Cheyenne, WY – When you think of the magical, seemingly endless vistas that frame Wyoming, chances are what comes riding into mind are cowboys, bucking broncos, Old Faithful, and sagebrush – not necessarily souvlaki, moussaka and baklava.
While the state records fewer than 2,000 residents who claim Greek ancestry, that contradicts the record turnout at this year’s Greek Festival in Cheyenne. The two-day event, sponsored by Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, was held in mid-September at Frontier Park, near the church. With 65,000 residents, Cheyenne serves as the capital and largest city in a state that features a windswept and wide-open topography and a total population of around 588,000 – smallest in the land.
“We had our biggest year we’ve ever had!” said a gleeful Taylor Olson, the event’s director. “Even though we made extra food, we still sold out. Longtime favorites at the event run the gamut, from spanikopita to tiropita. “What really surprises me is how popular moussaka and pastitsio dishes are.” Festivalgoers, he said, come from as far away as more remote spots in the Cowboy State, Nebraska, and Colorado.
Armed with more than 100 volunteers, Olson said the Church rents the indoor facility. The festival shares a venue with Cheyenne Frontier Days, an outdoor rodeo and western feast that’s been a yearly staple since its founding in 1897. It bills itself as the ‘World’s Largest Outdoor Rodeo and Western Celebration’ and ‘The Daddy of ‘Em All’. It takes place for 10 days each July, h heralded as one of the largest events of its kind on the planet, attracting around 200,000 annual visitors.
Olson, 30, a native son of Cheyenne, said his lifelong parish, while not supersized, boasts “a growing community of over 100 families.” While it can’t compete with the membership rolls at the Assumption of the Theotokos Cathedral, situated 100 miles south in Denver, “we’re not exactly a super tiny church.” Saints Constantine and Helen is one of 50 parishes in the Metropolis of Denver.
Olson acknowledges some who are unfamiliar with Christian Orthodoxy tend to confuse it with Orthodox Judaism and its connection with Mount Sinai Synagogue, located a block away. At the same time, he added, the idea of Greeks in Cheyenne “is surprising to people. They ask, `are there that many Greek people in Cheyenne?’” However, relatively speaking, “it’s a pretty large group of Greeks,” working in fields such as law and medicine. “We have a very broad skill set that help us with the festival.”
Saints Constantine and Helen, he emphasized, isn’t the only Greek congregation in town. The other one is Holy Apostles Orthodox Church. There are also Orthodox parishes in two other Wyoming towns.
Olson, a graduate of the University of Wyoming, works in IT for the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. His late grandfather, Father Peter Harrison, was a “travelling priest” and the first pastor at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in its former home in Fort Collins County, where “the church started in a flower shop.” St. Spyridon now serves the northern Front Range from its home in neighboring Loveland. His grandfather, Olson recalled, “was one of the gentlest people. He had the quintessential character you’d like to see in a priest.”
The biggest challenge in mounting what has become one of the state’s most popular attractions, Olson said, was transforming all the individual threads into one solid quilt. Amid the inherent differences of opinion, “the challenges meshed in an exciting way.”
With this year’s edition of the festival in the books, Olson said he’s already looking ahead to next year. Come January, he emphasized, the enthusiasm in his voice driving toward a crescendo, the planning for 2024 begins anew. Fueled by the changes he helped implement this year, Olson said he would like keep the momentum going by serving as chairperson again. “I have the drive.”
Above all, Olson asserted he is overjoyed that the festival reflects the historic footprint of Orthodoxy in Cheyenne. The Church, he recalled, “had a nice big booth this year! Father Michael (Sergakis) was there the whole time!”
As the fierce, storied winds howl across the short-grass prairie, the canyons, and waterways like Crow River, Olson found his sweet spot in the conversation before signing off.
Obsessed by how the baklava that didn’t make the grade could be repurposed, he and his crew layered their assignment with a dose of confectioner genius.
“We took pieces of the baklava that didn’t come out pretty, ground them up, and used them as leftovers,” he announced passionately. “We made baklava sundaes out of baklava crumble, vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. People went nuts for it.”