Tuesday, 25 February 1997

An Irishman’s Diary:
St Paul’s Church, Athens

St Paul’s in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Following the footsteps of St Paul, who preached at the Agora on the slopes of the Acropolis, it seems only natural to find an English-speaking church in the Greek capital that should be called St Paul’s.

It is more surprising for an Irish visitor to realise that the early story of St Paul’s Anglican Church is intimately associated with the life of a Cork born hero of the Greek War of independence, Sir Richard Church. St Paul’s, an early Victorian Gothic church, stands on the corner of Philellenon Street and Queen Amalia Avenue, opposite the National Gardens

But the Anglican chaplain in Athens, the Rev Keith Harrison, denies St Paul’s is some kind of English outpost in the Greek capital. He points out that the congregation includes a considerable number of Irish, Americans, Canadians, Australians and South Africans.

The church was built on land bought from the Turks before the Greek War of independence, and the foundation stone was laid on Easter Monday, 1838, by the British Minister in Athens, Sir Edmund Lyons, later Lord Lyons (1790-1838), whose family had emigrated from Ireland to Antigua in the previous century. St Paul’s stands within sight of Hadrian’s Gate, which marked the end of the old Hellenistic and classical city of Athens and the new city built by the Emperor Hadrian.

Philellenon Street was only laid out in 1855, so the church once had an unimpeded view of the Acropolis rising over the old city. Today, St Paul’s is within easy walking of many of the main tourist attractions, including the Plaka and the Acropolis, and is only a block away from Parliament and Syndagma Square.

The church can seat 130 to 150 people comfortably; the congregation often reaches that number, and it is over flowing at times like Christmas. The people at St Paul’s are active in local life, and 10 per cent of church income is donated to local Greek charities and causes.

Irishman in Athens

The treasurer of St Paul’s, Dr David Green, is an Irishman working in Athens for the University of Glamorgan and married to a Greek woman. Recent Irish members of the congregation include John O’Carroll, general manager of the Inter-Continental Hotel, and his wiles Esther, and Geoffrey Mayes, who was a lay assistant in St Paul’s. The organist, Dr Richard Witt, a classicist working with the Open University, greeted me with the news that he was a great fan of Myles na Gopaleen and The Irish Times.

The Irish Ambassador, Mr Michael Rigney, has visited St Paul’s too, as have the Papal Nuncio and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Athens. In the past, distinguished visitors to St Paul’s have included Archbishop George Carey, Archbishop Robert Runcie, and Archbishop William Temple, who preached at the centenary celebrations in 1938.

Greek Struggle

Philelleon Street is an appropriate location for an English speaking church the street was named after those English-speaking lovers of Hellenic civilisation and culture, including Palmerston, Codrington and the poet Byron, who actively supported the Greek struggle for independence.

Two windows in St Paul’s commemorate one of those Philhellenes, the Irish adventurer, Richard Church (1784-1875). Sir Richard Church was born in Cork, the second son of Massey Church, a prosperous Quaker butter merchant and exporter. Church ran away from his Quaker school to join the army, and served under Abercrombie in Egypt in 1801. Later that year, he accompanied the expedition to the Ionian Islands, where he raised a Greek regiment that included Theodoros Kolokotronis and other future Greek leaders.

In vain, Church pleaded the Greek cause in London and at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. He lived in Naples and Sicily until his expulsion in 1820, and in 1822 he was knighted by King George IV. But he soon returned to Greece, to join the War of Independence, and in April 1827 he was appointed commander in chief of the Greek forces.

The historian CM Woodhouse suggests that Church, as an Irishman, and the commander of the Greek navy, Lord Cochrane, who was born in Scotland, may have fought for Greek independence as “a sublimation for their own suppressed nationalism”.

Church and Cochrane insisted on Greek unity before accepting their commands, and their pressures resulted in the election of Kapodistrias as president in 1827 and the adoption of a new, liberal constitution. Church resigned his command because of his opposition to the government of Kapodistrias.

Later he was confidential adviser to Sir Edward Lyons (later Lord Lyons), the first British Minister to Greece, who was descended from a distinguished Dublin family.

Conspicuous Part

Church played a conspicuous part in the revolt of 1843 and lived on in Greece becoming a Greek citizen, a senator and member of the council of state, inspector general of the Greek Army, and a pillar of the Anglican church in Athens. He died in Athens on March 20th, 1873, and two windows in St Paul’s, the north window and the south window are dedicated to his memory.

The two light north window, presented by the British Government in 1875, depicts the figures of Caleb and Joshua. It is said that the inscription on the brass tablet beneath was written in honour of Church by the British Prime Minister, Gladstone, a personal friend of his nephew, the Very Rev Richard William Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, from 1871 to 1890.

Dean Church (1815-1890) and other members of Sir Richard’s family presented the south window in 1875. The window depicts Gideon and David, the story of the dew and the fleece, and David slaying Goliath.

Dean Church, who became the leader of the High Church party in the Church of England after Pusey’s death, was a reforming force in St Paul’s Cathedral along with Liddon and Lightfoot, who were two of his canons.

The historian of the Oxford Movement, the Dean was a personal friend of both Newman and Gladstone. True to his Irish origins, Church had identified himself with Newman from his days at Oxford when he protested against the government decision to reduce the number of bishops in the Church of Ireland.

The Friends of St Paul’s can be contacted through the Honorary Secretary, c/o the British Embassy, 1 Ploutarchou Street, Athens 10675, Greece.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ as ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ on 25 February 1997.