St Athanasius College (SAC) was established in 2000, soon after the enthronement of His Grace Bishop Dr 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 heart of metropolitan 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 eastern 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 mid-2009 Bishop Suriel began a major renovation of the Western ground floor cloistered corridor to devote an entire wing exclusively to SAC. This wing has two state-of-the-art lecture theatres with full audio-visual capabilities (lecture theatre one seating 32 students, lecture theatre two seating 48), 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 international students and three 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 new onsite student residency 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, small lectures, large lectures, symposia, formal dinners and church functions.
In addition to this a prominent and central presence for SAC was established at Eporo Tower in the heart of the Melbourne CBD. Eporo Tower is a major building development encompassing 43 floors, with four and a half floors allocated to the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne with significant space dedicated to ongoing SAC education. The new SAC Eporo Tower Campus, operational from mid-2017, offers four lecture theatres, a library and staff offices. Eporo Tower Campus provides greater accessibility for city workers, and for students across Greater Melbourne. The Donvale Campus continues to serve as the main theological hub.
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).
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 (His Grace Bishop Dr Suriel, Deacon 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 Dean, the Very Rev Dr John Behr, in 2016 to instruct our staff, student and diocesan community academically and spiritually. 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 addition to this, 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 long-established St Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press and the fledgling 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.
The first book to be printed in the Coptic Studies Series is 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 and SAC Dean, His Grace Bishop Dr 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.
In 2017 SAC adds 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. These courses, delivered by a complement of almost 20 faculty, will continue through to a Master level both online and on campus.
We invite all interested theology students to travel with us on the next chapter of our shared SAC journey and our continuing educational adventure, which is still unfolding.