At 150, Oldest Greek Parish in U.S.

NEW ORLEANS, LA – The river of time that flows from the birth of oldest Greek Orthodox parish in America, like the noble Mississippi nearby, streamed through Sunday January 12 and the waters of Bayou St. John, when and where the Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral of New Orleans, Archimandrite Maximos Pafilis, cast the Holy Cross in into the Bayou for the Blessing of the Waters.

The Feast of Epiphany was the kickoff of a year-long celebration of the parish’s 150th anniversary. Great celebrations usually have a huge cast, and the yearlong festivities of Holy Trinity is no exception.

The list of too many names to mention can begin, however, with Anniversary Committee co-chairs Barbara Stavis Wolf and Constandinos Vennis, and Parish Council President Steve Psarellis.

The City of New Orleans is also shining its spotlight on the community, and so is the Order of AHEPA. The next event is the annual Louisiana Children’s Museum Around the World Celebration on March 22. Greece is the featured country and 150th anniversary memorabilia will be displayed.

AHEPAs annual Supreme Convention will be held at the Sheraton New Orleans July 20-26 and will include an exhibit of items from the Holy Trinity archives.

There will then be events every month until October 10-12, 150th Anniversary Weekend. April: New Orleans Lakefront Beautification Project and Planting Event; 150th Anniversary Easter Picnic.  May 23- 25: 150th Celebration at the 41st Annual Greek Festival. June: Holy Trinity Pentecost 150th Celebration. July: 4th of July and 150th Anniversary Party. August: Historical Costumes and Textile Exhibit. September: 150th Anniversary Choir Event; 150th Birthday Party for children.

150th Anniversary Weekend will feature an Archives Exhibit and Reception on Friday, a Historical Tour and Luncheon on Saturday will be followed by a Heritage Night Celebration.

The celebration comes to a climax on Sunday with a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy and the Grand Banquet Luncheon.

According to a parish release, “The winding waters of New Orleans’ Bayou St. John are steeped in history. A pivotal waterway, home to Native Americans for thousands of years, which later attracted early 17th century settlers, Bayou St. John was a commercial outlet and the key to where New Orleans was established.”

The Church which currently stands on the Bayou “is the successor to the ‘Little Church,’ which was built at 1222 North Dorgenois after worshipers were able to purchase the land and move from their temporary location”  in the Greek Consul’s offices.

“The parish was established in New Orleans in 1864 after businessman and Royal Consul of the Royal Government of Greece Nicholas Benachi offered his personal property for a temporary church. In 1867, he sold a small parcel of property on North Dorgenois Street to the community that included a small church. The community eventually relocated to the present site on Robert E. Lee Boulevard, next to Bayou St. John. The Hellenic he Hellenic Cultural Center was built in 1980, and the new Cathedral was completed in 1985.”

With a 150-year history, the community counts Wolf as a relative newcomer. Her father came to New Orleans in 1940; her grandparents were from Smyrna. She noted the appropriateness to TNH of the Epiphany being celebrated at Bayou St. John. “It was wonderful. Four young men dove into the waters and young Ariadne Makridakis was the Dove Bearer.”

She said several exhibits will display documents, icons, vestments of the early priests, and architectural elements from the first church, and even a baptismal font from the 1860s.

The thriving community of 400 member families is especially proud of its Greek school and the Hellenic Dancers children’s and adult dance troupe, she said.

Vennis is very excited about the celebrations. His roots are in Kalavrita and Kardamila (Chios), and he is an adopted member of the parish family. Now the Parish Council Vice President, he grew up working in his father’s restaurant in Long Island and was active at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

He said he is active at Holy Trinity because “I want my daughter to grow up the way I grew up.”

A maritime attorney, he went to New Orleans for law school and met his wife, whose family are parishioners, on vacation in Chios. His father-in-law, Captain John Fatsis, was the co-chair of the building committee for the current sanctuary that opened in 1985.

The archives and historical treasures of the parish are a vital part of commemoration.

Magdalene Spiropoulou Maag, chair of the Archive Committee, said archives and historical treasures of the parish are a vital part of commemoration. Her ties to the parish go back to 1946 when her family escaped from the Greek Civil War and came to Louisiana.  Her father, Leonidas Spyropoulos, had come to America at the turn of the century and like many, returned to Greece with his family to get his elderly father settled, “but he fell in love with Greece and his olive and fig trees, so he stayed and then got married to my mother, Sophia.”

He brought his bride back to America and settled in a small Cajun village. They were members of Holy Trinity but were too far away to attend regularly.

Maag got involved in the archive project after she was shown the damage from the flooding from Hurricane Katrina. “My heart dropped. I got involved immediately and fell in love with what the archives said about our church, and I discovered that I am an amateur historian,” she said.

She found that New Orleans was neglected in Greek-American history and in her efforts “I discovered some amazing things.”  For example, other than the unsuccessful New Smyrna colony in Florida, the first groups of Greeks who settled the United States came to New Orleans in the mid-1700s.
Out of the immigrants emerged the Dragon-Dimitri clan, whose history she is exploring. They were absorbed into the Roman Catholic community over time, but in recent years some have returned to the Orthodox faith. Their descendants are coming to New Orleans in April to rededicate their monument in the oldest French cemetery in New Orleans. They have invited the Greek Church and community to participate.

The church and the neighborhood were devastated by Hurricane Katrina and many expressed doubt that the area would be able to come back. “In large part thanks to John Georges,” businessman and publisher of the daily newspaper the Advocate, “we were the first area institution that reopened,” Maag told TNH. “People said if the Greek Church can come back we can come back.”