By Charlotte King
Hundreds of thousands of Greek Australians attended church services over the weekend to mark Orthodox Easter, but a growing shortage of priests is leaving some congregations without a Minister.
Mildura has one Greek Orthodox Church – a stark white building that stands high above the neighbouring houses along the town’s main drag.
Greek Easter starts here, when hundreds from the region’s community fill the church to mark Holy Friday.
“Friday morning the women come to decorate [the epitaph] with flowers,” says Julie Kiapekos, who is involved with the committee that keeps the church going.
By the afternoon, the priest is blessing the congregation with oils, commemorating the death of Christ – but it is not until the evening that the numbers really start to swell.
The sombre evening service is attended by hundreds from Mildura’s Greek community, who then follow the epitaph out of the church, embarking on a procession along Deakin Avenue.
“That’s very important”, says Ms Kiapekos, “the service continues through that procession, the decorated epitaph symbolising the burial of Christ.”
The events continue into Saturday, culminating with a midnight mass and a late night supper of soup, made with offal, to mark the moment in the Orthodox faith when they believe Christ rose.
This is also when the hard boiled eggs come out, dyed red to symbolise the blood of Christ.
Family members play a game before the eggs are peeled open, to see whose egg will remain intact the longest when tapped against the others.
With all the ritual and tradition, it’s easy to forget that the man who would normally lead the Greek Orthodox community through the holy week no longer lives here; Mildura’s Greek Orthodox church has no Minister.
Alkristi Theofelos, another member of the congregation, says the community usually has to bring in a priest from South Australia for special events.
“For funerals or christenings or weddings, we get the Renmark priest,” she says.
“It’s a bit hard, because it’s the country, and a lot of young priests don’t want to come up.”
For Julie Kiapekos, the absence of an Orthodox priest in Mildura comes down to economics.
“People you know, disband” she says, “everyone’s growing up and choosing their own direction, and the oldies that remained here are becoming fewer and few, and so we’re not economically viable to be able to run and to be able to sustain a priest financially here.”
The Secretary of the Archdiocesan Council of the Greek Orthodox Church, Nicholas Papas, says that even if the congregation was increased, the problem would not go away.
Mr Papas says the shortage is across the country.
“With almost 800,000 Greek Orthodox faithful dispersed right across the country, instances like Mildura are not uncommon,” he says, “it’s been a source of considerable dismay for the Archdiocese.”
But the lack of a Greek Orthodox priest in Mildura hasn’t stopped the community from keeping their traditions alive.
As the festivities draw to a close on the Sunday, the Greek Community Hall fills with women making salads and tzatkiki, as a select group of men watch over rotating spits of lamb.
George Raftis helped to build the hall in 1954, when he was only 19 and says it makes him feel terrific to see the Greek community still using it.
“We have good times here”, he says.