In May of 1914, the Very Reverend Archimandrite Andrew Constantinidis put out a call for money to help build a Greek Orthodox Church in Schenectady. His appeal was heard around the state.
“Outside of New York City, St. George is the second oldest Greek church in the state to the one in Buffalo,” said Olga Delorey, a member since the early 1960s. “We have the original minutes from the first meeting, and we know who those early donors were and we have all the records. Many of the donations from outside Schenectady came from people living in Rochester, Poughkeepsie, Syracuse, all over the state. Some people only gave a dollar, some gave $5, and that was probably a lot of money in those days.”
A century later, St. George is celebrating its 100th year, and next weekend the parish at 107 Clinton St., right across from City Hall, will hold its 39th annual Greek Festival, Sept. 5-7, with plenty of food, music and culture.
“But our festival is more than just about the food and the culture,” said Rev. Theodore C. Roupas, who became the residing priest at St. George in October of 2013. “It is an opportunity to learn about the ancient [Eastern Orthodox] Christian faith as well. We’ll have church tours and presentations throughout the weekend, and visitors will have the opportunity to see the interior of the sanctuary. All are welcome.”
The Greek Orthodox Church dates itself back to the original Christian church of the 12 Apostles, while in America the first official Greek Orthodox community developed in New Orleans in 1864. In 1892, the first Greek Orthodox Church was built, now called the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, in New York City.
39th annual Greek Festival
WHERE: St. George Greek Orthodox Church’s Hellenic Center, 510 Liberty St., Schenectady
WHEN: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Sept. 5-6), noon-7 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 7)
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 393-0742, www.saintgeorgegoc.com
“Our church dates back to Jesus Christ and his Apostles nearly 2,000 years ago,” said Roupas, who had been serving a parish in Nassau, the Bahamas, for three years before coming to Schenectady. “A lot of people like to say we’re the Catholic Church minus the Pope. But it’s much more than just that. There’s quite a difference.”
Greek Orthodox Churches are united in communion with the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, which include the Russian Orthodox Church and many other Eastern European Orthodox Churches. In Schenectady, it was three men — James Stathelopoulos, Nicholas Contompasis and Anthony Svolos — who got 13 Greek-American families together in the spring of 1914 to create a Greek Orthodox congregation.
The first meeting was held at 331 State St., near the railroad overpass in downtown Schenectady, and in April of 1915 the group bought some property at 107 Clinton St., and built its first church. The congregation flourished and grew but on Feb. 7, 1937, a fire of unknown origin completely destroyed the building. The new church building, as it looks now, opened at the same site in 1939.
Bill Manikas, now a Rotterdam resident, grew up on Lincoln Avenue in Schenectady and attended St. George with his parents, sister and two brothers. Born in 1930, he doesn’t remember the fire but he can recall going to church before the new building was complete.
“I remember the basement and the flooring that they had in, and mostly I remember me and a lot of other kids just running around the place,” said Manikas. “On Sundays we went to church. That’s what the family did, and I assume all the other Greek families did the same thing.”
Rev. Toupas still does part of his Sunday service in Greek, which is one of the reasons Manikas still attends the church today.
“I go because of my parents,” he said. “They were Greek speaking and so was I. I assume I spoke it fluently but I don’t know. I know I can’t speak it that well now. I guess the church has been Americanized in some ways, but it still reminds me of the old days, and my parents.”
Steve Kouray, a Schenectady attorney, has been attending the church for over 60 years.
“It’s a very unique place, and we take great pride in it,” said Kouray, whose parents and grandparents were members. “I was baptized there, served as an altar boy and was married there. I’ll probably be buried there.”
Kouray, who grew up at the Sheridan Village Apartments on the north side of Schenectady, said his father was born in the small building adjacent to the church.
“He was born in there on the second floor, and I believe a lot of Greek immigrants spent time there, using that building as their home,” he said. “The place will always be family to me. There are so many wonderful people there, and now my grandchildren have been baptized there and go to Sunday school there.”
The church’s Hellenic Center at 510 Liberty St. opened in 1961. It is attached to the main church building and consists of a large hall with a stage, and numerous offices. Much of the food cooked for the festival will be on sale at the Hellenic Center as well as booths set up outside the building. Admission to the festival is free.
“Each year the parishioners of St. George work hard to prepare an unforgettable cultural and culinary experience for everyone,” said Evan Euripidou, festival chairman and parish president. “We take great pride in our Greek heritage as we observe the 100th anniversary of our parish, and we’re incredibly excited to share our faith and our culture with the community around us.”
Many of the church’s members are still of Greek descent. Others, like Delorey, have plenty of Eastern European blood in them.
“I am not Greek, but my roots are Ukrainian, and I was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church,” said Delorey. “But they’re all part of the Eastern Orthodox religion. You could be Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, Serbian. It’s only the language that’s different. The structure is all the same.”
Of course, there are also a growing number of “outsiders.”
“We still have our Greek roots, but the face of the church is changing a little bit,” said Roupas, whose wife is Romanian. “We don’t have the influx of Greek immigrants coming like we used to, and we have people who have married into the church. I’m starting to use a little more English in Sunday services, but it’s still a pretty good mixture.”