A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ST. SAVA CHURCH, FLEMINGTON AND OF ITS FOUNDING PRIEST, REV. FR. MILENKO STEFANOVIĆ
“The story of the St. Sava Church, the first Serbian Orthodox church built and consecrated in Australia, in the Sydney suburb of Flemington, is in fact, the story of its founding priest, Fr. Milenko Stefanović and all those Serbian faithful who participated in its construction.”
Excerpt from the book: “GOLDEN JUBILEE OF THE ST. SAVA CHURCH, FLEMINGTON THE FIRST SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH BUILT IN AUSTRALIA 1954 – 2004” By Prof. S. Zivković
The Early Days of Serbian Orthodox Settlement in Australia
Whilst the 1901 Census recorded 1,000 Serbian immigrants living in Australia, the first real wave of settlement occurred after World War II, from 1948 to 1955.
During this period, those displaced Serbians who were anti-Communist and who could not return to Yugoslavia because it had been placed under Communist rule, came to Australia from resettlement camps in Germany, Austria and Italy, as government-assisted settlers.
At that time, in Australia, there were no opportunities for the newly arrived Serbs to observe their religious beliefs. Fortunately, as more immigrants arrived, with them came three Serbian Orthodox priests.They were Reverend Fr. Ilija Bulovan, Reverend Fr. Svetozar Sekulić and the youngest of the three, Fr. Milenko Stefanović.
During those first and most difficult days of Serbian settlement, despite not having even one Serbian Orthodox church in Australia, it was a great comfort to the Serbian community to have their priests, who could officiate at christenings, weddings, Feast Days (Slave) and funerals, as well as attend to other religious matters on their behalf.
Fr Milenko Stefanović – The Early Years
Milenko Stefanović was born on May 25th1916, in the village of Gornja Grbica near Kragujevac.
Young Milenko attended the high school in Kragujevac and subsequently, at the request of his father, he enrolled at the theological college in Prizren, (Kosovo and Metohija region of Serbia).
On January 14th, 1940, Milenko was ordained by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch, His Holiness Gavrilo (Dozić), in the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, “Synaxis of the Saint Archangel Michael”, in Belgrade.
Fr. Milenko was assigned to serve as parish priest at the church of St. Ilija, in the village of Zupanjevac, near Kragujevac. He had only served there for eight months, when World War II broke out and he was then mobilised as a military chaplain into the Šumadija Division of the Royal Yugoslav Army with the rank of Captain.
Fr. Milenko was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Osnabruck, in Germany, where he continued to carry out his priestly duties.
Fr. Milenko Arrives in Australia
At the end of WWII, Yugoslavia had fallen under the atheistic communist regime. Consequently, Fr. Milenko decided to migrate to Australia because, as he said: “I was guaranteed the freedom to serve God and the Serbian people”.
Fr. Milenko arrived in Sydney on December 31st, 1949, after a journey of several months aboard the ship “SS Fairsea”.
Initially, as part of the immigration requirements in force at the time, each migrant was required to work in a government-nominated job to pay off the cost of their passage to Australia. Fr Milenko was contracted to work for two years in the men’s shirt department of the David Jones’ city store.
The First Liturgical Services
From the very outset, Fr. Milenko was keen to build a Serbian Orthodox church in Sydney where he could hold regular services. Fr. Milenko had forged a strong relationship with the Anglican authorities in Sydney and they would provide invaluable assistance to him in his endeavours to provide liturgical services to the Serbian community.
With the support of the Dean of St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, Rev. Stuart Barton Babbage, Fr. Milenko was initially allowed to hold church services in Chapter House, which was a small building, adjacent to the Anglican Cathedral, near Sydney Town Hall.
The Formation of a Parish
Sometime later, the Anglican authorities allowed Fr. Milenko the use of another church, St. Paul’s in Redfern. It was here on January 28th, 1951, following the Feast of St. Sava celebrations, that a church committee was formed. It comprised 19 notable and well-respected members of the Serbian community, with Fr. Milenko as its Chairman.
That same day, Fr. Milenko, together with all of the members of the committee, prepared a statement addressed to all Serbian men and women, as well as to the friends of the Serbian community, announcing the formation of a parish and their intention to build the first Serbian Orthodox church in Australia.
This committee would undertake the task of organising the fund raising, planning and construction of the church, which would be duly dedicated to and named “St. Sava”, in honour of the first Serbian Archbishop, luminary and teacher.
Construction of the First Serbian Orthodox Church in Australia
The Serbian community rallied around the committee and gave generously to the Church fund. A suitable site was chosen, close to the railway station at 34 Hampstead Rd., in the Sydney suburb of Flemington. On December 3rd, 1952, a 25% deposit of £125 was paid to secure the land.
At the beginning of 1953, Fr. Milenko wrote to the then Serbian Patriarch, Vikentije, informing him of the intention to build the first Serbian Orthodox church in Australia and requested the Patriarch to grant him a charter and his blessing to build the church. This approval was granted in a letter to Fr. Milenko dated March 13th, 1953.
Preparatory work for the church’s construction began on March 31st, 1953, following the holy service. One week later, on April 6th,the foundation stone was laid in the presence of a large number of the Serbian congregation and the friends of the Serbian community in Sydney.
It is a testament to both Fr. Milenko and his congregation that nearly all of the building materials for the church were donated by various generous individuals. Funds were also raised through donations for the purchase of essential services such as building permits, connecting the electricity and water etc.
Equally all of the physical labour for the construction of the Church was also provided by Fr. Milenko and the members of the Serbian community. Many individuals would volunteer their time to work on weekends, public holidays or during their annual leave days. Overall it would take approximately 12 months to complete the construction and internal fit-out of the Church building.
Once the construction phase was completed Fr. Milenko, in the presence of a large number of the Serbian faithful, as well as invited dignitaries, carried out the priestly consecration of the church on Palm Sunday, April 18th, 1954.
English translation: Ms Lenka Bararon
The book: “GOLDEN JUBILEE OF THE ST. SAVA CHURCH, FLEMINGTON THE FIRST SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH BUILT IN AUSTRALIA 1954 – 2004” By Prof. Slobodan Zivković can be bought at the Church.