It is a singular moment in Greek-American historiography. The Holy Trinity Cathedral of New Orleans has just released its 150th Anniversary Commemorative Album.
This New Orleans parish has long asserted that it is the first Greek Orthodox church founded in North and South America.
A judicious mixture of narrative text with specific reproductions of original historical documents seen throughout this volume confirms this longstanding claim by serving – not as some kind of feel-good filler-illustrations – but rather as the very source documents and so the fundamental evidence and conclusive proof for this long-standing claim.
Also, this commemorative album follows equally well established conventions seen in other Greek-American parish and fraternal organization publications.
Yet, even in the areas following the historical introduction, which constitutes the majority of this volume of some 212 pages, attention to providing the exact locations of documents, reports and quite literally providing the names of every individual seen in this volume is done with equal care and close attention to detail. We have then, a volume for the ages.
This album is structured that first we find the mandatory Table of Contents, which offers us this mix of the unique as well as the expected. So we find a Preface and Acknowledgments section; (letters of) Greetings (by ecclesiastical and government figures); Cathedral Ministries and Organizations; 150th Anniversary committees; Priests of Holy Trinity; Holy Trinity Parish Council Presidents; the History of Holy Trinity with its subsequent subsections):
The Foundation (of the community); Growth and Challenges; A New Location; Celebrating 150 years and then Benefactors, Sponsors and Supporters and end notes. Presented in such a manner this volume would seem essentially like any of the other Greek Orthodox parish historical volume. The critical difference here is that the history of ‘the Little Greek Church of New Orleans extends a full 150 years.
Each of the sections seen within this volume must be read very carefully. Just flipping through these initial pages and then quickly moving on is a mistake. Each section in this volume, in its own manner, exhibits the extremely hard won local, regional and national standing of this parish. Social, economic, political and ecclesiastical connections established (and carefully maintained) by this parish over literally decades background all the letters of greetings and congratulations by this impressively wide array of ecclesiastical and government figures.
Each Greek Orthodox parish, established outwardly, as the physical expression of Faith are in point of fact far more complex public institutions. The inclusion of these sections within such individual parish commemorative volume charts not just the step by step creation and daily maintenance of any such community but its general social standing within the broader society which in every case was acquired and carefully nurtured over time.
The everyday realities of life in the United States and the expression of faith can be seen in the next few sections of Cathedral Ministries and Organizations. Here we see the ‘family’ of this parish as it is found today. The order offered here again follows a now accepted sequence of individuals and organizations that has developed over a considerable period of time.
First we see and read vignettes on the current priest, next the Cathedral Psaltes; followed by the 2014 Board of Trustees; the 150th Anniversary Celebration Executive Committee; the Acolytes (altar boys); Altar assistant; Choir; Sunday School; Greek School; Greek Orthodox Youth of America (GOYA) chapter; Parent Teacher Association; Ladies Philoptochos Society ‘Elpis’, Cathedral Montessori School; Order of St. Markella of Chios; Real Estate Committee; Cathedral Care Committee; Holy Trinity Archives Committee; then two pages that present the 150th Anniversary Committees, Priests of Holy Trinity and finally Holy Trinity Parish Council Presidents.
Embedded to the point of being nearly invisible are the wide array of historical changes required of each and every member of any church to personally work to not just establish but to maintain a Greek Orthodox parish on American shores. A change in perspective and daily actions required to actually have a church in North America are well and away removed from anything experienced, or often even understood, in Greece.
In the next 50-odd pages of this album, which focus on the history of the Holy Trinity parish we gain some perspective on these issues. Claims to be the first Greek Orthodox parish in North or South America are vindicated by the results of eight years of sustained research in the archives of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ecumenical Patriarchate Library in Constantinople.
These documents are the evidence for the steady and sustained efforts by members of the New Orleans Orthodox community to establish a parish and secure a priest. Complimenting this new evidence are collaborating documents, news accounts and other public records available from New Orleans and Louisiana state sources. As this new material presented itself this inevitably lead to further explorations into the public records of libraries and archives around the United States and England.
But this album is not one stuck in the past. While a judicious selection of these original historical documents are reproduced on the page they are offered in a seamless manner with later historical periods. The transition from historic black and white photographs of the parish and parishioners gradually morphs into colored pictures where everyone seen is individually identified.
All this evidence from the public record says nothing of the oral history memories of parishioners. And here again we move into new areas of historical evidence cited within Greek Orthodox parish histories. While living members of the parish see their recollections joining the other earlier accounts within the pages of this volume, the presence of accounts, photographs and copies of documents held by the descendants of the earliest merchant families also see seamless inclusion.
Yet, even these efforts to establish and retain the history of this parish are in fact nothing new. Since the very establishment of this church individual parishioners have stepped forward to not just contribute funds but to actively aid in the efforts to preserve their collective history. The first church structure and then the two additional parish buildings all required not simply cash but hours of individual efforts by the parishioners themselves to literally keep the church going. The published historical narrative found here is seamlessly woven in the later events of this Orthodox community.
As a case in point an event that could well have meant an end to this parish proved a rallying point. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans resulting in a known 1,400 deaths as a result of the city’s levee failures. As one would expect within the history section photographs and text are offered on how the church and grounds were affected. The cleaning efforts and the restoration of the parish see seamless inclusion in the general history section—and then the story of this parish just moves on undeterred by what was unquestionably the worst natural disaster ever experienced in United States history. Let me stress the point that the ‘history’ section one finds in this commemorative album extends from the mid-1700s to the present. And this recalling of the past to those of us in the present does not just stop cold with the end of this section.
This album closes with an extensive Sponsors and Supporters section. Again, this section demonstrates the transformations from the models of earlier Greek in America fraternal organization and church commemorative volumes of the last century. In many ways this section is a more personalized extension of the general history section. A complex presentation of individuals, families and friends of the parish are all seen and heard on these pages. This section is very much one devoted to individual testimonies, remembrances and photographs not found elsewhere. Pride and honoring those who have come before are mixed with the photographs and best wishes of parishioners. While this entire volume could well be called a ‘people’s history’ this last section extends even the definition of that type of historical account. For while this volume is extremely careful to note and credit individual authors of the various sections found within this album the Sponsors and Supporters section is a place where individuals, families and friends are all given the opportunity to contribute their individual thoughts, remembrances, historical and contemporary photographs as well as very personal observations to this volume.
As something of a capstone to this album are the last three pages of end notes. Bibliographic sources are cited here. Individuals seen in various photographs from the 2014 color section are also identified here. While my emphasizing the inclusion of the citation of source documents related to this parish’ history and the identification of individuals seen in photographs may seem overdone, these different kinds of identification have not always been common in Greek-American publications. Having seen Greek-American publications from the early 1900s down to the present very few are as carefully documented as this specific volume. And for good reasons. This album celebrates a seamless history from mid-1700s down to the present. Virtually a historical point-by-point progression from the appearance of the very first Greeks to reach the Louisiana coast in the mid-1700s down to the present. This fine volume serves not just to recall the baseline history of this one community but by its very existence speaks volumes for the pride and faith by those who compiled this historical account and the manner they discovered to share that experience with all those who are found within its pages.