Our History

Epitaphios fresco in the Byzantine church at Chevetogne Abbey, Belgium. Photo: Monastère de Chevetogne

The Society of Saint John Chrysostom is a group of Catholics of the Latin and Eastern Churches, along with our friends in other traditions, promoting awareness and friendship in the Christian West for our fellow Christians of the East — through prayer and liturgy, conferences and lectures, pilgrimage and ecumenical encounters. The Society was originally founded in England at the end of the nineteenth century. The original association died out and was re-founded in 1926 under the patronage of the Archbishop of Westminster. In two of its 1926 issues, the journal Irénikon reported the following:

On Wednesday, 31 March 1926, in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral, the inaugural meeting of the Society of Saint John Chrysostom was held under the presidency of His Eminence Cardinal Bourne. This society seeks to learn about the problems that exist between the Catholic Church and those Christians of the East who are not in communion with the Holy See, while avoiding all polemics.

The new Society of Saint John Chrysostom, of which we spoke in our May issue (p. 119) has organized, for the end of this month, a series of conferences which will conclude with a solemn Slavonic Liturgy, celebrated in the great Cathedral of Westminster. His Eminence Cardinal Bourne, President of the Society, will open the week on the evening of the 26th in his cathedral Hall, and His Lordship Msgr. d’Herbigny will speak about the Oriental Institute in Rome of which he is president. Three days of lectures will follow, over the course of which we note the following conferences: Mr. Herbert Ward will speak on the state of the Church in Mesopotamia; Dom Lambert Beauduin on the “the appeal of the Christian East and monastic hopes”; Count Bennisen and Prince Volkonsky on iconography and Russian music respectively; Miss Gertrude Morrison on Greek monasticism in southern Italy. After an explanation of the Liturgy, on the evening of the 29th by Rev. Fr. David Balfour, Monk of Unity [ed: between Latin and Byzantine Rites, a member of the monastery founded by Dom Lambert Beauduin at Amay-sur-Meuse and now at Chevetogne in Belgium], the Congress will conclude on the morning of the 30th with what promises to be a splendid celebration. In the famous Westminster Cathedral, a large iconostasis will be erected in harmony with the cathedral’s own Byzantine style architecture; Rev. Fr. Abrikosoff from Rome will sing the Divine Liturgy (preceded by Tierce) with Rev. Fr. Omez of Lille Seminary and Dom Andrew Stoelen of Amay concelebrating. The slavonic chants will be performed by the cathedral choir, which is renowned in the London musical world, under the direction of a Russian musician. The committee of the Society, which includes several eminent Catholics such as Doctors Myers and Vance, the Right Reverend Dom Butler, O.S.B., Rev. Frs. Martindale, S.J. and Vassall-Phillips, C.S.S.R., has invited European Catholics to this Congress who are involved with the work church unity, including six Monks of Unity.

Father Peter Galadza of the Sheptytsky Institute reports this information in footnote 286, pages 133-134 of his important book Unité en Division: Les Lettres de Lev Gillet, (“un moine de l’église d’Orient”) à Andrei Cheptytsky – 1921-1929. The note also claims that “The Society continued to exist in England until 1989 and published a journal beginning in 1960.” Au contraire, we are happy to report that rumours of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Our brethren at the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church of St Cyril of Turau & All the Patron Saints of the Belarusian People in Woodside Park also report the following on the inaugural series of conferences mentioned above, which have a connection to the iconostasis of that church:

Upon entering the church a visitor can see the two large icons of Christ and Our Lady displayed on the icon screen, and behind the altar table there is also a large painting of Christ the King enthroned. They do not appear to be as new as the church that hosts them. Their history and connection to Belarusian mission is narrated below.

One of the first activities of the newly established Society of St John Chrysostom in 1926 was the organisation of an Eastern Liturgical Week of special prayer and study, which ended with the celebration of the Holy Liturgy according to the Byzantine Slavonic rite in Westminster Cathedral on Saturday, the 30th October 1926 in the presence of the late Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, and Bishop Michael d’Herbigny, S.J., the then Rector of the Oriental Institute in Rome, and the representative of the Apostolic See of Rome on this occasion.

The actual liturgical solemnity at the occasion was the new Sunday of Christ the King established by Pope Pius XI in 1925. To reflect this the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral near Victoria station was adorned temporarily with an iconostasis, the iconography of which reflects the idea of Divine kingship. As it was stated in the article from  “The Times” magazine, “this is in the form of a medieval iconostasis in the style of the Novgorod-Kieff period, which has been designed from material in the British Museum.” It was painted in oil on canvas by Mr Eric Ward and Countess Olga Bennigsen.

Mr Eric Ward, shown on the newspaper cutting of the time, and whose signature bears the centrepiece could be the younger son of William George Ward, theologian and mathematician or the son of Wilfrid Philip Ward and thus a brother of the writer and publisher Maisie Ward, prominent English Catholic converts.

Future Countess Olga Vasilyevna Bennigsen (nee Skaryatina) (1879-1947)  is shown here as a young woman with her mother and siblings in 1900 (left). She became a spouse to the renowned Russian Catholic émigré thinker, activist and magazine editor, Count George (Georgij Pavlovich) Bennigsen (1879-1962) in 1901. They lived in London at the time of the establishment of the White-Ruthenian (Belarusian) mission of the Byzantine Rite and the Count is known to have been parishioner of St Peter and Paul church at the Marian House before his departure to USA where he died in 1962. Countess Olga was buried at renowned Highgate cemetery in London on 22 December 1947. Count Bennigsen’s archive related to his activities as a secretary of the relief committee that helped Russian refugees and provided aid to the people in Soviet Russia during the famine of the 20-s is currently kept at the Skaryna Library.

The aims of the Society of St John Chrysostom were “to make known to Western Christians the history, worship and spirituality of Eastern Christendom, and to work and pray that all men, and in particular the separated  Eastern Christians, may speedily be united in One Church of Christ”. It was founded in 1926, apparently not without help of Bishop d’Herbigny, but ceased its activities after the outbreak of the war in 1939. Father Sipovich started thinking about reviving it as early as 1948 but did not succeed until 1959. He was helped in this by Hellen Georgiades, a Greek who before becoming a Catholic, had been secretary of a joint Anglican-Orthodox organisation called the Society of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius. The President of the Saint John Chrysostom Society was the Archbishop of Westminster. Father Sipovich was the secretary (after his elevation to the bishopric he became the Honorary Vice President) and Miss Georgiades – editor of the newly launched journal Chrysostom. In the years that followed the Society did much to spread knowledge about the Eastern Christian tradition among English speaking Catholics. It also became the champion of the cause of Eastern Catholics whom some “Latins” in the name of wrongly understood ecumenism considered an obstacle to “ecumenical contacts” with the Orthodox.

Fr Richard Downer, a Melkite Greek Catholic deacon shares his memories: “Recently, we found a Christmas card from the 1980’s to us from Hellen Georgiades, the late Secretary of the Society of St John Chrysostom. She was Secretary when Fr Alexander Nadson was the Society’s Chairman. In those days the Society had its base at the Marian House. It was around this time, if not before, that Hellen first told me of the desire of Fr Alexander and the Belarusian community to build a church.”

Thus  various parts of the dismantled iconostasis came into possession of Fr Ceslaus, and he displayed them on the walls of the old chapel at the Marian House, which can be seen on historic photographs. With the commission of the new iconostasis in 1957 they were presumably taken down and kept in storage ever since.

Later, only the two large icons of Christ the Teacher and Our Lady were regularly displayed at the liturgies, which Father and later Bishop Sipovich celebrated elsewhere, especially in Latin churches. They were discovered in the attic of the house belonging to the Mission wrapped in brown paper and having MDF backing, which facilitated their better state of preservation.

It is our hope that these works of sacred art and pieces of history of the Eastern Catholic churches in England will one day adorn the walls of our newly constructed church in their entirety, and  it depends on generosity of our benefactors. The central piece adorning today the altar wall – the Deisis of Christ the King in glory surrounded by the heavenly powers as well as the two medallions of St Peter and St Paul were restored by local restorer Tom Jones (R.I.P.) from The Picture Factory, North Finchley. The pair of the saints representing the patron saints of the authors and the Society – St John Chrysostom and St Olga, the Princess, were restored by the Kerat Studio in Wervik, Belgium, with financial support from the Society of St John Chrysostom. The restored  icons were sanctified by the Ukrainian Bishop of Chicago Kyr Venedykt Aleksiychuk, former hegumen of the Studite monastery in Polatsak, Belarus during his visit to the church on 20 April 2017.

The following article appeared on page 5 of the 13 November 1959 edition of The Catholic Herald:


A gesture of goodwill towards separated Christians was successfully made by London Catholics last Friday, when the recently revived Society of St. John Chrysostom invited Orthodox and Anglican clergymen to attend a lecture by Mr. Donald Attwater on “The Society of St. John Chrysostom and its Patron Saint”. Fr. Kyril, a Russian Orthodox priest, was present, and wore cassock and pectoral cross. The Rev. C. E. Hampson, of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, was the Anglican representative. The Fellowship, mainly an Anglican venture, is first in the field in this modern move to replace prejudice with charity among Christians in Britain.


That the Society of St. John Chrysostom, a Catholic organisation having as one of its objects to get Catholics to know and love the Eastern Christian tradition, intends quickly to establish links of charity with other Christians was shown by the presence at the meeting of priests whose avowed aim this is. They included Mgr. J. M. T. Barton, Fr. Maluga, C.SS.R. Vicar General of the Ukrainians, Fr. C. Sipovich. M.I.C. superior of the Byzantine Rite Marian House, London, and Prebendary Pilkington of Westminster Cathedral. The late Dom Bede Winslow, O.S.B., a pioneer in this work. would have attended too, for he had been invited. The Society has arranged for a funeral service in the Byzantine rite to be celebrated for him on Friday. November 27. at 7 p.m., at the Saffron Hill Ukrainian Church, London.

Mr. Attwater, the expert in Eastern Church matters, prefaced his remarks by complimenting the Ukrainians in choosing the second Archbishop of Canterbury. the Greek monk St. Theodore, as patron for their London church. “Cardinal Godfrey, the president of the society, and their Exarch, is his 67th successor,” he said. “Theodore gave us the basic structure of the English Catholic Church.” When questioners turned from the subject-matter of the lecture and began to comment on the prospects for unity, Fr. Sipovich wisely intervened to point out that the society exists to get Catholics to appreciate “the treasury of theology and devotion to be found in the East”. Once this is done, and a bond of sympathy established. then we can go on and talk about unity.

Tonight (Friday) the feast of St. John Chrysostom in the Eastern calendar, Fr. Maluga, Fr. Sipovich, and Fr. Alexander will concelebrate the Liturgy at seven o’clock in Marian House, to which all are invited.

Source: Archive of The Catholic Herald (13 November 1959).