Hidden Joburg: The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen

by | Nov 17, 2022 | Hidden Joburg, Hillbrow/Yeoville, Johannesburg, Johannesburg City Centre, Museums and Buildings, Religion | 8 comments

For the newest installment in my Hidden Joburg series, I visited a church in Hillbrow that I’ve been curious about for years. The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen is around the corner from the Hillbrow Boxing Club, and I have driven, jogged, and walked past it many times. But I didn’t have the opportunity to visit until last week, when Thorsten and I dropped in for the end of the Sunday morning service.

Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen, Hillbrow
The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen is at the corner of Wolmarans and Nugget Streets in Hillbrow.

Hillbrow is considered one of Joburg’s most dangerous neighborhoods, and many of the historic churches and synagogues in the area have closed or moved. There are some notable exceptions though, and Saints Constantine and Helen is one of them. The cathedral, which is more than a century old and the spiritual heart of Joburg’s Greek Orthodox community, is perfectly maintained and still has an active (albeit small) congregation.

Outside the Orthodox Cathedral
Another look at the outside of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Inside the Greek Cathedral
Inside the cathedral after last Sunday’s service.
Inside the Greek Orthodox Cathedral
It’s surprisingly hard to capture the interior in pictures, as the chandeliers get in the way of the paintings on the walls and ceiling. But it’s dazzling.
Cathedral pulpit
A closer view of the pulpit and the iconostasis, a screen that separates the nave from the sanctuary.
Dome of Greek Orthodox Cathedral
The paintings in the dome portray Jesus surrounded by the first four apostles: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This photo doesn’t properly convey the size of the dome; it’s massive, supported by four pendentives that basically hold the whole place up.
The only shot I could get of the stunning Virgin Mary painting above the pulpit. The paintings on either side of Mary portray Saints Constantine and Helen.
Cathedral sketch by the Thinking Hand
A lovely cathedral sketch by Thorsten, a.k.a. @thethinking_hand.

History of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral

Joburg has always had a significant population of Greek immigrants, who founded the Hellenic Community here in 1908. Saints Constantine and Helen, named for Constantine the Great and his mother, Saint Helen, was designed in the Byzantine style by architect Hermann Kallenbach (best known for his close friendship to Mahatma Gandhi). The church opened in 1913 and became a cathedral in 1927. Kallenbach designed the church to resemble the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, although Saints Constantine and Helen is only a fraction of the Hagia Sophia’s size.

Painting in pulpit of Greek Cathedral
This gold painting, together with its twin on the other side of the iconostasis, was brought from Greece when the church was first built. They are very old, priceless artifacts.
Inside the Greek Orthodox Cathedral
There are so many interesting religious paintings and relics all over the cathedral.
Heritage plaque at Saints Constantine and Helen
The cathedral has a QR code! I love that.

Rev. George Kokonas, Vicar of Saints Constantine and Helen, is an 83-year-old dynamo who has been running the cathedral for more than 40 years.

Father George and parishoner
Father George and one of his parishioners.

Father George has lived in Joburg since 1964 and speaks with a heavy Greek accent — most of the services in the cathedral are conducted in Greek. Father George is extremely welcoming to visitors and even invited me to take a photo with him in the pulpit.

Heather and Father George
Father George and me. (Photo: Alex Rawlings)

We weren’t there for the entire service but it was beautiful, with an incredible choir chanting throughout. After the service we stopped in to the Hellenic Cultural Centre, a very interesting mid-century building next door, for tea and cake.

Hellenic Cultural Centre in Hillbrow
The Hellenic Cultural Centre.
Wall inside the Hellenic Cultural Centre
I love this wall sculpture inside the centre.

Our visit to Saints Constantine and Helen was short but fascinating. Thanks to Alex Rawlings, a friend I randomly met on Instagram who also has a great interest in the cathedral, for arranging it. Father George and his congregation seem quite open to visitors so please send me a message if you’re interested.

I’ve now visited 19 of the places featured in the Hidden Johannesburg book. Only nine to go! Browse all of my posts about Hidden Joburg places here.

8 Comments

  1. dizzylexa

    It’s a beautiful Cathedral and have been a few times. It reminds me that I need to attend a “Holy Saturday and Harrowing of Hades/hell” where they make a lot of noise by banging on the pews or with sticks. Great photos.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      That sounds fascinating.

      Reply
  2. Kathy Kottaridis

    Greetings from Boston Massachusetts — and from a Greek Orthodox Christian! Curious if you know whether there was once a Greek immigrant neighborhood surrounding this church? Read the wonderful memoir of attny George Bizos a few years back that talked about his WW-2 arrival in Joburg as a refugee and the existing Greek community that welcomed him.

    Great article — I really enjoy your explorations of a wonderful city and country!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks so much, Kathy. Before the 1990s, Hillbrow was a melting pot for white immigrants from all over Europe — perhaps particularly for Greeks and Jews. But I’m not an expert one this! Maybe someone else will chime in.

      Reply
      • Sattinger Lisa

        An uncle, Stennie Michos, told us stories of travelling the countryside with his Godfather raising money to build the church. He had rich tales of the community’s determination and enthusiasm to build a beautiful place of worship for Jhb’s growing Greek community in those days. They had tremendous vision because the cathedral shaped the values of many generations of SA’s Greek Orthodox community.
        Our parents married there in 1962 as did many other family members, before and after that date. Family Christenings were held there too. As I recall, until the church in Melrose was built, this was THE main Greek Orthodox church in Jhb. As children in the ‘60’s we attended Greek lessons there and services at Easter and Christmas were jam packed with people from all over Jhb. People spilled out the doors and if you were late you had to push yourself step by step nearer to entering as people shifted position slightly. Dances were held there for match making purposes as well – parents forever on the watch – it was quite an institution. Your article captures its beauty and evokes much nostalgia and fresh memories of it as a hub for the Greek community over many years. Well done.

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Thank you so much, Lisa! Those are great stories.

          Reply
    • Sonia Phocas

      There were many Greeks that lived in Hillbrow and Yeoville area back in the day. Both areas are near the church. My parents got married there in the 60s and so did my husband and I, 30 years later. My parents still go regularly and my husband and I now live in Austin Texas. I was just at the church a month ago! It’s beautiful

      Reply
      • 2summers

        That’s so cool!

        Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: