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Greek Orthodoxy in the U.S.: A Family Affair

A history of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States.

“My husband says that among Greeks in the United States there may be only 20 or so families,” declares Mrs. Nikki Stephanopoulos, Public Affairs Officer for the New York-based Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. “We’re all related!”

Indeed, the Stephanopoulos family is an example of the close-knit Greek-American family extolled by Mrs. Stephanopoulos as the secret to the success of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States. Her husband, the Rev. Robert G. Stephanopoulos, is Dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan and Adjunct Professor of Eastern Christian Thought at St. John’s University. Their daughter entered an Orthodox community in upstate New York. As Sister Anastasia, she has traveled to Jerusalem to live with a Russian community of nuns in a convent on the Mount of Olives. And their son George, an advisor to President Bill Clinton, “might have been a priest had he not a passion for politics,” his mother says proudly.

Although the idea of a common familial ancestry may seem an exaggeration, the preservation of a Greek identity, embracing culture, history, language and religion, strengthens the greater Greek-American family, which is the heart of the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S.

Interestingly, this country’s Greek-American community of 1.5 million is not a homogenous lot. Most are descendants of immigrants from Greece proper. Yet many emigrated from Greek communities in the Balkans, Cyprus, Egypt and Turkey, lands that remained a part of the empire of the Ottoman Turks after Greece achieved its independence in 1830. And though they speak Greek, eat Greek fare and claim classical and Byzantine Greek history as their own, the experiences of these immigrants are distinct.

Greeks have long emigrated to the shores of the U.S. At first, most were unskilled male laborers who left small villages in the Peloponnesus in pursuit of improved economic opportunities. Greece was an impoverished nation, slowly recovering after centuries of economic decline. These immigrants, however, were far too few and transient to influence the American scene. Not until the end of the last century did Greeks immigrate in sufficient numbers to establish a permanent presence.

These numbers escalated dramatically after two traumatic events: the pogroms that decimated the Ottoman’s large Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities during World War I and the expulsion of more than a million Greeks after the Turkish defeat of an invading Greek army in 1922. (Greece returned the favor, expelling from its soil most of its Turkish citizens.)

Greek immigrants settled mainly in the textile towns of New England and the industrial cities of Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Like most of Europe’s country people, they centered their lives on the festal cycles of the church, a way of life developed in Byzantine times and left relatively undisturbed by the Ottomans. Once in the New World these immigrants continued this pattern, even though they settled in the cities. At first, they attended liturgy at any of the local Orthodox churches that may have already been established. As the number of Greek immigrants increased, so to did the pressure to establish Greek-speaking parishes, which they believed would sustain their customs and traditions.

Bolstered by this notion, leaders of the kinotis, or community, took the initiative, pledging funds and manpower to build and support ethnic Greek parishes. Once enough money had been collected, the leader of the kinotis would request a priest from either the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople (renamed Istanbul after the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1922) or the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece.

In the 1890s, Greek-American communities in New York, Chicago and Lowell, Mass., established national parishes. After the turn of the century, the number of parishes swelled. Father Stephanopoulos writes that 60 percent of the more than 550 parishes now embraced by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America were firmly established by 1920.

The priests sent to these fledgling Greek-American parishes were ill prepared for the pace of American life and culture. Drawn from Greek villages, these priests, the temporal and spiritual leaders of the community, were educated in the severe Byzantine monastic tradition. They reacted with hostility to the freer American lifestyle and subsequent assimilation of many immigrants. Classrooms were set up, often with the priest as teacher, to instruct students in modern Greek and instill a sense of Greek culture and tradition.

Ethnic loyalties remained intense. Cultural and political events in the old country fueled this intensity, thus dividing the Greek-American community. Complicating the issue was the extension in 1908 of the authority of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece to all Greek parishes in the U.S.

The Orthodox Church of Greece, the established church of the Kingdom of Greece, was intimately involved with the politics of the Kingdom. During World War I, a quarrel regarding Greece’s role in the war erupted between the King, Constantine I (1863-1923), and the head of the powerful Liberal Party, Eleutherios Venizelos (1864-1936). Each enlisted the support of certain bishops in the synod. Constantine’s renunciation of the throne in 1917, and Venizelos’s assumption of the position of Prime Minister, divided the church. This had a devastating effect on the Greek-American community, in particular the church.

In 1918, the Metropolitan of Athens, Archbishop Meletios Metaxakis, traveled to the U.S. and established a Synodical Council for the Greek-American Church. However Metropolitan Meletios, who was appointed by Venizelos, was ordered back to Athens and replaced by a royalist bishop when Constantine regained the throne in 1920.

Meletios, however, soon returned to the U.S. and, asserting his position as the legitimate head of the Church of Greece, assumed authority for the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S. He summoned the first clergy-laity congress in 1921, which provided the basis for the formal incorporation of the Archdiocese of North and South America in New York in 1922.

While Meletios worked to establish an administration for the Greek-American Church, a bishop dispatched by King Constantine traveled to the U.S. to reassert the Holy Synod’s control. The presence of two rival hierarchs, representatives of the restored King and deposed Prime Minister, divided the church and community along the same lines.

According to Charles C. Moskos, Jr., Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, there was a discernible pattern to this schism. The more tradition-oriented working-class Greek Communities of the Northeast sided with the Holy Synod and the royalist camp. The assimilationist middle class, especially in the Middle West, sided with Meletios and the Liberal Party.

In January 1922, in a dramatic turn of events, Metropolitan Meletios was elected Ecumenical Patriarch, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox world. That March, Meletios IV restored the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, where it remains today.

Despite these bewildering family feuds involving a number of personalities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S. has flourished.

The number of Greek immigrants declined dramatically after the mid-1920s, when Congress passed the national quota act of 1921 and then placed even tighter controls on immigration in 1924. Meanwhile, at least half of those who arrived in the peak years of immigration returned to the old country. The community stabilized after a few decades in which the politics of the homeland ceased to disrupt Greek-American life.

Archbishop Athenagoras, who was elected Archbishop of North and South America in 1930, worked to bring peace to the Greek-American community. He visited parishes, asserted the role of the laity, founded Holy Cross School of Theology and launched the philanthropic Ladies Philoptochos Society.

In 1948, this tireless advocate of church unity was elected Ecumenical Patriarch. Athenagoras’s successor, Archbishop Michael, gently guided his community into the modern postwar era, establishing an Office of information and Public Relations and reaching out to the youth by creating the Greek Orthodox Youth of America.

The period of greatest growth for the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S. coincides with the 37-year tenure of Archbishop Iakovos as the head of the Archdiocese of North and South America. New parish churches, reflecting both the increasing prosperity and the mobility of the Greek community, have been built in the affluent suburbs, particularly in California, the South and the Southwest. Schools for the liturgical arts, particularly in iconography, are engaged in ambitious programs in churches and shrines of the Archdiocese. Except in those areas where there is a significant immigrant community, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in English.

According to Mrs. Stephanopoulos, a considerable number of non-Greeks are entering the Greek Orthodox Church. Much of this growth reflects the marital trends of the community; mixed marriages are no longer taboo. As Greeks leave the old immigrant neighborhoods for the suburbs, the prospect of marrying an Orthodox spouse decreases. Yet a substantial portion of non-Greeks enter into communion with the church largely on the vitality of the sacraments.

“The liturgy is our greatest strength,” she points out.

American-born priests now outnumber those foreign-born priests who continue to come to the U.S. to work with a growing number of recent immigrants.

Holy Cross Seminary, in Brookline, Mass., has been reorganized and is now a fully accredited theological institution. Hellenic College, founded in 1968, functions as an undergraduate school in conjunction with the seminary.

Perhaps the most meaningful development in the Orthodox Church in the U.S. may be attributed to the determination of Archbishop Iakovos: the creation, in 1960, of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, SCOBA.

Ethnic and political tensions have stunted the growth of the Orthodox Church in diaspora, especially in the U.S. More than 1,600 Orthodox parishes, 75 bishops, five theological seminaries and more than a dozen monasteries belong to the family of Orthodox churches in the U.S. Yet these living institutions are divided up among several jurisdictions. SCOBA, which is chaired by Archbishop Iakovos, seeks to establish communication among the churches and pool together the rich and varied resources of the Orthodox Church.

The Greek Orthodox Church, which has begun its second century of active ministry in the United States, has assumed “a more prominent role in the political, economic and general life of America,” writes Father Stephanopoulos.

Hopefully, as the greater Greek-American family continues to deepen its commitment to faith and church, this commitment will in turn strengthen our country, our communities and our churches.

Michael La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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