100 years: Utah's Greek community

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Constantine Skedros has just finished a church history called "100 Years of Faith and Fervor."

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

On Wednesday morning, at Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church, Father Matthew Gilbert celebrated a service of Divine Liturgy for Saint Demetrios the Great Martyr. The congregation included dozens of children from the St. Sophia parochial school, which is housed in the Prophet Elias Church.

During the homily, Father Gilbert told Demetrios' story in simple words, so the children could understand. He talked of the bravery of this saint who was born in the year 270 A.D. and who was killed because he would not give up his faith in Christ. Father Gilbert urged his listeners to be brave as well.

Be brave in doing what is right, even if others laugh at you, he said. Be brave enough to be a peacemaker. Be brave when you make a mistake. Ask for forgiveness and try again.

"What do you do when you make a mistake on your paper in school?" he asked the children. "You erase. You ask for help." In the same way, we must ask for God's help every day, he said.

The children, even the littlest ones, appeared to be paying attention to his words. They also seemed to know the liturgy of the church. As the service progressed, they knew when to say "Lord, have mercy," and when to say "Grant this, O Lord," and they knew when to say these words in English and when to say them in Greek.

Meanwhile, at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Salt Lake, Father Michael Kouremetis also conducted a service in honor of Saint Demetrios on Wednesday morning. His congregation was older, for the most part. But the liturgy — the prayers and the responses and the chants and the Bible readings were the same. In fact, the same words and the same service for Saint Demetrios was said in Orthodox churches all over the world, on Wednesday.

This weekend, Utah's Greek community will celebrate its 100th anniversary. People will dine and dance — and take in a history display. They'll honor the first immigrants, the men who came to work on the railroads and in the mines and the women who married them and started families half a world away from their own mothers and fathers.

Above all, they'll celebrate their faith. One hundred years ago this month, on 400 West and 400 South in Salt Lake City, the first Greek Orthodox Church in Utah was consecrated.

Father Kouremetis says it is the church that has kept the Greek heritage and culture alive in this state. The church has kept the language alive and kept families united, generation after generation. "The church is the bonding agent which kept us all together and gave us, always, hope. Even in the darkest times."

And there were some hard times, says Constantine Skedros, who has just finished a church history called "100 Years of Faith and Fervor." The immigrants who came here at the turn of the past century came because their families were desperately poor, Skedros says.

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.

The 1900 Census showed three Greeks in Utah. But by 1904 there were several hundred Greek men working in and around the Salt Lake Valley. Their labor came cheap, but they worked hard and they were saving — a dime here, a nickel there — to build a church.

In 1905, 200 Greek men met and formed a corporation. They bought land near 400 West on 400 South for $1,600 and got a loan from the Walker Brothers' bank for $7,000. The first Holy Trinity Church was consecrated on Oct. 29, 1905.

Salt Lake City, then, became the site of the 14th Greek Orthodox Parish in the United States, the first parish to be established between St. Louis and San Francisco.

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