2017-07-27 / Faith Community

A Conversation with Rev. John Afendoulis

By James Merolla


Rev. John E. Afendoulis Rev. John E. Afendoulis Last year, only days removed from his arrival in Newport, the bearded Rev. John E. Afendoulis, saw facial hair approaching that has reached near legendary status around these parts. The owner of the impressive mustache, topped by glasses above and a politician’s smile below, stuck out his hand.

Forgetting he had invited Newport Mayor Harry Winthrop to his parish, Afendoulis thought, “Oh, this is one Greek I hadn’t met yet. Wait, you’re the Mayor? With that mustache, you are already half Greek.’”

Father John, which is his sobriquet to parishioners, came to St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church 14 months ago. The roots of his parish date back to 1896, when a few fishermen arrived here from Skiathos in the Greek islands.

A former monk from Grand Rapids, Mich., Afendoulis had served in Orthodox churches in California, Louisiana, Texas, and even Greece. Ordained in 2011, he served in a monastery in Brookline, Mass. for 12 years. His two stints as pastor were in churches in Salinas, Calif. and San Angelo, Texas.


St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church will hold its annual Hellenic Fest under the big tent in the lot adjacent to the church, located at the corner of Thames and Brewer streets. It is their biggest fundraiser of the year. The festival is on July 28, from 4 p.m.-12 a.m.; July 28, from noon-1 a.m.; and July 29, from noon-6 p.m. Taste authentic homemade Greek dishes such as souvlaki from the grill or a gyro from the cone. Greek desserts such as baklava, along with beer, wines and ouzo are available. There will also be music and dancing and a marketplace. Admission is free. For more information visit hellenicfest.org. St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church will hold its annual Hellenic Fest under the big tent in the lot adjacent to the church, located at the corner of Thames and Brewer streets. It is their biggest fundraiser of the year. The festival is on July 28, from 4 p.m.-12 a.m.; July 28, from noon-1 a.m.; and July 29, from noon-6 p.m. Taste authentic homemade Greek dishes such as souvlaki from the grill or a gyro from the cone. Greek desserts such as baklava, along with beer, wines and ouzo are available. There will also be music and dancing and a marketplace. Admission is free. For more information visit hellenicfest.org. Raised by devout grandparents on both sides, they engrained in him a deep faith and devotion to the Greek culture and language. His patriarchs and matriarchs escaped Turkey rather than face possible annihilation, as happened to more than 1 million Armenians a decade earlier.

“The Turkish ruler, Attaturk, threw out all Greek Orthodox Christians between 1922 and 1924,” Afendoulis said. “My grandfather, on my mother’s side, said, ‘If I have to start all over again, I have a cousin in Detroit. I’m going to America.’ My family is very close.”

They opened a small restaurant in the shadow of a Ford factory, which swelled with business, like his grandmother’s forearms.

“My grandmother’s arms would swell right at the wrist. I asked her, ‘Grandma, what happened to your arm?’ She said, ‘Your grandfather.’ She had to mash tons of potatoes by hand (and) it made her arm twice as big,” Afendoulis said. “At their restaurant, you would get mashed potatoes, a side sweet, a bun, two pork chops, Greek-style vegetables and a cup of coffee for a quarter. The men came from the factory across the street. They were smart, very hard-working, Godfearing people. I learned piety from my grandparents.”

The former monk had to marry a woman who had never previously married in order to be ordained into the priesthood. “I married late. I waited for God to send me the right bride,” he said of his Romanian born wife, Adina, a physicist. “I subscribe to the saying, ‘Happy wife, happy life.’”

They have two sons, Auxentios, 5 and Orestes, 2. Both children were named after the Patron Saints of his maternal grandmother’s village, Cappadocia. Orestes has endured more travails than Ulysses, the Greek legend of trials.

“The bishop in Boston accepted me to come here, [understanding the challenges of our youngest son], who had heart surgery [in the third week of his life]. He is progressing very, very slowly,” Afendoulis said. “The doctors are encouraged. In San Angelo, we were five hours away from the children’s hospital.”

The family petitioned the bishop to be in a parish closer to proper care. “[He] graciously gave me a call and said, ‘Do you want Newport? It’s less than two hours away from Boston Children’s Hospital,’” he said.

“My wife works with our son, one-on-one, 24/7. She is a machine,” he said.

A second salary would be nice, especially for a physicist, but they have to wait until Orestes is enrolled in school. “We prefer Newport, even though you deal with winter,” Afendoulis said.

It was eight below zero on the day he arrived in February 2016. He ordered a hot pizza from a Thames Street shop, and by the time he got home, it was nearly frozen. Still, it beats 85-degree Texas weather on Christmas, he said.

“We are unique as the only Orthodox church on Aquidneck Island. We get wedding reservations among Orthodox people all along the East Coast. Newport is such a wonderful backdrop,” he said.

He said the church’s biggest obstacle is parking space. “The big problem with us is, where do you put the parishioners, especially in summer?” he said.

A larger issue is attracting those parishioners. His parish hangs onto a generation that is very busy, the progeny of a generation that is ending. “It’s not that my people don’t want to come. They have jobs, occupations. Their parents pass on. They just get old. In the last two years, we had 18 funerals here,” he said.

But if you are going to have a funeral, this is the place. “Newport is where we want to die. We do not ever want to leave here,” he said.

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