By Vasilis Papoutsis
PALM DESERT, CA – The upscale community of Palm Desert in California has a small but vibrant Greek-American Orthodox contingent, and the center of it is the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, steps away from the famous shopping district of El Paseo.
The city is mostly known as a retreat for the many seasonal residents who are known as “snowbirds,” and arrive during the winter to enjoy the beautiful desert weather and the picturesque mountain and valley views, a welcome escape from the cold Northern climes.
President Obama is expected to reside in Palm Desert, as did President Gerald Ford.Most people are more familiar with the city of Palm Springs, which is about a 20 minute drive away, and has been the gateway to many Hollywood celebrities, especially in the Golden age of Hollywood. Stars like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Dinah Shore all had homes there.
The Greek community in the desert has been there for more than half a century. Anne Boukidis Michas along with Ann and Harry Cosmos were the nucleus that initiated the beginning of the parish. Priests from the St. Elias Greek Orthodox church of San Bernardino assisted in the spiritual aspect. In 1978, the first Divine Liturgy was held at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church and the Nicholas family hosted the first parish luncheon. In 1983, the land for the current site was purchased.
Michasre calls when Metropolitan Anthony “called me at home and asked me to come and visit a prospective site for a future church. The next day I went with my husband, Harry, and met the metropolitan at the site. Jim Kalyvas and Kerri Ayianopoulos were also present and we agreed to make an offer for the land. I negotiated the deal and couple days later our offer was accepted and with a down payment of $50,000 the site of our current church was purchased for $156,000 down from the $185,000 they were initially asking.”
Chicago banker James Kostakis donated a million dollars that got construction underway. Significant contributions were also made by real estate tycoon Alex Spanos, owner of the Chargers football team and his friend Leonard Firestone. The parishioners’ hard work was also important in the construction.
“The Nicholas family worked very hard during the construction. George Nicholas built the church’s first altar,” Michas said. Shortly thereafter, Metropolitan Anthony appointed Michas as the first Parish Council President. George Tcharos was the first Vice President and Fanny Nicholas was the first Treasurer.
“Actor Telly Savalas attended services regularly as did Vice President Spiro Agnew’s wife, Judy,” Michas told TNH.
Today, the parish consists of 120 families, mostly English-speaking; thus the liturgy is in English, except for of the hymns, which are in Greek. Despite the economic crisis in Greece over the last seven years,few Greeks find the way to the desert:“We only have a couple of families from Greece, most of the families are mixed marriages,” Fr. Theodore Pantels, who has been the priest since 2004, told TNH.
“We only have Sunday school because we cannot get teachers to teach the Greek language or folk dancing. We are a little too far away.” The St. George Philoptochos Society reaches out regularly to the desert community with philanthropic missions.
The Philoptochos donates to homeless shelters such as the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and offers money contributions to Visiting Nurses. Through the Knitting Project they provide blankets for the City of Hope. Philoptochos also contributes to The Ophelia Project a nonprofit that empowers teenage girls to increase their sense of self worth, and collaborates with the Catholic Church in a pro-life ministry program.
The Greek festival that just ended was a major success and it is “one of the major fundraisers of the church. During the two days, we get about 6,000 people to visit the grounds and enjoy our food and music,” Fr.Pantels said.The church tours that are offered during the festival are particularly fulfilling to Fr. Ted because “they give me the opportunity to show our church to new people, talk to them about our faith, answer their questions and invite them to a service.” One of this year’s festival attendees was George Stephanopoulos, the producer of the sports comedy Swing Away that was filmed in Greece and had a well attended local screening. Jenni Pulos, the reality celebrity star who has family in the desert, has attended and entertained the crowds in the past.The Golf tournament is the other major fundraiser for the Church and it will take place at the Desert Willow Golf Resort April 21-22. The weekend will conclude with liturgy for the Feast Day of Saint George on April 23.
His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco will be in attendance to mark the 20th Anniversary of celebrating St. George, the Church’s patron saint.