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Politics

Keepers of the Faith: the Archival Committee of the Holy Trinity Church in New Orleans

July 3, 2018

Since 2010, the Archival Committee of the Holy Trinity Church in New Orleans has focused on assessing, preserving and systematically documenting the history of their parish. Since other Greek Orthodox churches across the United States have completed or now involved in a similar process the question could well be asked what is so unique about Holy Trinity’s efforts. Given that Holy Trinity received both recognition from Greece and a priest in 1867 it is the first and oldest continuous Greek Orthodox church in the Western Hemisphere. Consequently, their issues with record keeping and archival preservation are unique, to say the least.

The Louisiana Purchase was concluded in 1803. After 1803, documented records of Greeks and other Orthodox Christians in New Orleans are not found until the 1850s. It is difficult to quantify the number of Orthodox Christians in New Orleans before the early 1850 census which required place of birth for the first time. Mid-19th century city directories list Orthodox Christian immigrants who owned coffee shops, fish stores, liquor stores and fruit stands. Other Orthodox settlers worked in the seafood industry in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes. Documentation attests to Greek seamen enlisting in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Cotton and sugar merchants, real estate developers as well as insurance brokers were all part of the growing Greek community in the 1800s.

From roughly 1850 to 1867, Greeks as well as other ethnic groups of the Eastern Orthodox faith – Russian, Syrian, Lebanese, Illyrians, Slavs, Austrians – probably solemnized their marriages, deaths and baptisms in the Roman Catholic St. Louis Cathedral. This all changed with the Louisiana Purchase when inhabitants acquired the constitutional right to establish their own religions (www.holytrinitycathedral.org).

The continuous Holy Trinity archival efforts aside from assessing and the usual archival processing and preservation needs of their existing collection of historic liturgical books and artifacts, several other distinct innovative steps proved necessary. Logically the first step was the examination and archival preservation of the collection stored in a special storage room. Given the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina on the Cathedral in August 29, 2005 this sequence of conservation efforts was a massive process.

In August, 2005, the church archival holdings consisted of the pastoral directories (these are the written chronological records of births, weddings and death), icons, chalices, baptismal fonts, priestly textiles, rare books (in various languages with one book which has three languages handwritten inside; Greek, Arabic and Slavonic) and an array of historical photographs. Given the extreme water damage caused by Hurricane Katrina of the 1881 pastoral directories spectral analysis of various pages was necessary in order to recover these especially damaged pages allowing for the reading of otherwise erased texts. The company hired to do this work for Holy Trinity was the same that had already worked on the scrolls at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

The Holy Trinity has long claimed pride of place as the first Greek Orthodox church in North America. And after more than 150 years there were gaps in church records. A unique problem to say the least the innovative members of the Archival Committee proved equal to the complex task of conservation and the discovery of new documentation.

Some dates to keep in mind in this investigation are the arrival of Michel Dragon (1739-1821) first known Greek in New Orleans who arrived sometime before 1770; the Louisiana Purchase was concluded in 1803; and finally that Greek consul Nicholas Marino Benachi (1812-1886) (and others who signed the first document) formally establish the Church in 1865. The Holy Trinity parish has seen existence in three different structures with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina being especially grave but not such as would break the spirit and purpose of its current generation of parishioners.

After the reorganization of the parish’s artifacts and wide array of paper documents the next logical step for the Committee was the systematic search through local New Orleans city archives and state public institutions. Then, around 2013, it became clear that the next logical step was to examine the records of the Church of Greece and the Patriarchate. In 2014, the year of Holy Trinity’s 150 anniversary formal steps were taken to be permitted to search these ecclesiastical records. This process began by writing letters to Patriarchate. Communications between Archimandrite Vissarion of the Library, Bishop Alexios and the Archives Committee were conducted before Vataki’s trip to ensure his welcome and prepare their staff for his preliminary work.

Around this time the Archive Committee learned of a young man, Gregory Kontos, who was then a history major at the University of Athens. After careful review it was concluded that this Kontos could serve as the researcher in both the Athens and Constantinople archives. This man’s duties were diverse. Kontos had to search through the various archives for documents related to the New Orleans community. He had to supervise and often conduct all the duplication, provide a word for word translation of these same documents and advise the New Orleans Committee on other documents or places for research suggested by the very investigative process itself. Convinced of existence of these documents and Kontos’ ability to serve as researcher/translator the Committee then presented the Holy Trinity Church Board a budget proposal for the purpose of hiring this researcher, travel expenses, duplicating of the documents, mailing and other costs related to this long distance search. Kontos has worked with Committee searching through the archives for three years.

Kontos also searched the historic files at the Hellenic Affairs in Athens because of the connection with Nicholas Benachi and Demetrius Botassi both consul generals and individuals deeply committed to establishing a church in New Orleans. The Committee was not interested in anything after 1920 since the Diocese in New York had been established by this time and as part of its daily duties took over the ecclesiastical administration of Holy Trinity.

Church of Greece records for New Orleans started in 1867. Among many letters, four were found that confirm the appointment of a priest. One of the most historically valuable discoveries was the document assigning Archimandrite Stefanos Andreadis to the New Orleans church. Among other things found in that letter were the specific instructions from the Church of Greece to Arch. Andreadis, in a point-by-point manner, as to which prayers he was supposed to invoke during church services. A letter was also sent to Consul for Greece in Washington Alexandros Rizos Rangavis (1808-1892) and a similar letter to Benachi recognizing the New Orleans church and informing both men that a priest was being sent to serve the parish.

Unexpectedly, a fortuitous review of Greek newspaper archives by Kontos led to the discovery of articles in the newspaper Ermoupoulis on Syros, the publisher of which was Kavour, who requested the Church of Greece to recognize Holy Trinity. At the same time Kontos located a document that listed Benachi in New Orleans receiving this newspaper. An extensive Ermoupoulis article described in great detail the 1867 Christmas liturgy celebrated by Arch. Andreadis in Holy Trinity.

The earliest Patriarchate correspondence was the 1880 letter from Patriarch Joachim to Benachi introducing him to Archimandrite Misael for his informative letter. Arch. Misael the fourth priest to serve at the New Orleans church. Fr. Misael asked for direction on a number of issues including the question, “What do I do with people who want to return to Orthodoxy? Is that going to require baptism?” Since the various Orthodox peoples found in New Orleans were without a priest for so long many had drifted into other denominations within New Orleans. Interestingly, the Patriarch also instructs Fr. Misael to pay attention to the other Greek Orthodox churches having problems starting up in America.

Through this sustained conservation effort the priceless artifacts and documents of Holy Trinity have been secured for the future generations. The results of this monumental eight year archival search effort will culminate in the publication of the parish’s 150 anniversary volume. The delay in publication is due to the close attention to historical accuracy based at all times on documented evidence.

The identities and actual daily efforts of the real laborers of historical preservation are not often included in the historical record itself. Fortunately we know who composed the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church Archive Committee: Vladimir Ammons, Nancy Athas, Karen Clark, Calliope Koundouroudas, Marko Koundouroudas, Fay Kalergi, Magdalene Maag, Helen Malachias, Nick Moustoukas, M.D., Elaine Nugent, Virginia Pepis, Connie Tiliakos, Dina Vatranis, Cathy Vial, Father George Wilson, Nicholas Xiros, Georgia Zervoudis and Ginny Zissis. While working to aid and preserve their community’s historical records these same individuals have also clarified and documented a pivotal place and time period in the history of Greeks in North America. These hardworking individuals are owed a debt of thanks by Hellenes everywhere.

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