how the north essex orthodox parish started

In the spring of 1995 the British Antiochian Orthodox Deanery was founded. At the end of that year Alistair Haig, with his wife and family, were received into Orthodoxy, and moved into "Britain's Oldest Recorded Town". So the work began in Colchester.

an anglican past

For 30 years he had been an Anglican Priest, ministering in Forest Gate (East London), Laindon in Basildon (Essex), South Woodham Ferrers (Essex), and Bath (Somerset).

He concluded that period of his life as "Dean of Bocking, Commissary of the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury" in the Archbishop's ancient and historic "peculiar jurisdiction" of Bocking, near Braintree (Essex), not far from Colchester.

He left on good terms with the Anglican authorities, from the highest downwards. It has been a mark of St Helen's parish life that good relations have been maintained with the Anglican authorities, who have been most helpful in these early days of the Orthodox work here.

the change

But he had felt it time to move into the Holy Orthodox Church, which he had known and loved since his teen-age years. "Alistair" was chrismated as "Alexander", a different form of his Gaelic name, to make the point that he had not deeply changed his faith from classic Anglicanism, but had indeed changed in the manner of practising his faith. It was also a more understandable form of his name for many Orthodox people.

Both his wife Hilary and their three children came with him into Orthodoxy. Father Samir Gholam received and chrismated them all together at St George's Antiochian Cathedral, London in December 1995.

stage 1: founding the new parish

The family moved into Colchester, and became the nucleus of the new parish. They were joined by only two or three others associated with them before the move, none from his Anglican parish, and began public worship, lay-led, in March 1996, at St Paul's Anglican Church.

That May, BISHOP GABRIEL ordained Alexander as Deacon in the Greek Cathedral of St Stephen in Paris.

But, soon after, disaster struck, for both Orthodox and Anglican congregations at St Paul's: the 19th century building was declared dangerous and necessarily closed without warning, subsequently being demolished. For two weeks the parish worshipped in the church hall, where three more converted were received into the Church.

stage 2: at the co-op chapel

... everything had to be put out on Saturday before Vespers, and removed after Holy Liturgy ...

Then, in September 1996, Father Alexander was raised to the Holy Priesthood by BISHOP GABRIEL, again in the Greek Cathedral in Paris. God had already been gracious, for, just a week or so before, the Parish moved into the Co-operative Funeral Chapel.

Expecting to be there just a short time, the Parish actually stayed four years - perhaps a slightly odd location, but the Chapel adapted quite well for Orthodox worship, and the Co-operative Society were kind and generous hosts.

But everything had to be put out on Saturday before Vespers, and removed after Holy Liturgy next day, and there were no weekday services: the life of the Parish was therefore at a rather muted level.

However, further members were received into the Church, and several converts of longer standing joined them, together with numbers of cradle-Orthodox - many from Greece and Cyprus, including some of the many Greek students at the University of Essex.

All the while, various possible homes were explored, and the Parish was frustrated in securing premises on two or three occasions. It was as if the Devil himself were trying to frustrate the purposes of God.

stage 3: finding our own premises

... privileged to have this lovely building for the moment, and are most grateful to the Colchester Borough Council ...

Then in November 2000, God looked on us from his heaven and provided St Helen's Chapel, a real home for us that we could rejoice in for many reasons:

However, St Helen's Chapel is not yet our permanent home. We have it on a two-year licence, with a possible extension to four years. After that we shall need another home, and the possibility of our having nearby St Martin's Church (also a pre-Schism foundation) continues to be discussed with its owners, the Churches Conservation Trust in London.

But we feel privileged to have this lovely building for the moment, and are most grateful to the Colchester Borough Council who have graciously, willingly, and indeed enthusiastically and generously sub-let it to us. The owners, the Church of England Diocese of Chelmsford have kindly agreed to this arrangement, and we are most grateful to them also.

The building was in good physical condition, apart from the porch. We have painted the interior and installed a home-made but fine iconostasis, with icons mounted at the Monastery of St John the Baptist. The Parish Icon of St Helen, by Eleni Stellakis of Athens (shown on the homepage of our website), has a shrine beside the iconostasis, and we hope it may become a focus for the prayers of the Orthodox people not only in Colchester, but even from a distance. We have also repaired the porch. This work has been largely done by one of our members largely on his own, and at the time of writing his work continues.

Parish life gradually expands, both in numbers and in the life that we are able to lead together. It is an all-age community: elderly people, middle-aged, young adults, teenagers, children, and while our worship is mostly in English, we have people from Greece and Cyprus, Serbia, Russia, Romania and other countries. There is a great work to be done here, and much potential on several fronts.

the monastery of st john the baptist

We cannot finish this account of our history without some mention of the celebrated Monastery of St John the Baptist, which is just ten miles away, at Tolleshunt Knights, near Tiptree. We are sometimes asked what the need is for the existence of this new parish when the Monastery is there.

Orthodox people from the locality and from far away do indeed worship and are made welcome there.

But of course the Monastery does not exercise any parochial style of ministry, is not a parish church, does not perform marriages or baptisms, does not take the Holy Gifts to the sick, and so on. The Parish enjoys happy relations with the Monastery. It is recognized that, in a wide area, St Helen's was until recently the only Orthodox parish, with a parish life and ministry.

a parish ministry of mission and pastoral care

Indeed, until the Parish was started, it was clear that many Orthodox people in Colchester and district were "as sheep with no shepherd".

Now, with the work in Colchester itself, and in the University of Essex, at Clacton-on-sea, and at Basildon, the situation has completely changed. Certainly Orthodox people in north-east Essex and nearby parts of Suffolk are now within comparatively easy distance of a Priest and a worshipping community.

St Helen's Parish and its Priest have the opportunity and privilege of providing worship and pastoral care for the hundreds of Orthodox households of the area. We pray that we may be worthy of that honour, and able at least to some small degree to fulfill those responsibilities.

May God be glorified, and his Name honoured in this ancient and historic town, and in all the district, now and for evermore.