Ambitious project to restore one of Norfolk’s rare Greek Orthodox churches

Greek Orthodox Church of St Spyridon in Great Yarmouth..

Greek Orthodox Church of St Spyridon in Great Yarmouth.. The church is having building work carried out to the tower. Picture: James Bass

Liz Coates – 24/8/13

Just a stone’s throw from Great Yarmouth’s seafront and its hubbub of attractions, St Spyridon’s is an oasis of colourful calm for the hundreds that worship there – many of whom are involved in the busy restaurant trade carrying on nearby.

Built in the 1830s as St Peter’s Church, the years have not been kind to the Grade II listed building which needs a host of critical repairs – especially to the tower where falling stones have threatened public safety.

Now stonemasons have got stuck into phase one of an ambitious ten year programme likely to cost around £1m – and stretch its enthusiastic community who under English Heritage rules have to raise 20pc of the cost.

Treasurer Peter Ioannou, 52, who is overseeing the project with Chris Savadis, said everyone was delighted to see the scaffolding up and stonemasons on site repairing the tower.

But problems and the scale of the works meant other planned repairs had be put on the back burner.

Setting the church on the road to recovery was a “courageous” step for everyone involved and a huge commitment given the congregation was already paying the running costs and for the priest, he added.

Under the trimmed schedule grant funding would pay to restore the tower but not the clock, so worshippers have shouldered the extra burden of paying to have the timepiece repaired and working for the first time in 20 years.

“We will have to find around £20,000 every year,” Mr Ioannou said. “It was a big decision from the community to make a start on a project like this. We are just literally ourselves.

“To raise the funds we are doing charity evenings in local restaurants and have all nationalities coming to support us.”

He said the orthodox community which includes people from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland among a growing range of nationalities felt it was their duty to maintain the church as part of the town’s historic fabric and to guarantee it for future generations.

“There has been a Greek presence here in Great Yarmouth since the 1940s and a number of people are buried here.

“The church is a very big part of our existence here – that was at the heart of our decision.

“When you bury someone in the ground you do not run away and leave them there. As long as there is a Greek soul here it is important that the church is open every day.”

Father Fotios Bithas – the only permanent Greek orthodox priest in Norfolk and Suffolk – said around 200 families were attached to the church with Sunday services seeing around 120 people.

The building also housed a community hall and Greek school.

The church celebrates 50 years as a Greek orthodox church in 2015.

Father Bithas, who is married with three daughters, said: “It is a big building and old building. It costs a lot to our community but we have to do this.”

Simon Thulborn, contracts supervisor for Essex-based Universal Stone, which has just finished re-pointing Framlingham Castle, said seven people were on site working on the tower.

The stone sound openings were just dangerous,” he said.

“Every winter with the frost damage they just shear off. Whole ones were missing so they must have come down at some stage. It really needed doing.”

St Spyridon’s is a Georgian building which pre-dates the rows of the Victorian terraces that enclose it.

It was built by JJ Scoles, the man behind St Mary’s Church in Regent Road and St Mary’s Church in Southtown.

It fell out of use in the 1960s and was taken on by the Greek community – saving it from the breaker’s-ball fate which 
befell many other redundant churches.

Mr Ioannou, who runs the Las Palmas restaurant on the Golden Mile, hailed the support and friendship of local people.

He said: “Trying to raise the funds is very difficult but the support we have had is amazing.

“It is all very expensive right down to the nails which have to be a specific type.”

To find more about the project or to make a donation towards it, contact Mr Ioannou on 01493 842866 or 07899950587. Cheques to be made payable to St Spyridon’s Church.