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.