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.

The Greek community quickly outgrew their church, Skedros says. In 1924, they built a new Holy Trinity Cathedral on 300 South and 300 West. They moved the altar from the first Holy Trinity, along with a reliquary containing the remains of saints, the reliquary that had been placed in the first church when it was consecrated.

In the 1960s, the community struggled over whether or not to build a second church. By this time, there were more than 1,000 children in the Sunday School and the church had gone to two worship services and two Sunday Schools every week. Everyone worried that their tightknit community would suffer if they didn't meet in the same building each week.

Eventually 75 percent of the members approved the proposal to build a second church on Highland Drive. Prophet Elias was finished in 1969.

Over the years, more and more English has been incorporated into the liturgy, Skedros notes. A typical service at Holy Trinity will be half in English, half in Greek. At Prophet Elias, it will be 60 percent or 70 percent English.

There's no reason for people who don't understand Greek to get lost, Skedros points out. The service is printed in both languages, in little books, in every pew. And the liturgy books also give an introduction to an Orthodox service. They explain what Orthodox worshippers have been doing, in a variety of languages and in a variety of countries, for 2,000 years.

It is what the children were doing last Wednesday. It is a way of worship that the Orthodox faithful hope will continue for all the generations to come, here in Utah. The description reads:

On the verbal side of the Liturgy we hear: eloquent prayers of praise, thanksgiving, intercession and confession; litanies, petitions, acclamations, greetings and invitations; hymns, chants, psalmody and creedal statements; and intoned and scriptural readings and a homily. On the non-verbal side, we are involved with solemn processions and an assortment of liturgical gestures. The eyes are filled with the actions of the servers, as well as with the sights of the Lord and his saints gazing at us from the icons. The nostrils are filled with the fragrance of incense, and the heart is grasped by the profound silence of the divine presence. People touch hands gently, saying, "Christ is in our midst," when called upon to love one another before the offering of the gifts as a sign of mutual forgiveness and love. With one voice and heart they recite the creed, and recommit themselves to the fulness of the truth of the Orthodox faith. Participating in Holy Communion, the faithful taste and see that the Lord is good.


Worship together

Everyone is invited to share the 100th Anniversary Hierarchial Divine Liturgy, when both of Salt Lake City's Greek Orthodox congregations worship together at 10 a.m. Sunday in Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple.

His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver will be assisted by local and visiting clergy and the combined choirs of the Prophet Elias and Holy Trinity Churches.


E-mail: susan@desnews.com

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