Sydenham: The battle to save iconic Coptic Church reaches fiery climax.

Photo sydenham 8.5.17

It is now almost a week since the Coptic Community was rocked by reports of a deliberate fire at the historic St Mary and St Mina’s Coptic Orthodox Church at Sydenham.  A lot has happened since then.  Till today, no one knows who was responsible for the fire as focus shifts to saving the iconic church building from demolition.  

2 May 2017 – Media reports of a fire at the old Coptic Church at Sydenham. Dozens of members of Coptic Community turn up to the Sydney suburb of Sydenham to see check on their church with many turned away by emergency workers following road blocks. The fire was contained and eyewitnesses at the scene (including ACM members and fire station staff) confirmed minimal damage was reported to the back of the church. (check out live feeds and interviews from our Facebook page on Tuesday night).

3 MAy 2017 – The Inner West City Council (Formerly Marrickville Council) sent a letter to the Australian Coptic Heritage and Community Services (ACHCS) advising them of the council’s intention to demolish the church as soon as possible citing fire as an example.  The team at ACHCS has been working hard to acquire the church ever since negotiations between the Diocese and Council officially ended in 2015. Since then, ACHCS , with the backing of the Coptic Community and many organisations (National Trust, Marrickville Heritage Society) succeeded in convincing the State Government to issue an interim order to stop the planned demolition of the site.

4 May 2017 –  ACHCS invites community to attend a gathering outside the church at Railway Road, Sydenham.

5 May 2017 –  ACM receives a letter from Department of Local Government advising us that the NSW Government is unable to assist with ‘day to day council business’.  This is despite earlier indications of sympathy and cooperation.

6 May 2017 –  Many members of Coptic Community and neighbours gather outside Sydenham church despite short notice. The local Federal Member, Anthony Albanese MP and Rev Hon Fred Nile are among the guests that address the crowd.

8-May 2017 – ACHCS legal representatives commence action against demolition. Threat of demolition still exists though ACHCS have been advised that no demolition will occur before the weekend.

This is an excerpt from a blog of an independent eyewitness who attended the rally on Saturday.

Is demolishing this building a big deal?  Yes. I think so.  This was the first Coptic Church, not only in Australia, but also outside of the Nile Valley, so it most firmly ticks the heritage box.

First functioning as the Tempe Park Methodist Church, it was purchased by the Coptic community in 1968 & re-consecrated as St Mary and St Mina’s Coptic Orthodox Church.  The National Trust describes the building as being “rare & nationally significant”.

Anthony Albanese MP Federal Member for Grayndler & Reverend Fred Nile, leader of the Christian Democratic party both attended to support the community in saving this heritage building.

The following is what I managed to write down.  I did my best to take it all down verbatim, but all mistakes are mine.

First up to speak was Ms Hanan Ghabour, Director of the Australian Coptic Heritage & Community Services.   She said the Interim Heritage Order protecting the building ended on 22nd August 2016.   The Coptic community have had the building independently assessed & have been told it will take $2-million to renovate.  Inner West Council says it will need $5-million to renovate.

There was a small fire last Tuesday night, that caused limited damage to areas that would need to be renovated anyway.  The fire service were said not to be concerned about the safety of the building.

Representatives of the Coptic community last met with Inner West Council on 3rdMarch 2017 & have not heard back regarding their offers to renovate the building.

She said Mr Pearson, the Administrator of Inner West Council, said he had three options –

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Do what the previous council had decided, or
  3. Start a third tender process, which will take 4-years.

I felt her despair with getting nowhere with the Inner West Council.

She said Reverend Fred Nile has attended every meeting with the Inner West Council & has lobbied hard to retain this building.

She had been told that Ms Gabrielle Upton MP, New South Wales Minister for the Environment, the Minister for Local Government & the Minister for Heritage cannot intervene & that it was up to the Inner West Council as to what they want to do with the building.

The community is asking the State & Federal governments to intervene & recognize the heritage importance & protect the building. They have also asked Anthony Albanese to stop the demolition.

She said that in Egypt important buildings to Coptic Christians are being demolished all the time, so for it to happen here makes the Australian Coptic community feel further persecuted.

The Inner West Council said they will take out the bricks from the church one at a time & use them to make a footpath in Sydenham Green.  She said this was not respectful. 

[I nearly choked when I heard this.  Council are supposed to be experts on multicultural issues.  Even I know that you cannot get lower than have people & dogs walk on what was once the walls of a church & I am pretty sure this would be regarded as offensive to other Christian faiths, Muslims, Hindus & Buddhists.  In many cultures, even pointing your feet towards a sacred object or a holy person, is deemed offensive.]

She said the Coptic community is a community that causes no problems & they receive no funding for programs.  The Coptic community bought the church in the 60s for $40,000.  The church is also a war memorial.

The community is prepared to request an injunction order on Monday.

Next, Reverend Fred Nile spoke. He said the Coptic community want to save the building & that it should be used as a Coptic centre, a community centre & a museum.

Reverend Nile said he did not trust Inner West Council’s assessment that the building walls were going to collapse & that people will be injured.

He said Council never took care of the church building & they watched it get vandalised.  They have a responsibility to help restore & renovate the building.  The community’s quote for renovation was $2-million.  Mr Pearson said it will require $5-million.  He said he found Mr Pearson negative & exaggerating the cost.

Next Anthony Albanese addressed the crowd.  He said, “This was the first Coptic church outside the Nile Valley & if that’s not heritage, I don’t know what is.”  The community came to Australia to make Australia their home & participate in the community.

“We do not have a Council.  We have an Administrator & no democratic process.”

He said he had spoken with Luke Foley MP, Leader of the Opposition who is committed to standing up for the community & will make representations to Gabrielle Upton, the Minister for Heritage.  He said the State government must stop this order & that he will raise the issue with the Federal government.  “A win here is important for the Coptic community & everyone else.”

He said The Coptic church in Egypt is under siege.  The Australian government can send a message.  We need to represent people of all faiths.  One way to do this is to restore heritage & have a museum & a centre of focus here.  He also pledged solidarity with the community forever.

Then the Coptic Priest addressed the crowd & I left.

My feelings were strong on the bicycle ride home.  This was an engaged, well behaved & intelligent community who in my mind are desperately trying to save a building that does have important heritage connections both for the Coptic community & the Inner West community.

I believe the building should be retained.  Council spends huge amounts of money on all kinds of things that do not have much of an impact, but cost a lot (eg.  The red meshing pattern on the road surface at intersections in the Marrickville shopping strip.  This is to inform drivers of a 40mph speed limit.  The speed limit happens naturally anyway.  Most of the time I travel 25mph along there because this is the speed vehicles are traveling.)

I do believe Council has left the building to decay.   I do believe that the bottom half of Marrickville & definitely Tempe, Sydenham & St Peters have not had much happening for them in comparison to the northern suburbs of the former Marrickville LGA – at least this is my perception over the near 8-years I have been doing this blog.

The Station Master’s property at Tempe was heritage listed, but the same building in Sydenham was forgotten to be assessed by Marrickville Council & therefore not covered by any heritage listing.    Then there was the DA to remove 23 mature trees on the property.  Then somehow, not only were all the trees removed, but the house was also demolished.  Another piece of Sydenham history gone.   Local people care about this, as they care about the fate of the Coptic church building.

Sydenham Green will not benefit by this 1902 building being demolished.  However, both the park & the wider community will benefit by keeping an important heritage building for future generations.  Slowly we are watching heritage be destroyed for high-rise & visually, I think this is a major loss of the character of the area. 

I hope the Coptic community wins.  I hope this building can be saved, renovated & start being a place for the community for now & for the future.  (see full report at https://savingourtrees.wordpress.com/) 

We encourage you to follow the Australian Coptic Heritage and Community Services Facebook page and support them in any way possible.  We are doing all we possibly can regarding this important issue.

The Australian Coptic Movement Association

Photo taken 8 May 2017

Photo taken 8 May 2017

Sydenham rally image Albo and Fred

Left to Right Hanan Ghabour, Rev Hon Fred Nile and Hon Anthony Albanese

 

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