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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Greek Orthodoxy in Mormon Zion

A proud Greek-American enclave perseveres

From the summit of Ensign Peak in Utah, a mountain Mormons believe sacred, the visitor takes in a panoramic view of the rugged but splendid geography of this unique southwestern American state. To the west, one glimpses the Great Salt Lake and desert; to the south, one looks down upon the Salt Lake Valley, which cradles the state capital, Salt Lake City, and its sprawling suburbs; and to the east, one’s vision is blocked by the Wasatch Mountains, a forbidding, craggy wall towering thousands of feet above the valley. It was through these mountains that the Latter-day Saints first entered the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847 after their long, difficult flight from religious persecution across America’s heartland. Mexican territory at the time, they and their followers nonetheless adopted the valley as their homeland, referring to it as “Mormon Zion,” and began settling what is today Salt Lake City.

A half-century later, the first Greek immigrants arrived in Salt Lake City. They did not come by handcart and oxen-pulled wagons, as did the original settlers, but by railroads built with immigrant labor in the decades before their arrival. Attracted to Utah with promises of jobs on the railroads, most of these Greeks soon began laying railroad tracks themselves.

One man in particular, known as the “Tsar of the Greeks,” is largely responsible for this early Greek immigration. An immigrant himself, Leonidas Skliris learned railroad construction while working on a railroad gang in the Middle West. As construction extended westward, he saw an economic opportunity in recruiting the needed labor. Through the efforts of “the tsar,” a steady stream of young Greek men began flowing to the Salt Lake Valley, where the discovery of valuable minerals led to the opening of several coal mines and a copper production plant — industries needing extensive railway networks to be built by thousands of men.

Lured by dreams of plentiful work and easy money, many of these Greeks expected they would save money and return to their homeland within a few years. Some did return home, but the vast majority stayed, persevering against economic hardship and discrimination.

“There were some hard times,” says Constantine Skedros, the son of Greek immigrants and a local church historian. “The first Greek immigrants came here because their families were desperately poor. They probably never intended to stay. They thought they’d send some money home, perhaps help pay for a dowry so their sister could marry or tide the family over in a year when the crops had failed. When they realized they would stay, they knew they would need to make the observances of their faith.”

By the early 1900’s, thousands of Greek immigrants were living in the Salt Lake Valley. A two-block area in downtown Salt Lake City, known as Greek Town, became the hub of the city’s Hellenic community. In 1905, hundreds of families pooled their money to build Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, with Archimandrite Parthenos Lymberopoulos serving as the parish’s first pastor.

By the 1920’s, more than 100 Greek-owned storefronts lined Greek Town’s streets, including coffee shops, drugstores, bakeries and groceries selling imports from the Mediterranean, such as olive oil, goat cheese, liqueurs, figs and dates. In the same decade, Holy Trinity parish had outgrown its original church and it was sold in 1920 to help finance the construction of a larger church nearby. Five years later, Holy Trinity Cathedral was consecrated.

Greek communities also took root in nearby mining towns, notably in the rural town of Ogden, 35 miles north of Salt Lake City, and in Price, the largest town in Carbon County to the southeast. In 1916, Greek Orthodox parishioners built Assumption Church in Price.

Greek immigration to Utah declined sharply in the late 1920’s, when new federal immigration laws based on nationality curtailed the number of immigrants coming from southern Europe. In the 1960’s, a new wave of Greek immigration to Utah began, lasting for another 20 years. In 1962, Greek Orthodox parishioners built Transfiguration Church in Ogden. In 1969, Greek families built Prophet Elias Church, the Salt Lake City area’s second Orthodox church.

The precise number of Utahans of Greek descent is difficult to assess. In the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly 12,000 state residents reported to be of Greek ancestry. Approximately 1,000 active families, or about 4,000 people, belong to the Greek Orthodox Church of Greater Salt Lake. While small compared to the larger Greek-American enclaves in the eastern United States, Utah’s Greek-American community is thriving. According to the 2000 Census, Utah ranks ninth in the nation with respect to the percentage of the population claiming Greek ancestry.

Preservation of identity. Today, the Greek Orthodox Church is the binding force for Utah’s Hellenic community. Father Matthew Gilbert, pastor of Holy Trinity Cathedral, describes the parish as very active, with no shortage of activities, especially for the youth. Still, says the priest, himself “Greek” by marriage, passing down the faith to the next generation remains a challenge.

“The hardest thing is the spiritual aspect. It’s nice to dance and to play basketball. We have Greek schools, dance programs, Orthodox Christian camps in the summer, Greek camp, Sunday school. We offer everything imaginable, but it’s up to individuals to cultivate their spiritual life. It’s always easier to cultivate the fun things, but a spiritual life is difficult. It takes a lot of work. Being baptized is the easy part. The rest is commitment.”

The parish offers Greek language classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. “We do offer Greek courses, but everyone nowadays has many different activities: sports, music and dance. I think it’s getting harder and harder for people to choose. And I think the language is placed on the backburner,” says Father Gilbert.

St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox School in Holladay, a Salt Lake City suburb, also teaches Greek language and culture. Established in 1996 near Prophet Elias Church, St. Sophia provides a rigorous education to a diverse student body from kindergarten through grade six. There are plans to expand the curriculum to include grades seven and eight.

The school prefers to keep its size small and intimate, enrolling just 90 students across all grades and employing 14 teachers. Currently, its one-to-seven teacher-to-student ratio ranks among the lowest in the metropolitan area — a quality that appeals to many parents.

Anastasia Kontgis, a mother with two children at St. Sophia’s, is one such parent. “Every teacher knows all the kids. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in third grade or kindergarten or sixth grade, everybody knows each other. We’re like a little family here.”

The school emphasizes Orthodox Christian principles and includes lessons on the faith, Hellenic culture and Greek language. Greek language occupies a central place in the curriculum and students begin early, learning to read, write and speak Greek from kindergarten onward.

With so much weight placed on all things Greek, one might assume that St. Sophia’s attracts exclusively students of Greek descent. Surprisingly, only about 70 percent of the student body comes from Greek Orthodox families. The remaining 30 percent consists of a diverse mix of students from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. The school’s diversity has become a point of pride for the community — faculty, parents and students.

Shawn Winder, a mother who enrolled her daughter at St. Sophia’s, appreciates the diversity of the student body and that her daughter learns a language to which most American children are never exposed. Most important, she chose St. Sophia’s after learning about its great academic reputation and its commitment to small classes. She says that the size of kindergarten classes in the neighborhood public school may be as high as 34 children.

Connecting to the larger community. These days, Salt Lake City’s Greek Town is a far cry from its heyday as a bustling Greek immigrant commercial and cultural hub. Holy Trinity Cathedral remains and serves an active community, but most of the neighborhood’s Greek-owned businesses — not to mention Greek-born residents — are a distant memory, commemorated only by a stop on the city’s light rail.

But for one long weekend every September, Greek Town as it once was reawakens, as tens of thousands of visitors descend on Holy Trinity Cathedral for the annual Greek Festival. For more than 30 years, Holy Trinity has sponsored the event, which celebrates modern Hellenic culture. Last September, the festival drew more than 50,000 visitors. Youth perform traditional dances, chefs hold cooking demonstrations and the public tours the cathedral and Hellenic Cultural Museum. Of course, the main attraction is the food.

The cooking and baking begin in May. Such a large event requires hundreds of volunteers, who cook and prepare the massive quantities of food in the months leading up to the main event. On the festival’s grounds, food is everywhere. Whole lambs roast on spits; pork and chicken souvlakia (skewers) line grills; stacks of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) cover large dishes, pilaf (Greek-style rice) simmers in industrial-size vats; and baklava and other pastries tempt visitors at every turn.

Mike Pappadakis, who has volunteered at the festival for the last 25 years, prepares lemon chicken. Taking a break from the grill, he and some friends share a drink and conversation.

“Throw some stuff on the grill like your mother’s done for years and you get some credibility,” heckles one of his friends playfully. Mom’s recipe or not, the simple dish is delicious and authentic, marinated with the essential flavors of Greece: lemon and oregano.

Life with the Mormons. While a degree of ethnic and religious diversity has long characterized Utah and, in particular, Salt Lake City, both remain largely synonymous with its major religious group — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (L.D.S.), or the Mormons. Mormons consider Utah their religious homeland, and Salt Lake City serves as the church’s spiritual and administrative seat.

In recent decades, the state and its capital have experienced dramatic demographic changes. Utah’s steady economic growth and low unemployment rate have drawn countless “gentiles” (a term some Mormons use to refer to non-Mormons) from other states and countries, making its population one of the fastest growing in the nation. In recent years, for the first time in history, slightly more than half of the one million residents in the state’s most populous county, Salt Lake County, identify as non-Mormon.

Many of Utah’s Greek-Americans have prospered. However, as an ethnic and religious minority, they have experienced discrimination, and still do so on occasion. Diane Johnson, a volunteer at the annual Greek Festival and resident of the predominantly Mormon suburb of Bountiful for 48 years, recalls the difficulties of growing up Greek in a Mormon world.

“Growing up, we were ostracized for being Greek and I didn’t want my kids to go through what I did, so I decided to put them in a parochial school,” she explains. Yet, while her daughter attended parochial school, Mrs. Johnson remembers an incident when, as a high school student, her daughter was no longer allowed to date a young man once his parents found out she was not Mormon.

Jeff Pedersen, an 18-year-old college student of Greek ancestry, describes elementary school in Utah. Mormon classmates would often ask him if he worshiped Zeus or why he wore a “T” around his neck. Mormons do not embrace the cross as a Christian symbol.

“When I was younger people couldn’t be friends with me because I wasn’t L.D.S.,” says his 16-year-old brother, Chris. “Now that I’m in high school, the maturity level has changed and people are a lot more open-minded; I have lots of L.D.S. friends now.”

Vera Limantzakis, co-owner of the Greek Market, recalls attending a Mormon church as a child from time to time, when the weather was too bad to walk the two miles from her home to Holy Trinity Cathedral. “I went to their [L.D.S.] primary [Sunday school] and church, because Mom never drove. Sunday was Sunday and we went to the church just so we could be in a church. They wanted to convert you and everything, but we were never converted,” she says with a laugh.

Yet while many of Utah’s Greek-Americans have an anecdote or two about life with their Mormon neighbors, for the most part, they describe as cordial the relationship between the two communities.

A diverse church. In recent decades, a significant number of non-Greeks have joined Utah’s Greek Orthodox community. Some of this new membership reflects the dramatic increase in mixed marriages — approximately 90 percent of today’s marriages in Utah’s Greek Orthodox Church are mixed. Many of these new spouses, however, join the church.

In addition, immigrants from traditionally Orthodox parts of the world other than Greece, such as the Middle East, southeastern Europe and Russia, have joined the church.

As a result of the congregation’s changing ethnic composition, as well as the forces of assimilation, Utah’s Orthodox priests generally celebrate the Divine Liturgy in English.

At Prophet Elias Church, Father Michael Kouremetis says he celebrates about 99 percent of the liturgy in English, something he never anticipated as a young seminarian.

“Within the church, we keep our orthodoxy, that’s number one; we also keep our heritage. We’ll always keep our traditions, they won’t be lost, but I think English is needed. Greek is a beautiful language if you understand it, but we can’t be pleasing just our ears, we have to nurture our souls and hearts, we have to understand what we’re worshiping,” says Father Kouremetis.

At Holy Trinity Cathedral, Father Gilbert says he celebrates the Divine Liturgy, or parts of it, in Greek, but only when elderly parishioners are in the congregation. Even then, he says he repeats everything in English. Father Gilbert also delivers his homily entirely in English.

As they have for more than a century, Utah’s Hellenic community continues to thrive and celebrate its distinct Orthodox faith. Passionate about the faith and its traditions, Father Kouremetis hopes to share them with Utah’s Christian community as a whole. This year, he plans on hosting an ecumenical book fair and lecture series entitled “Celebration of Orthodox Christianity.” According to him, Father Alexander Schmemann once said that Orthodoxy is the church’s best-kept secret. For his part, Father Kouremetis wants to change this old adage. “People understand us for our food,” says the priest, “but I want them to know us for our religion.”

A native of Utah, Cody Christopulos is CNEWA’s publications coordinator.

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