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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
That sounds fascinating.
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!
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.
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
That’s so cool!