The Underground Orthodox Church of Coober Pedy

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Renowned for being the ‘opal capital of the world’, the small outback town of Coober Pedy can be found 846km north of Adelaide amidst the sunburnt landscapes of South Australia. The name is derived from the local Aboriginal term “kupa piti”, which translates to “white fellas’ hole”, from the Kokatha people, the traditional custodians of the land. (Naessan, 2010). An ode to the opal mining industry that prospers the town’s identity and economy since 1915 which currently produces 90% of the world’s opals. (Coober Pedy – the Opal Capital of the World, 2016). From its underground homes, baren desert surroundings, and vibrant multicultural community, Coober Pedy is truly unlike any other.

The town soiled a mass Greek migration tracing back to the early to mid 20th century when the opal boom attracted various nationalities to seek fortune in this land of opportunity. Between 1960-70, Greek migration was at its ultimate peak, becoming home to over 1000 Greeks, with a population of 2000-2500. It was the beginning of mechanisation on the field after the World Wars, which persisted through the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s. This established Coober Pedy as a modern town native to a multi-million-dollar opal mining industry. Although the population has decreased to approximately 1500 people today with fewer Greeks, the culture’s legacy remains perpetual throughout the town, notably with one church in particular.

Faith Extending Beyond the Red Dirt and Opal Mines 

Christian Orthodoxy is faithfully strong throughout the town’s community, shared between the migrated Greeks and Serbians, which harmoniously share The Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet. The church received its name after being consecrated on the Saint Elijah’s day of 2nd August 1993, following the date of the Serbian Orthodox Church (while Greek Orthodoxy follows the 20th of July). Carved completely in sandstone, the church was constructed underground, a typical distinction of Coober Pedy’s desolate environment and unyielding temperatures which can soar above 40 degrees Celsius. The church was built by Serbian opal minors who settled in Coober Pedy, astonishingly building a 30 metre long, 5.3 metre wide, and 7 metre-high place of worship.

The floor is also 17 metres below ground level amongst its deepest point, and 3 metres below at its most shallow. (The Most Unique Serbian Sanctity on the Planet: Underground Church in Australia, n.d.). Internationally acclaimed sculptor, the late Norm Aston, is responsible for the church’s wall carvings which embrace a traditional Byzantine and archaic style, inherent of the era. (Opening of Saint Elijah Park | Monument Australia, n.d.) Despite the church being deprived of windows, light behind the stained-glass icons gloriously shines through, elegantly intertwining a sea of rainbow hues. Furthermore, there is a sand candelabrum and altar adorned behind a large gallery of saints, while the interior walls are engrained with bas-relief carved sculptures.

One of its most spectacular innovations would include the baptismal font shaped as a cross, particularly welcoming new adult members into the Christian community due to its greater water depth. This pertinent setting hosts all religious celebrations, as the priests’ interchange between Serbian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox. The church additionally includes a community hall, priest’s home, and religious school, which are all embedded underground. Expanding beyond the town’s exceptional opals, The Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet has become one of the most fascinating attractions of Cooper Pedy, gaining more tourists than parishioners.

His Grace Bishop Irinej of Australia-New Zealand remarks that, “The Orthodox Church possesses the most unique church in the world - in Coober Pedy in South Australia… This is a most unique case because the church is literally underground.” (The Underground Church of the Prophet Elijah in Australia, n.d.).

The rather unorthodox approach to this subterranean holy shrine certainly leaves patrons in awe, as they transcend through the tranquil atmosphere for prayer and reflection.

Whether you are religious or not, the church is a sincere testament to the ingenuity and dexterity of its founders, creating an abode of spiritual devotion within the harsh atmospheric conditions, indubitably a sight that all can appreciate. Enthralling Orthodox believers globally by its unconventional architecture and rich history, The Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet serves as a symbol of unification to the Greeks of Coober Pedy which is successively defined by the town’s perseverance and humble beginnings.

(Photography courtesy of Evana Karapetis).


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