2015-07-23 / Around Town

St. Spyridon Celebrates Centennial

By James Merolla

The pre-war photograph is the past, the present and the future; it is the beginning of the century and the middle; it is church, social hall, community, neighborhood; it is the history of an entire people in Newport.

“You look at that picture and you can connect to my mother, my father, to uncles, aunts, cousins,” said Elaine Parkos Holder. “The descendants are still here. The workers who were the workers in the 1920s, are still the workers in the 2000s; their children carry on.”

Holder and Leah Violet (Kazianis) are co-chairs of St. Spyridon’s 100th anniversary celebration, 1915-2015. The familiar Greek Orthodox Church on Thames Street will celebrate its centennial with three distinct events in summer and autumn.

The photograph displayed above was taken in the early 1940s and is being used by the committee as a poster symbol of the essence of the church; the core of the people who founded St. Spyridon’s.

“I think the celebration is just going back to the roots, to make you stop and think how it all started. It goes back to 1915, to the fishermen who came over and saw this little island and felt it was so much like Greece they moved here,” said Holder.

“It’s amazing how they came over and established what became the Hellenic Orthodox Community in 1915, and tried to find whoever they could to have their meetings, to have their services done,” added Holder. “Then, they had the opportunity to purchase this property from the Episcopal Church.

“These were just simple immigrant people who believed strongly in their faith and were not going to let it go,” said Holder. “Our grandparents, and parents, their faith was so strong.”

According to the church’s voluminous history available online, by 1896, four Greeks arrived in Newport, all from the island of Skiathos, which lies on the Aegean Sea, just east of the city of Volos.

These men saw they could make a living in Newport’s small, but thriving, fishing industry. More families followed and the Greeks began gathering at the Friends Meeting House in 1914. Meeting House in 1914.

The following year, services were also held on Spring Street and a friendship began between the Greeks and Episcopalians of Trinity Church.

Through the efforts of Stanley C. Hughes, rector at Trinity, the Kay Chapel was made available to the small community for mass. It was their principal place of worship through 1924, when they bought their own church. The congregation incorporated on Sept. 4, 1915, as the Hellenic Orthodox Community of Newport under the aegis of the Holy Synod of Greece. The Thames Street property today remains the community’s permanent home.

“The church was your social life; that was your life. Even when we were kids, there were no school dances. You’d go to the church hall,” said Holder.

“You went to Greek school and GOYA, a youth association,” added Violet. “We thought everyone was Greek.”

Most of their friends still are. “The families who started in 1915 are still here – the Violets, the Logothets, the Lewises, the Damascuses. Some of the original families are still prominent in the church,” said Holder.

There will be a trinity of events to mark the three-month celebration. The traditional Hellenic Greek Festival (food, music, dance under a tent) is scheduled for Friday, July 31 through Sunday, Aug. 2. Next is a Sept. 27 worship service with a luncheon to follow at the Atlantic Beach Club in Middletown. And third, a gala dinner-dance on Nov. 21 at the Hotel Viking, the type of large celebratory event organizers say the church hasn’t held in two decades.

At the Sept. 27 Mass, six former parish priests – still referred to as Fathers Anthony, Bob, John, Peter, Steve and Tom – will participate at the service. Father George Economou, who arrived in the fall of 2008 from Assumption Church in Pawtucket, is the current spiritual leader. “Everyone is very excited and working on different events to celebrate. We didn’t have the Hellenic Festival last year, so this year, we have a lot more energy to do this,” he smiled. “It’s a very beautiful event and there are always new things to do.”Among them, the doors of the church have been replaced and the pews restored. The outside of church will be painted soon. The only thing the church has lacked in the past half-century is parking spaces on narrow Thames Street.

“We’re dressing up for our 100th anniversary,” said Father Economou. “Hopefully, today’s workers will bear children to keep working.’’

A group photo will be taken. Elaine Holder and Leah Violet want their great-great-grandchildren to point them out.“We stand alone on our little island,” said Holder. “And we stand together.”

Read more online at Stspyridonchurch.org and hellenicfest.org.

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