The silver onion dome of St John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church, generally gleaming in the beautiful Canberra sun, stands out and is seen by thousands each day as the travel along Canberra Avenue between the City and Fyshwick and Queanbeyan. Not many take that extra step, and I didn’t for fifteen years, of detouring the hundred or so metres necessary off Canberra Avenue to visit this rather beautiful church, in the style of 14th century churches found in the Pskov and Novgorod regions of north-west of Russia.
St John’s, like all overseas Russian Orthodox churches, is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia affiliation, centred in New York and set up in 1920 when the communist government in Russia made it impossible for the church to function freely there. While not officially connected with the Moscow Patriarchate the Church Outside Russia shares a common faith with it.
The Australian and New Zealand Diocese of the church was established in 1946 though its first Ruling Bishop couldn’t take up office in Australia until late 1948 due to visa difficulties.
In 1952 the Canberra Orthodox community was created to cater for the spiritual needs of a number of Russian families living in Canberra and nearby Queanbeyan. The community formally became a Parish in 1966.
Until 1964, when a temporary church was built on this plot of land in Narrabundah, services were held in a variety of locations. Work on the current church commenced in 1974 though was not officially completed until 1988 when the iconostasis was erected and the church fully consecrated. 1988 also marked the millennium of Russia’s conversion to Christianity and the bicentennial of Australia, to both of which the church is dedicated.
In terms of services, the church’s primary services are an All Night Vigil each Saturday night commencing at 5pm followed by a Divine Liturgy service at 9am on Sunday morning. Confessions are heard during the Vigil service. The services are conducted mainly in Church Slavonic though some English is spoken.
The church appears to only be open during services and this in when I visited*. Internally it is quite small but stunningly beautiful with most of the artwork having be done by Russian artists from Sydney and Melbourne. Not wanting to disturb the service I was unable to look around as I would like to have done so my viewing was from inside the front door (a beautiful piece of work in itself). My one photo of the interior was surreptitiously taken from this vantage point, again so as to not disturb the worshipers – hence its relatively poor reflection of the interior.
Visitors are welcome to attend services.
Inside the front door is a small kiosk which is open every second Sunday after the Divine Liturgy. Here various books in Russian and English can be bought, together with neck crosses, mounted icons and nicely decorated Russian eggs.
The church also runs Russian language classes for both children and adults.
*I have subsequently been on an excellent through rare interior tour of the church, guided by the Dean, and will update this review in due course. Suffice to say, if you can get on one of these tours, go for it!
Address: 1 Matina St, Narrabundah ACT 2604