Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Phocas, Seraphim (1839–1917)

by Hugh Gilchrist and H. L. N. Simmons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Seraphim Phocas (1839?-1917), Greek Orthodox priest, was born at Madytus (Eceabat), south of Gallipoli, Turkey, son of Ioannis Phocas and his wife Susanna. Orphaned at 5, he was adopted and raised by his godfather and later studied for four years at Theological School of the Cross, Jerusalem. He became a schoolmaster and taught the Greek language on Crete until the late 1870s; he later claimed the Greek statesman Venizelos as a pupil. At Rhodes, about 1871, he married Maria Calezi. By 1880 he was at Alexandria where he founded and ran a school. In 1885 he was ordained by the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria and served as priest at Port Said and briefly on Rhodes and in Jerusalem. By decree (no.39) of the synod of Jerusalem, dated 13 January 1899, Phocas was appointed parish priest in Sydney, in response to a plea by Greeks and Syrians (Lebanese) in Sydney for a priest who could conduct the liturgy in Arabic as well as Greek. He only began to learn English on the voyage to Australia.

Accompanied by his wife and children, Fr Seraphim reached Sydney on 9 March 1899, bearing a letter of introduction from the British consul in Jerusalem to the premier of New South Wales. On 16 April he held the first service in and consecrated the new church of Hagia Trias (Holy Trinity), Bourke Street, Surry Hills. A house had been built and furnished for him by the congregation. He later decorated the church 'with wall paintings by his own hand'.

Dependent for his stipend on the offerings of the 500 members of the Greek Orthodox Church in New South Wales and barely able to speak English, Fr Seraphim Phocas occasionally officiated at marriages arranged by a matrimonial agency of doubtful repute. In March 1901 he was castigated by Justice Walker in the Clynes will case (over a claim by a tramdriver to the estate of a woman to whom he had been married by Phocas a fortnight before she died).

Apart from this incident, Phocas enjoyed a relatively tranquil time in Sydney, unmarked by disagreements with his flock and undisturbed by the transfer of ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Australia to the synod of Athens. He officiated at some 46 marriages and 300 baptisms of Greeks and Syrians, travelled to Brisbane, Wollongong and once to Perth. Although his manner and approach were rather austere, he served his mixed flock devotedly. His 'picturesque figure, with flowing, snowy beard and hair, long black gown, brimless top hat and umbrella, was familiar in Sydney streets'. In 1905 he translated into English a rather curious book, The Rabbi Isaac M… or the Blessings of Restitution, by N. C. Amvrazey; it was apparently the first Orthodox work printed in Australia, although overlooked by bibliographers. He also published at least one article in Nea Sion, the journal of the Jerusalem patriarchate, and was later awarded the title of great oeconomus of the throne.

Phocas retired in 1913 because of a heart condition. A model paterfamilias, he retained the affection and respect of his congregation. His five daughters married leading Greeks in Australia, including the oyster merchants John Comino and Mark Stamell and the hotelier Harry Corones. Survived by seven children, Phocas died on 15 August 1917 and was buried in Waverley cemetery. This talented and polyglot priest had served with distinction in holding together the mixed groups comprising the Orthodox congregation. The appointment of a less qualified successor led eventually to the splitting of Greeks and Arabs into separate communities.

Select Bibliography

  • K. D. Andronikou and G. Kentavrou, Zöe en Afstralia (Syd, 1916)
  • Bulletin, 23 Aug 1917
  • Sydney Mail, 22 Apr 1899
  • Australian Star (Sydney), 12, 26 Mar, 13 Apr 1901.

Citation details

Hugh Gilchrist and H. L. N. Simmons, 'Phocas, Seraphim (1839–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/phocas-seraphim-8041/text14021, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1839
Eceabat, Turkey

Death

15 August 1917

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation