The church is dark except for candles lit here and there, and the golden gleam of icons. Father Charalambos, in white robes with gold embroidered crosses, is chanting as he walks slowly around the space carrying a wooden cross.
It is Holy Thursday during Greek Orthodox Easter in a small red-brick church, a stone’s throw from Clayton’s once-bustling shopping strip.
The camera follows the priest, then pans back to reveal row after row of empty seats. It seems abandoned, until you realise that the real congregation is still out there – and growing faster than it has in years.
As anyone who has watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding will know, large animated gatherings are in many ways, an essential part of being Greek.
But with church services initially banned, and congregations then limited to 20 due to the coronavirus, young parishioners have taken it upon themselves to lead their otherwise traditional church into the new world of “distance worshipping”.
In fact, Three Hierarchs has been embracing technology – now including a live stream of all services – for years thanks to its younger members.
Their Facebook page, now seven years old, was set up by a young committee member, Peter Koulouris. Now the vice treasurer, Koulouris was part of the skeleton crew that helped organise the Easter live stream.
“It was devastating,” he says, remembering the empty chairs during the services.
“In the beginning [of the crisis], our parishioners would call and see if they could get in. Like, is this really happening?”
While the services continued behind closed doors, only a few Greek churches in Victoria, and usually only the largest, managed to set up lives streams for the faithful to watch.
For Three Hierarchs, the gambit has succeeded beyond expectations. Not only are they now delivering virtual services for existing parishioners, but an unexpected benefit has been that the congregation seems to have grown.
The church usually attracts around 300 worshippers, but this year their Easter live stream got between 500 to 1000 views.
The vice-president of the church committee, Bill Pagomenos, says the number of viewers could be much higher considering that families likely watched the service together.
“It’s a humble set-up,” says Pagomenos, of the live-stream technology. “Literally a tripod for a phone with a piece of paper jammed in so the phone doesn’t move, and an extension cord so the battery doesn’t go flat.”
Yet, he says, “We’re actually, through this crisis, reaching out to more people – and I’m not sure any of us expected that as an outcome.”
He says young people have played an important role in connecting the community, especially the elderly who may not be as tech-savvy. Younger parishioners have been phoning him for weeks, he says, about how to set up the services for their parents and older relatives.
Pagomenos’ 16-year-old son, Andrew, was one of the altar boys who helped with the Easter service. He says his entire family, “grandparents, mum, and my younger brother”, watched the Easter live stream together at home.
“My grandparents thought the live stream was pretty cool. It was weird for them at first. They were a bit confused and didn’t know how it worked, but they really got around it.
“It meant a lot to them that they were still able to experience Easter.”
The shift has also had benefits for the young.
Eryn Dessiniotis is the marketing officer for the Victorian branch of the National Union of Greek Australian Students (NUGAS). She is also a Monash University student in Clayton. She says young people have been using social media to share Greek traditions such as Easter baking, a job usually left to their highly skilled mothers or grandmothers.
Over Easter, she helped get a thread going on the NUGAS Instagram account so young people could reshare their Easter baking. “We’ve even had someone making ikones [Greek Orthodox icons]. I thought that was amazing. She was handcrafting them herself.
“Someone was also working at a childcare centre and she got her three and four-years olds to make koulourakia [Easter biscuits].
Dessiniotis says it was the first time she had helped with the Greek Easter baking. “It’s a good time for getting in touch with the traditions I think, being in isolation, being able to reflect, do some research and talk to your yiayia on the phone about it.”
But for all these surprise gifts, the impact of the coronavirus for Greek Orthodox churches such as Three Hierarchs has been enormous. Pagomenos says the church has traditionally relied for income on cash donations from parishioners – especially during important events such as Greek Easter, which accounts for about a third of the church’s yearly income.
These days, the bills are still coming in, but the cash is down to a trickle.
“We did get some assistance from the government which has helped greatly,” says Pagomenos,“[But] even with the government grant, we still fall short.”
It is possible that, here too, new technologies introduced by the younger members of the parish may become a lifeline for the church in the future.
Some Greek churches have been putting their account details on their Facebook pages for digital donations. Three Hierarchs is not at that point yet. But, says Koulouris, it may get there. “It depends on how long this goes on for.”
In the meantime, it looks as if the live stream may become a permanent feature.
“We were actually discussing how we can add new camera angles and better positions,” says Koulouris, “add special effects.”
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