 1871. In 1865, for instance, he designed the church organ at St Mark’s in Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, and in the 1860s published a number of hymns, a book he called Fireside Music, and translated sermons from the Greek tradition into English. (A publishing career that he maintained from the early 1850s until the 1890s.)  Around 1858-1860, a few years after entering the Greek Church, Hatherly had actually proposed Cardiff as ‘the place in England [sic] where a mission of our Church would prove most useful’. Little came of the discussion, although details of it seem to have been published in Moscow in 1866. Following his conversion in 1871, Hatherly established himself in Wolverhampton and it was there, rather than in Cardiff, which saw the first of the Greek churches he helped to found. This was located on Waterloo Road and was his base of operations until his move to Cardiff towards the end of 1874 – he took up residence in Elm Street, Roath. In 1877, Hatherly moved back to Bristol where he lived until his retirement in 1889. He died in Bournemouth in 1905.

Like its Scandianvian neighbour, the Greek Church in Patrick Street was a centre of Greek and Russian cultural life in Cardiff in the late-nineteenth century. The city’s Christian residents could experience the public aspects of Orthodox Easter and Christmas, the festival rituals of saints’ days such as for George, Nicholas,Andrew, and Alexander Nevsky, and could observe the marking of moments of mourning such as for the passing (well, assassination) of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 or the twentieth anniversary of Nicholas I’s death in 1875, or moments of celebration such as Greek Independence Day. One celebration of Independence, in April 1875, even heard a toast to

The great benefits which would accrue if the human race partook more of the nature of a human family…

Sentiments we can surely share more than 140 years later. 1875, incidentally, also saw the first Greek church services in Swansea – these were held that May at the Seamen’s Mission Church in the docks. Hatherly’s move to Bristol early in 1877 came at the same time as the financial debts accrued by the Cardiff church became too much for the local community to sustain and the church was forced to close. As he explained in a letter to the Western Mail in September 1877:

The contributions of the sailors have from the first been, for their number and their poor means, all that could be expected. But the event has proved that those contributions, though supplemented by the aid of a few friends and well-wishers, are insufficient to meet the rent and other current expenses of the church, to say nothing of the services of the minister and readers, which have been of necessity gratuitous.

For many years, Hatherly’s Bristol mission (the Church of St. Raphael in Cumberland Road) provided the only religious means for Orthodox worshippers in the Bristol Channel area, and those who wished to attend services often had to travel there. (Although Hatherly did travel to South Wales to perform particular rites such as baptism.) The difference between the Orthodox Church and the Lutheran Church that catered for the resident Scandinavian population in Cardiff (and to a wider extent Swansea and Newport) was both numerical and material, there were far more Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes, who were normally-resident than there were Greeks, and those who were normally-resident were wealthier. Thus, whereas the Norwegian church expanded several times between 1869 and 1894, there was to be no further attempt to open a Greek church in Cardiff until 1903. It was generally believed that by the 1890s Greeks were in the town were attending High Anglican services instead.

The 1903 church was again a repurposed building, in this case a former shop, 51 Bute Street, rather than a purpose-built church. Opened on 7 April that year, it was greeted (in the context of trying to get Cardiff named a city) with considerable pride by the local press:

The opening of a new Greek Church at Cardiff reminds us of the cosmopolitan character of the Metropolis of Wales in religious matters as in everything else. Besides a vast number of churches and chapeIs of the kind usually associated with a large town, Cardiff possesses a handsome synagogue, a Lutheran Church, and meeting-houses for the Society of Friends and Christadelphians, as well as other and less known sects and communities, such as Theosophists, Spiritualists, and the like. Services are held in English, Welsh, French, German, Scandinavian, and many other languages, including, of course, the Greek and Latin of the respective masses of the Greek and the Roman Communions, and the Hebrew of the Jewish faithful.

Given the nature of the rental market, it seems that the church community subsequently rented 8 Hunter Street, near the swing bridge over the canal. This served as the Greek church between September 1904 and March 1906. The first priest in this new endeavour, who held the post between April and September 1903, was Father J. Georgiades. His successor was Jacobus Demetriades, who came to the town from the seminary at Mount Athos and was described as ‘a man of letters, an effective preacher, and of extremely simple habits’. He was also known for his religious paintings. But he did not remain in the city long, leaving in March 1904 to take up a post in Montreal. His successor, Kalogerus Neophytus, arrived in September 1904 and left in August 1909, and it was during his pastorate that St Nicholas’s was established.

By 1905, the religious cause had grown strong enough that it could look to having a sacred building for the first time. The initial gift of land in Park Street (in Temperance Town, near the Arms Park) from the (Catholic) Marquess of Bute, was never taken up partly because of the redevelopment of that part of Cardiff and the construction of the fine Edwardian-period General Post Office. Instead, a site between North Church Street and the West Junction Canal was offered, with work beginning, after some issues with the city’s planning department, in August 1906. The site, a stone’s throw from St Mary’s Church, had previously been occupied by a timber yard and the Bute Dock Brewery, although by then the brewer site was owned by Spillers. A new thoroughfare, appropriately named Greek Church Street, was designated as part of the redevelopment, although it no longer exists in quite the same way since the Canal Wharf has long since disappeared (here it is now St Mary the Virgin School). St Nicholas Church opened on 7 April 1907, the fourth permanent Greek Church in Britain after London, Liverpool and Manchester.

As in the earlier iteration, the difficulties of maintaining a separate church community whilst drawing only on the resources of largely itinerant seamen were ever present. This was made all the more complicated by government intervention on immigration, firstly by means of the Aliens Act in 1905 and secondly by the 1906 Merchant Shipping Act which introduced minimum English language requirements on British ships. Both Acts, ostensibly designed to improve conditions for British workers, reflected profound anxieties about foreign labour on British vessels. The cumulative effect on minorities in Cardiff was to further compound their economic fragility (and the material fragility of their cultural and religious institutions). By late 1909, with the church closed for lengthy periods, this uncertainty had become especially acute. The following year, one newspaper noted sympathetically that,

the cause has not prospered owing to the paucity of Greeks in affluent circumstances and the comparative poverty of the seafaring class, who, of course, preponderate.

The reflection was made in an article marking the arrival of the new priest from Athens, Isaias Vergopoulos, who remained in the city until August 1917, the longest serving priest in this period. Vergopoulos was eventually forced out of his pastorate because of his stance in the increasingly bitter politics in Greece. Having aligned himself with King Constantine I, the pro-German monarch, against the pro-Allied prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who was supported by the majority of the Cardiff Greeks, it was only a matter of time before tensions became too much. Greece’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies in July 1917, Vergopoulos’s position became untenable. Since 1912 a series of petitions had been raised by the leading members of the community to have him recalled to Athens, although only the abdication of Constantine in 1917 finally ensured this happened. Vergopoulos was replaced by Gennadios Themelis, a former student of psychology educated in Brussels and (like Hatherly) a scholar of Byzantine music. Themelis died suddenly in December 1928, much to the sorrow of the community.

That the war, as well as the National Schism, placed strains on the Greek community in Cardiff was no surprise, although it hardly helped that the Greek population fell victim to an increasingly strident system of immigration controls and identity checks. ‘Owing to the difficulty in distinguishing Greeks from Turks’, one newspaper remarked bluntly, ‘a notice has this week been issued by police authorities that all Greeks must obtain a certificate of nationality from the Greek priest, or Consul at Cardiff. Failing this, they are liable to arrest’. Hardly a welcome in the hillsides there, then, and one wonders what impact these restrictions had on the community’s sentiments for the Allied or Central powers. Yet it was in the midst of the war, in 1915, that a remarkable community initiative took place – the construction of the first Greek school in Britain, the foundation stone for which was laid on 8 April 1915 by the city’s consul, Antonios Momferratos. (The surviving foundation stone is in the Julian calendar, so gives the date as 25 March.) Alongside a similar school opened in Barry under Themelis’s guidance, this was to become an important centre of education for local Greeks. So it remains.

I’ll end today’s blog, the 100th published here, with these thoughts. The story of the Norwegian Church, which I explored in a recent post, is, as can be seen, and by reason of wealth and population and political stability, far more straightforward than the struggles and internecine conflicts that marked the development of the Greek Church in Cardiff. There is, of course, far more to this story. I have barely engaged, here, with the theological implications of the Tractarians and the High Church attempts at building Christian unity. And there is certainly much more that can be written of the conflicts that engulfed the Greek community during the National Schism, and the Orthodox Church more generally in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, both of which are politically fascinating. Hopefully I shall return to them in due course, either here or in more formal publication.

St Nicholas’s Church still stands where it has for more than 100 years; its persistence, together with the nearby Norwegian Church, and the Islamic Centre and mosque, is an important reminder of the positive effects of immigration and multiculturalism on Cardiff. These are not isolated facets of a long-lost history, which Cardiff came to late, nor esoteric aspects of the past, but are real indications of how Cardiff was once at the forefront of British multiculturalism. Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, and London, cities frequently understood thought a lens of multiculturalism should not however mask the fact that Cardiff was also a vital part of that story. This should also alert us to the fact that there are now many linguistic minorities, as there were then, who deserve recognition and support too. It is, after all, only being true to history to do so. This isn’t, exclusively, a political point, but a scholarly one too, for if the present initiative to develop ‘Welsh Studies’ (whatever that means) takes off, it should be multi-lingual not simply bilingual – that would be the only way to be true to the study of the people who have lived historically and presently in the western two peninsulas of Britain.