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The front of what was once the St Mary and St Mina’s Coptic Orthodox Church – “rare & nationally significant”

left to right – Ms Hanan Ghabour, Director of the Australian Coptic Heritage & Community Services, Anthony Albanese MP Federal Member for Grayndler & Reverend Fred Nile, leader of the Christian Democratic party.

I have just returned from a peaceful, intelligent & passionate protest where around 70-80 people met beside the Coptic Church at Sydenham Green to protest Inner West Council’s decision to demolish the building next Monday 8th May 2017.

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 3rd March 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.

There is an excellent article from the Marrickville Heritage Society Jan/Feb 2016 Newsletter on the Australian Coptic Heritage & Community Services website where the Society says, “Council should be ashamed of the neglectful & careless manner in which they have managed this potential community asset, allowing it to decay to the point that even a basic restoration will cost in the order of $2 million dollars.”   See – http://bit.ly/2pjNtZP

Side of ex- Coptic Church in Sydenham and about to be destroyed.

What was the Sydenham Station Master’s cottage is now a desolate treeless block of weeds.

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Services Committee Meeting: The Coptic Church in Sydenham. Council’s report is recommending it be demolished.  3 members of the community addressed the Councillors, petitioning to not recommend demolition.

The Marrickville Heritage Society was represented by Lorraine Beach. She spoke about the history of the church saying it was established in 1884 functioning as a Methodist Church for 100 years. The congregation in 1901 built the current church & it became home to the first Coptic Church in the late 60s.  She said the church was an asset that belonged to the whole community & is also an important link to both our history & a suburb that was obliterated by the 3rd runway. She asked Councillors to either reject demolition outright, write to Minister Albanese asking him to provide funding, do a wider community consultation & go ahead with an expression of interest campaign.  You can read her speech by clicking on the following link –  Lorraine-Beach-Address-to-Council-11-05-10 As always with my pdf docs, the last page comes first, so start at page 2 if you are reading it.

partial view of Sydenham's Coptic Church building

The second resident said the land was in the care of Council who have spent so much money towards its destruction, but no money to save it as it has been left to rot for the past 10 years.  He cited City of Sydney Council keeping its churches & asked the community be given time to save the church. He was very passionate in his concern that this church be kept for the community.

The 3rd to speak was an Anglican Bishop who said he had approached Council for a long-term lease & has been waiting for 2 years to speak to Council to indicate interest.  He thought $2.3 million was an over-estimate to restore the church & asked Council to take tenders & let the community restore it.  His advice from consulting with a construction business was that it could be restored for less than what it would cost to buy a house in the area.

window of Coptic Church Sydenham

Chair Clr Macri said he felt uncomfortable making a decision with so many Councillors being absent.  He then listed that Council had deemed the building a health risk which would cost a lot to repair, it was still sacred land & Council intended to acknowledge this with a memorial, community consultation has been performed, the state government can’t help financially & the current LEP says the building cannot be used as a church.

Clr Olive said he believed it should be retained for community use & he wasn’t elected to demolish a heritage building.  He moved a further motion to replace the tile roof with corrugated iron, replace the glass & delete the need for a lift. Staff advice cautioned about possible contravention of discrimination laws that impose accessibility obligations.  Clr Olive said it does not need to be a community building, it could be used as studio space for artists & musicians.  The upstairs studios would not have access to those with access issues & we could comply with accessibility by ensuring downstairs was accessible.  He also suggested the building be removed from Council’s Community Services to Major Projects or Technical Services.

Clr Macri said he thought the decision should be deferred & Council could look at the Bishop’s proposal.

broken windows of Sydenham's Coptic Church

Clr Phillips said he did not support demolishing the building, as there were strong arguments to keep it & it was a significant building & structurally sound.  He said he was happy to maintain it until the person with money came along & said he would like to see expressions of interest & explore options about the lift.  He thought Council had set the bar too high & no one can meet it.

Clr Byrne said she didn’t want to see the building demolished, but said Council does need to keep its obligations regarding disability & accessibility.  Clr Wright supported revisiting the issue in 2 months & supported the church groups who have consistently shown interest to resubmit.  She suggested a scaled-down version of renovations, but couldn’t support not complying with accessibility requirements.

Clr O’Sullivan supported the 2-month deferral saying the church has been one of the political stories of this Council. She said she had studied the papers back to 2006 & it is a record of stalled decisions & Councillors needed to “bite the bullet.”  She said the key issue was legislative context & Council’s responsibilities as owner or lessor.  Concerned that some may think, if they get a lease, Council will be absolved of all responsibilities & there was a distinct lack of clarity about the real issues. She said we need a realistic proposal, but was concerned when Council would have the sort of money needed for renovation. She said she valued the church & agreed with the Marrickville Heritage Society.

A man from the Gallery asked if the church roof could be fixed as it has been leaking for 8 years.

Clr Marci suggested 2-month deferral, looking at a scaled-down proposal & to hear everyone’s point of view.  Clr Olive’s motion was lost.

Clr Olive put up a second motion to write to the Federal Government, remove the responsibility for the church into Major Projects & get a further report on feasibility for use as studio, performance space or general community facility.

someone still cares for this church by painting the crosses & the sign on the entrance gate

Clr O’Sullivan was against this motion because it excluded use by a church.  Clr Phillips asked staff if there were restrictions when Council was granted control over the church saying he assumed they still applied. He suggested writing to the government to ask these restrictions be removed allowing the church to be lessors.  The Director said the current LEP restricts use as a place of worship & the new Draft LEP carries this on.  Clr Macri asked that consideration be given to allow use as a place of worship in the Draft LEP.

Clr Wright said she couldn’t support the motion if churches are not included & was uncomfortable deciding to put the building into Major Projects. Clr Byrne said she wanted the building retained & used as a functioning part of Sydney’s community. She moved an amendment that uses include a place of worship. She also said the more a decision is delayed, the more we are demolishing this building by neglect.  Seconded by Clr Wright.

The GM advised voting on assignment of responsibilities was beyond the councillor’s power.  He said the Councillors role is to charge staff with the work & staff decide which unit is assigned responsibility.

Clr Macri said Council needed the help of the community to restore the building & that Clr Byrne’s amendment allows religious groups to be users.  Clr Olive said he wanted the building to go into Major Projects because we have gone over this many times without outcome.

The amended motion was passed.  As I understand the outcome, Council will do a report looking at the extent of renovation needed to fulfil statutory requirements & put out an expression of interest to the community.  The meeting had another couple of agenda items, but I left.

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