Protection of the Holy Virgin Church in Cabramatta Celebrates Its Feast Day(An Interview With Its Rector, Protopriest Boris Ignatievsky)

On Thursday, October 14, 2010, the Russian Orthodox Church marks one of the most beloved holidays with festive services, the Protection of the Mother of God.

This holiday was introduced in the 12th century by Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky. He built the world-renowned Church of the Protection on the Nerla in Vladimir oblast. In the heart of the Russian capital, in Red Square, we find Pokrovsky [Protection] Church, better known as Vasily Blazhenny [Basil the Blessed] Church. Several Australian churches are likewise dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of Godthe Cathedral in Melbourne, a church in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, and the church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Blacktown. This holiday is a reminder of the special intercession of the Mother of God for Christians.

The Editors of the Russian weekly Unification attended the Cabramatta celebrations on October 14. Five priests celebrated Divine Liturgy. In addition to the Parish Rector Protopriest Boris Ignatievsky, Protopriest Nikita Chemodakov, the local Dean; Protopriest Michael Li; Fr Alexander Korzhenevsky and Priest Joachim also participated in Liturgy and a procession of the cross that followed. A powerful choir sang under the direction of Andrei Laptev and Nicholas Rotenko and filled hearts with joy, creating a special atmosphere. Before the beginning of service, water was blessed and the parishioners were able to take some home in bottles. After the services, a celebratory trapeza was offered in the spacious church hall.

On the eve of the holiday, we spoke to Fr Boris:

- Fr Boris, Protection Church in Cabramatta beautifies the city of Sydney and is a joy to many. Yours is one of the largest of Orthodox parishes in Australia. Tell us a little about how the church was built, some pages from its history.

- A few years ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the parish in the western outskirts of Sydney, the town of Cabramatta. The parish was founded in 1953. There was a small house on this site which they transformed into a church where the first services were held. At the time, Fr Konstantin served here. Soon, Fr Rostislav Gan came here, well known among the Russians from China. Moving to Australia, he imparted a great deal of energy and effort helping Russians immigrate here from China. He greeted them, helped find shelter, he took care of them. People respected him and supported his idea of building a new, large, genuine church here. Fr Rostislav brought in architects, competent experts, and work began.

For most of the people, this was a big project. There were no funds, of course. They say that some woman had won the lottery and donated money for a parcel of land for the church. The cost of building was enormous, even then. But the parishioners donated what they could for this good project, and construction began, slowly but surely. We had to buy used bricks, and people would gather after school and work and cleaned them before laying them into the walls of the new church.

Two churches were planned. The upper church was to be dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, and the lower church to Holy Great Martyr Panteleimon. Many people dont know that there is another space beneath the lower church. Unfortunately, the lower church was never finished, but I hope that Fr Rostislavs project will be completed someday. We could make it a chapel. If it is a consecrated place, people would come and maintain order. But a great deal of work is required, since groundwater makes its way into the area. Still, I hope that everything will be done, and a chapel would be set up where we could conduct baptisms, and also have a small reception hall.

Fr Rostislav was a wise and kind priest, and had encyclopedic knowledge. I did not know him well, having only seen him twice. Once it was during a youth conference in Brisbaine. I was young, I didnt even think I would become a priest, but I could not but notice Fr Rostislav. He stood out even among the other priests.

The original plan included frescoes on the walls and ceiling. Fr Rostislav wanted them to be done in the style of the 16th century. This work was only begun in 1980, and it continued for 12 years. This is when Fr Alexis Rosentool was Rector. He began the frescoes in the altar. A former parishioner, Antonina Ganina, began to help him. I must say that even during Fr Rostislavs lifetime, he inspired her to study church fresco-painting. After his death, Antonina and her family went to Jordanville in America, where she studied Orthodox icon-painting under Archimandrite Kyprian. Fr Alexis also studied there with her.

After returning to Australia, the two of them began to paint the frescoes of Protection Church in Cabramatta. Most of the work was left to Antonina, since Fr Alexis was at the same time the Rector, and he had many other duties and responsibilities.

- I must say, the frescoes are truly beautiful, worthy of the splendid architecture. The Cabramatta church now looks finished. It is too bad that the Cathedral in Strathfield does not have frescoes yet.

- Thank God, Fr George is talented in this regard. I hope with time that the frescoes will be done in the Cathedral, too. Returning to the history of our church, I recall that people helped build the church over the course of about ten years. The polykandelon [church chandelier] was gathered and assembled by Alexei Blednykh. There were many real masters among the parishioners, and they all tried to help.

- Before you, the Parish Rector was Fr Serafim, who now works at the Synod of Bishops in New York.

- Fr Serafim is the grandson of Fr Rostislav, he came from America as a young priest and was the Rector at Protection Church for over five years. He is very talented and well educated. He was joyfully received by the parish, and they came to love him. He did a great deal to bring young people to the parish. It was under him that we had our first church music conference. He invited his brother Vadim, who became the choir director. He participated in the glorification of the Chinese Martyrs. After some time, his health failed, and he asked to switch places with me; I had been serving at the Convent in Kentlyn. Later he and his brother returned to America and Fr Serafim is doing very important work for the Synod. Since then, I have been the Parish Rector here.

- Now the church is built, but there is a good deal of ongoing work to maintain as large a parish as yours is. Who among the parishioners helps you most?

- I have been here for nine years. I know that there are people who actively work and have helped for the entire history of the parish, more than 50 years. Among them are the Kraevsky family, Alexandra Vasilievna Spekhova, and others. One parishioners said my whole life revolves around the church. There are many people like that here. That is why everyone is so friendly in the parish.

- What is the parish like today? I know that on Pascha, a thousand people gather here. Besides the Cathedral, no other church in Sydney boasts such a quantity of parishioners.

- I think its not as many as that. The number of parishioners in many other parishes is going down. I remember a time when we were young, that in St Seraphims Church in Brisbaine, where I was a young parishioner, people could only stand in the entrance during a regular Sunday service. Now times have changed, but things will get better.

The number of parishioners in our parish has remained fairly steady over recent years. We have 3-4 evening services a week. This is possible because we have such talented choir directors. The main one is Andrei Laptev, the Cathedral helped us by sending him over, because they had two choir directors. We also have Nicholas Rotenko, who also came from the Cathedral. Ksenia Kopan leads the choir on weekdays. They are also helped by Anya Rotenko and Anya Dubova.
On average, some 10-12 people sing in the choir. Of course, on Pascha, there is not enough room for every singer, so we have 40-50 people.

- The Church is located on the west side of Sydney; who are your parishioners?

- Parishioners used to live not very far away. There were several families I know of living on this same street. Many families left for different neighborhoods, but they continue to attend services in our church. Some are from other areas, but they come here from the Blue Hils, Campbelltown, Blacktown, even Wollongong. Some of them drive for an hour, an hour and a half. It takes me 40 minutes to drive to church. The parishioners know their responsibilities, some of them date back from the times of Fr Rostislav or Fr Alexis. There are parishioners who came from China, and some, though not that many, who came here from post-War Europe. Now we have the new wave of immigrants from Russia, maybe not as many as in St Vladimir Church, or the Cathedral, but we have a few.

Among the parishioners are some people who are half-Russian, half-Chinese, and quite a few Serbs.

We have a wonderful sisterhood, where for many years, over twenty, Vera Paramonova is the Senior Sister. She works a lot herself, and she is well respected, emulated and supported by the others. We try to make the parishioners feel at home. The Sisterhood often hosts luncheons after church; we have the capability. We have a large church, there is a church hall where people can gather after services. Ten or fifteen times a year, we hold events here, lectures, or performances by the children of the parish school, or concerts by visiting artists.

- What improvements would you like to see her?

- We are now researching the possibility of drying out the basement and setting up a chapel there. We hope that in the future we can obtain real bells for the church. They make wonderful bells in Russia now. The church hall needs a renovated kitchen, which has been there for 30 years. Maybe we can expand the church hall. There are always new problem that need fixing, but I believe that our parishioners, which had endured more difficult times, will be able to handle them.

- Protection is your parish feast day. I know that you always have a large celebration, many priests from neighboring parishes come to serve, the full choir sings magnificently.

- It used to be that we did not have enough voices for a men's choir, but Andrei Laptev invited many young people to the choir, including basses and baritones. And more people attend services now. On our feast day we have an arrangement with our neighboring church in Fairfield wherein all of their parishioners come to our church. We do the same for them on the feast day of St Nicholas.

- Congratulations to you, all your clergymen and parishioners on your feast day, and we hope that all the unfinished portions of Fr Rostislavs projects will come to fruition.

Vladimir Kuzmin, Sydney


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