St Athanasius College (SAC) was established in 2000, soon after the enthronement of His Grace Bishop Associate Professor Suriel, with a vision to serve the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne and Affiliated Regions.
The foundations for SAC were built upon the pioneering educational work of the late Louis Wahba (father of Fr Macarius Wahba). Louis was a zealous Sunday School teacher and servant who held Christian education and theological teaching in high regard.
In the absence of a local college prior to 2000, Louis encouraged Melbourne parishioners to study by correspondence through the Sydney-based Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological College. Louis served the Sydney theological school for almost 20 years as a lecturer, registrar and even a graduating student. He subsequently served at the new Melbourne theological school, St Athanasius College (SAC), as the treasurer and assistant registrar until he reposed in the Lord on 9 January 2007. SAC named a lecture theatre after Louis Wahba, which opened on 24 October 2009, to honour his tireless dedication to theological education.
It is evident that SAC began as a pastoral and educational response to a community need for a dedicated school of theology. Melbourne parishioners conveyed to Bishop Suriel their desire to receive formation from an eminent Coptic Orthodox theological school, similar to those established by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in Egypt. Being a strong advocate for Christian and theological education, one of His Grace’s immediate priorities was to cultivate a dedicated space which could deliver quality theological education to students in the Diocese of Melbourne and Affiliated Regions.
In September 2000, a Catholic convent was purchased in Coburg which was well suited to host what was then called ‘Saint Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Theological College’. In that same year the Papal Decree No. 21/29 was issued by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, to formally recognise the new educational institution. An official opening was held in 2001, with many distinguished guests in attendance, to welcome the first cohort of 57 students.
On 25 January 2002 the diocese purchased an exceptional property called ‘Whitefriars Park’, formerly a Carmelite Monastery, which was built in 1937. Located in the inner east of Melbourne, this large facility had the capacity to embrace the rapid student growth for many years to come. The successful site acquisition represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the college to move forward with God’s blessing. The new property, nestled on 22 acres in the leafy suburb of Donvale, soon became the spiritual home for the Diocesan headquarters and for theological education in what is now called St Athanasius College (SAC).
In 2009 Bishop Suriel began a major renovation of the Western ground floor cloistered corridor to devote an entire wing exclusively to SAC. This wing now has two lecture theatres with full audiovisual capabilities, a student lounge, and the SAC Library.
In same year, the SAC Council embarked on a three year journey to fulfil the aspiration of the College community to become a fully accredited teaching institution. Through the grace of God, on 7 December 2011, SAC was officially accredited as a Recognised Teaching Institution of the University of Divinity (formerly the Melbourne College of Divinity). This esteemed achievement bestowed SAC with the honour of being the first Coptic Orthodox theological college in the world to receive accreditation.
The accreditation paved the way for SAC to offer a Diploma in Theology commencing in 2012, and an Advanced Diploma in Theology from 2015 onwards. These courses continue to be offered on campus and online to domestic and overseas students and many cohorts of students have graduated under the umbrella of the University of Divinity since 2014.
The official SAC newsletter called Koinonia was launched in 2015 as a biannual publication to keep our learning community and diocese connected and informed about key events, achievements and developments.
In 2016 the College enrolled its first full time students and also its first residential students. To respond to growing interstate enrolments, Bishop Suriel invested in a major refurbishment of the top floor at the SAC Donvale Campus to house full-time students, and those studying intensive subjects. The onsite student residence called the St Pachomius Student Wing offers nine bedrooms, a modern kitchen, dining room, lounge and study carrels, as well as bathroom and laundry facilities.
2016 also saw a complete renovation of the former church dining hall at Donvale. It was converted into the Pope Shenouda III Auditorium which serves as a mixed-use space for meetings, lectures, symposia, formal dinners and church functions.
Partnerships have been critical to the success of SAC. As well as partnering with the University of Divinity and our affiliate colleges, SAC has also journeyed closely with St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS) in the USA.
SVS and SAC have created cross-institutional exchange initiatives for theology students to facilitate studying and praying together in community. Three members of the SAC community have completed formal theological studies at SVOTS (Bishop Suriel, Deacon Dr Nebojsa Tumara and Abraam Mikhail) while Shaheer Sedhom has pursued further studies at Hellenic College Holy Cross. In addition to this, guest lecturing programs have been cultivated enabling academic staff to share specialist theological knowledge designed to build bridges of unity between Orthodox brothers and sisters.
Our community was delighted to host SVOTS Patristics Scholar Fr Dr John Behr in 2016, to instruct our staff, students and diocesan community. Fr John delivered an intensive patristics lecture series entitled The School of Alexandria.
Some time ago, SAC was also enriched by the spiritual and academic leadership of the former SVOTS Dean, the Very Rev Fr Thomas Hopko of Blessed Memory. In 2003 Fr Thomas presented a lecture themed Witnessing to Orthodoxy in a Pluralistic and Materialistic Society. Other significant academic events previously hosted by SAC on the international platform include the: Coptic Monasticism Symposium (2007), St Cyril of Alexandria Symposium (2003) and St Athanasius in Christian Tradition Symposium (2002). In 2012 SAC hosted Howard Middleton-Jones from the Swansea University and UK Coptic Research and Resource Centre to deliver a special series of seminars on the Preservation of the Coptic Cultural Heritage.
The Coptic Studies Series, launched in 2016, is the fruit of a successful publishing partnership forged between the St Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press and St Athanasius College (SAC) Press. The Coptic Studies Series was instigated with a two-fold purpose. Firstly, to increase the accessibility of the many treasures of Coptic Orthodox Christianity (initially published in Arabic) to engage a broader English-speaking audience; And secondly, to cross-pollinate the minds and hearts of Coptic Orthodox Christians (grouped under Oriental Orthodoxy) and Eastern Orthodox Christians with the knowledge of a common faith in the incarnate Word of God—who is the true source of all wisdom and knowledge.
In 2016 the first book was printed in the Coptic Studies Series called The Life of Repentance and Purity by Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory. This Christian spirituality text was translated from Arabic to English by co-editor of the series, Bishop Suriel. It went on to become the fastest selling title in the history of SVS Press with 5000 copies sold in a matter of weeks which led to an immediate reprint.
The second book in the series followed in 2017 when Bishop Suriel published Habib Girgis – Coptic Orthodox Educator and a Light in the Darkness. This text, which draws upon Bishop Suriel’s doctoral dissertation at Fordham University USA, was also well received. The book historically captures the life of St Habib Girgis who was a deacon in Cairo in the 19th Century and a highly regarded educational reformer, teacher, writer and leader of a theological college grounded in the Alexandrian tradition. Habib played a vital role in rejuvenating Christian education in the Egyptian Coptic Church through the Sunday School movement, and through a broader commitment to lifelong theological education. The Arabic translation of this text followed in 2018.
In 2017 SAC added three more courses to its theological suite. These include a Graduate Certificate in Divinity, a Graduate Certificate in Theology and a Graduate Diploma in Theology.
In the same year, SAC broadened international theological partnerships to
affirm Christian Orthodoxy. Leaders from Orthodox theological colleges gathered in Amsterdam in March to address areas of mutual concern and to explore areas of cooperation. SAC partnered with St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS USA) Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy, (SITA Sweden), and the Amsterdam Centre for Orthodox Theology at the Vrije Universiteit (ACOT The Netherlands). The two day workshop, held in good faith, was extremely productive with a focus on realising the importance of working together for the future progress of our institutions. A memorandum of understanding was drafted at this event and bridges of dialogue, good will and educational support continue to develop between the respective colleges.
The SAC community was honoured with the visit of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II in 2017, during which he formally opened SAC’s second campus at Eporo Tower in Melbourne’s CBD on 10 September.
Eporo Tower is a major building development encompassing 43 floors, with four and a half floors allocated to the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne and one floor level dedicated to ongoing SAC education. The new SAC Eporo Tower Campus offers four lecture theatres, a library and staff offices. Eporo Tower Campus provides greater accessibility for city workers, and for students across Greater Melbourne. From 2018 onwards, SAC also operates the ground floor bookstore, specialising in literature and giftware relating to the Coptic Church and Orthodox Christianity. The bookstore has an adjoining café.
While visiting Melbourne, Pope Tawadros II delivered a lecture to SAC staff and students on the importance of theological education. In addition, His Holiness met with key leaders and members of the University of Divinity, who also kindly hosted a reception in his honour.
The visit of the patriarch was a great blessing and renewed a commitment to our mission, which is that our College exists from the Church, in the Church, and for the Church. And so, our mission is one that is grounded in all aspects of ecclesial life; namely, koinonia, didache, diakonia, leitourgia and kerygma.
Another highlight of the 2017 calendar was hosting two new international academics namely Dr Karel Innemée and Dr Ramez Mikhail. Dr Karel Innemée is a visiting lecturer who led two new units at SAC titled ‘Egypt from Alexander to the Arabs’ and ‘The Church Building in its Form and Function’. Having taught at Leiden University and currently at Amsterdam University, Dr Innemée has a background in art history and archaeology and has worked extensively as project director on a number of monastic archaeological projects in Egypt and Sudan. Meanwhile, Dr Ramez Mikhail taught a new unit online titled ‘Coptic Liturgy – Vespers, Matins and Divine Liturgy’. Having recently completed his doctoral degree through the University of Vienna, Dr Mikhail specialises in the field of liturgical studies, and is a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University.
2017 also marked the first time that a Summer Semester was added to the academic calendar. SVOTS Professor of Patristics, Fr Dr John Behr, returned to SAC for the summer semester program to lead a new theology unit called ‘Sacred Texts from the Second Century’ focusing on the works of Irenaeus. And in the same year, Fr John Behr was bestowed with an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) from the University of Divinity. A graduation ceremony, held on 22 August at Eporo Tower, paid homage to Fr Behr’s formidable intellectual contribution to international Orthodox theological education, and for building bridges of respectful dialogue in education, particularly with SAC.
In 2018 SAC consolidates its undergraduate program with a new Bachelor of Theology. Postgraduate award offerings are also broadened with a Master of Theological Studies, Master of Divinity, and Higher Degrees by Research, including a Master of Philosophy, Master of Theology, Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Theology. These courses are delivered by a complement of almost 20 faculty online and on campus. Students have keenly embraced the new awards and a raft of new subject units that have been been rolled out.
A feature of the 2018 calendar is an imminent international symposium at the Eporo Tower Campus. SAC and the University of Divinity will co-host the 5th International Symposium on Coptic Studies from July 13 to July 16. The theme of the symposium is COPTS IN MODERNITY where the focus is on the Coptic Church and Community between the 18th and 21st Centuries.