As the Greeks immigrated to the United States of America, they created new communities outside of the motherland in key cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. In order to maintain their ties to their ethnicity and continue to participate in their unique customs, it was extremely important for them to establish Greek Orthodox Churches in their new homes. These communities were the center places where they could gather, pray together, baptize their young, marry, educate their children and make their mark in their new home.
Thus began the story of the immigrants who went through the process of adjusting to a foreign city, taking advantage of every opportunity to build a better way of life and retaining a profound awareness of their identity and heritage. Most Greek immigrants came to this country for the economic opportunity of building a better life. They brought with them a love of freedom, the pursuit of excellence, competition, pride (philotimo), and a strong sense of community. These values and ideals were essential components seen within their homes, in the nurturing and upbringing of their children and in their church communities.
The early Greek immigrants faced many obstacles adjusting to their new home in Chicago. This, however, did not deter them from working hard to become good Americans and assimilate into the American culture. They prospered, provided for their families, and maintained their religious and cultural legacy by establishing churches and organizing schools.
The Greek immigrants worked as street corner sellers of candy, flowers, fruit and other food items. Saving their money, they eventually opened candy stores, little restaurants, fruit markets, shoeshine parlors, and other small businesses. This work ethic and living philosophy to succeed continued to evolve with acculturation into the American society.
Around the turn of the century, an increasing number of Greek immigrants were concentrated on the near West Side of the city, in the area known as Greek Town. They attended Holy Trinity, the first permanent Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago, which was established in 1897. By 1905, an increasing number of these immigrants moved toward the South Side of the city. Thus, the need arose for the creation of another Greek Orthodox community.
Prior to the actual foundation of SS. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, there are two documented examples of South Side community activities directed toward the founding of a South Side Greek Church. There were a significant number of people to accomplish this feat, but there was a lack of aggressive leadership to mobilize the actions needed to reach this end. The first was a meeting held on February 9, 1908, with 125 people in attendance. A discussion took place about purchasing land on the South Side for a new church. The second was a picnic held on June 3, 1908. This event raised $800 that went into a building fund for a new South Side parish.
On January 29, 1909, 350 people attended a meeting to render a decision on building a South Side church. However, nothing was resolved. Finally, the issue of a South Side parish became a reality on April 25, 1909, when approximately 350 people attended an organizational meeting and voted to establish an independent parish dedicated to SS. Constantine and Helen. All persons present became members upon payment of twenty-five cents, and temporary officers were elected. Prior to this meeting, property had already been purchased for this structure at 61st Street and South Michigan Avenue.
The leadership for this movement, and the founders of the first parish of SS. Constantine and Helen were among the early Greek immigrant settlers in Chicago. They were members of Holy Trinity. This small nucleus of leaders used mass meetings and social events to develop community support. This was important for renting a hall on Wentworth Avenue between 62nd and 63rd streets for religious services while the parish was under construction. The official first picnic held by the parish was June 9, 1909.
Saints Constantine and Helen was the first Greek Orthodox Church built by Greeks in Chicago. The first church building of the parish opened its doors in October of 1910. The approximate cost of erecting the building was $30,000. The Very Reverend Archimandrite Ambrose Mandilaris was the first regularly assigned priest. He supervised the construction of the church with the assistance of a committee of parishioners. Father Ambrose was instrumental in the fundraising activities of the church.
The first church building was designed with no pews or organ, similar to the churches in Greece. It was a two-story dark-brick structure with an English-type basement, a central dome and two smaller domes. Classrooms were constructed on the ground floor. The church proper was on the first floor. A special balcony was built on the second floor for the women of the congregation, which was a custom in Greece called “Gynaikonitis.”
The community experienced growth and prosperity. In 1910, the year the church opened its doors, a parish day school was established. Adamantios Koraes School was named in honor of the intellectual father of the Greek War of Independence in 1821, and a steadfast advocate of the “purist” form of the Greek language. The early immigrants wanted to ensure that their children would be able to read and write the language of their ancestors. The school became a focal center of the community preparing and imparting the cultural heritage and Greek language to children born of Greek parents and future generations. The religious heritage was another component of the school. Greek was the only language of instruction until 1922. It was then that English was introduced and public school accreditation was received.
In 1923, under the direction of Father Mark E. Petrakis, the transition began towards that of an urban church with a variety of organizational and administrative functions. Prior to this transition, the church operated as a rural parish, which emphasized the elements of baptizing, marrying and burying. Father Petrakis assumed direct command and administered the church and school in close cooperation with the Board of Trustees.
With the growth of the community, a number of new organizations and activities evolved to encourage the involvement of its members. In 1916, a ladies society was formed. In the 1920’s, the Knights of St. Constantine was formed to promote religious knowledge to its members. In 1923, the Young Ladies Hellenic Society “Nea Genea” was organized for the young unmarried women. This group was later renamed “Agia Paraskevi.” The St. Helen’s Benevolent Society, known today as St. Helen Women’s Philoptochos, was organized in 1924 for philanthropic and charitable work. This group also aided the church with its fundraising efforts.
In 1923, an afternoon Greek School was begun for children who attended the public schools. The forerunner of the Sunday School program was when Presvytera Petrakis organized classes in Greek to teach the Orthodox faith to all the children of the parish.
A disastrous fire caused the destruction of the church in the early hours of Holy Monday on April 26, 1926. At great personal risk, Father Petrakis raced into the burning church and rescued the holy relics from the sanctuary. This heroic act provided a sense of pride for the parishioners and their unwavering support for the future success of the parish.
The generosity of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago made it possible for Holy Week services to be celebrated at St. Paul Episcopal Church at 53rd and Dorchester. Easter Sunday Divine Liturgy was conducted at Christ Church at 64th and Woodlawn Avenue. It was on this day that the parishioners learned that plans were being made to immediately begin the task of rebuilding the church.
Rebuilding the parish of SS. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church under the spiritual guidance of Father Mark E. Petrakis tested the resolve of the parishioners. Thus began a new journey with trials of faith. While construction of the new church structure was taking place, the community conducted worship services at the Episcopal Church of All Angels at 61st and Indiana Avenue.
The approximate cost of the building project was $250,000. It was decided that the final edifice would be on a larger and grander scale than the one reduced to ashes. The community thus embarked on a major fundraising drive in order to rebuild both the church and school. Various fundraising events were held under the direction of the building committee. In addition, many community organizations offered their help, such as: the Knights of St. Constantine; the Ladies Hellenic Society “Nea Genea;” Woodlawn Chapter No. 93 of the Order of Ahepa.
With the help of the entire community and all Chicago in general, the cornerstone of the new church was laid within a year and a half. An impressive ceremony was held on October 1, 1927. One year later the structure was completed and His Eminence Archbishop Alexander officiated at the Thyranoixia (Door Opening) Ceremony on October 14, 1928. The new life at SS. Constantine and Helen was made possible with the cooperation, generosity and support of the parishioners.
In 1927, Mr. George Dimopoulos arrived at the parish to become the psalti (cantor). He was a talented chanter and choirmaster. Looking toward the future, he was most instrumental in implementing many positive features that are still in place today. Understanding the importance of hymnology in the church services, he formed the Senior Choir. This marked the first female choir in the Diocese of Chicago. They sang the Byzantine music composed by Mr. Dimopoulos. His music would become timeless and a permanent part of the parish. His compositions are still sung today.
Young women felt proud that they were able to play an active role during the Divine Liturgy and other church services. To recognize the importance of their role, the senior choir would file into the church following an altar boy carrying a cross prior to the Doxologia. They were then seated before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.
This church would also be the first to have a permanent organ to accompany the choir and permanent pews. These two innovations were a drastic departure from traditional Greek Orthodox Churches and a movement toward the Americanization of the Church that was gradually beginning to take place.
While the new church edifice was being constructed, life at Koraes continued. The use of empty storefronts owned by a parishioner at 61st and Indiana Avenue were donated as temporary facilities for the school. Desks were placed in the storefronts. There was a potbelly stove available, and an elderly Greek man would cook meals and provide lunch for the students.
The new church edifice itself was a basilica style structure modeled after the early Christian churches of Roman times. The new structure exemplified simplicity. The altar proper was separated from the sanctuary with an evenly proportioned altar screen. A wooden communion rail divided the sanctuary from the church proper. Two rows of columns separated the nave into three parts. The icons and religious paintings, which covered the walls and ceilings of the church, were copies of famous works by El Greco, Raphael and Michelangelo. A separate Baptistry Chapel was built adjoining the main church. The new church not only evolved into one of the most beautiful Greek Orthodox churches of its time, but also became an innovative influence for future churches.
A bell tower was constructed on the church premises. The responsibility of ringing the bell fell to the seventh and eighth grade students of Koraes Elementary School. The ringing of the bell was their responsibility Monday through Friday. The students receiving this honor performed their duty diligently. They climbed to the top of the tower and rang the bell to announce the start of any church service and the beginning of the school day. On Saturday and Sunday, the neokoro (caretaker) had the responsibility of ringing the bell for church services.
The classrooms for Koraes Elementary School were designed along the periphery of the main building. The new school facility had seven large classrooms, a lunchroom and an auditorium. This was to recognize the commitment by the parish to educate their children in an all day school in the English and Greek languages. A night school was also held for those children who were unable to attend the day school. Since the streetcar was the mode of transportation for the majority of the students and parishioners of the parish, the mothers would gather in the hall and wait to take their children home at 6:00 p.m. when night school was over. With the classrooms being on the ground level, some of the boys would jump out of the window and run away when they should have been in class. At the time, tuition for 3 children in a family was $10.00 a month. The school kept the children together and many long-term friendships and bonds were formed.
The students would present theatrical productions, plays and operettas to the community, both in Greek and English. The costumes were elaborate and detailed. During the Greek presentations celebrating OXI day and the 25th of March, poems were dramatically recited on stage heralding the feats of Greek heroes, such as Kolokotrones. The mothers would curl the hair of the girls. The boys and girls would dress in the festive costumes of Greece. At school, the Koraes students participated in a Drum and Bugle Corps complete with uniforms and instruments.
The young ladies served as Myrofores on Good Friday. They would practice many hours until they learned all the hymns. Mr. Dimopoulos wanted the girls to have long hair. In addition, they would practice where to stand and how to move about as expected.
The celebration of the Epiphany was a special event in the community. To symbolize the Holy Spirit, Father Petrakis would release a dove within the church during the Blessing of the Waters service as he chanted “ En Iorthani Vaptizete.” (As you were Baptized in the Jordan O Lord) This was to the delight of all the children present in the church. When receiving Holy Communion, the parishioners would kneel at the communion rail and wait their turn so they would not crowd up the steps to the Solea.
During the Dance of Isaiah at a wedding ceremony, family members would throw koufeta. This practice was stopped and flower petals were thrown instead. At the time, this was the only parish to do this. In addition, newlyweds would come with a tray, which held a handkerchief and flower for the bride. Father Petrakis would present the newlyweds with a Bible after the Sacrament of Marriage.
As a sign of the times, women wore hats and gloves to church throughout the year. During the holidays, parishioners were sprinkled with fragrant cologne at the pangari. Once a month, a dance would be held at the church with no youth in attendance. This was a way for the adults to socialize.
Every Sunday after church, a man was outside selling huge koulouria. In their excitement, the children would run outside to purchase one. During the holidays, various items would be sold. The most popular were cinnamon koulouria. They were sold for ten cents. All other cookies were sold for only five cents each.
During this time of reconstruction, the parish faced many difficult challenges. Due to the financial pressure brought about by the Great Depression, the community found itself in the position to file bankruptcy proceedings. This resulted in the parish having to default on building construction bonds.
As a result of the difficulty faced by the community, positive results took place. This period promoted lay leadership that was resourceful and tenacious. Conditions of the parish greatly improved because of a long process of economic development and progress in which the community reached a high level of efficiency and service.
Under the spiritual guidance of Father Mark Petrakis the community was motivated to establish and develop a variety of church auxiliaries. Presvytera Stella Petrakis was also quite dedicated and active in her service to the community of SS. Constantine and Helen. She taught Sunday School in Greek to newly arrived immigrants to Chicago. Whether it was selling raffle tickets to benefit the community, organizing the Red Cross, visiting the poor, or working within the various organizations, she was an inspiration to all.
In 1929, Father Petrakis organized the Koraes Mothers Society for the Koraes Elementary School, the Afternoon Greek School and the Sunday School. The group provided support and aid in the form of free textbooks, lunch programs and tuition payments for indigent children. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s the help of the Mothers Society was crucial in keeping these schools open.
The St. Helen’s Benevolent Society organized a Theatre Guild. This group annually sponsored a wide variety of dramatic performances conducted in Greek for the benefit of the parish institutions. In the 1930’s the St. Helen’s Benevolent Society became a chapter of the National Philoptochos movement and became known as the St. Helen’s Philoptochos Society. Throughout the years, St. Helen’s has expanded its philanthropic mission and fundraising efforts for the parish.
Nea Genea (currently called Ladies Hellenic Society Agia Parasakevi) went through some problems in the 1930’s due to dwindling membership and ceased to be active. This was a result of the young ladies getting married. When an attempt was made to reorganize the group, it was unsuccessful because only unmarried women could be members. Father Petrakis revitalized the organization in 1937 by eliminating the marriage restriction clause. The group began to prosper once again and became active in its fundraising efforts to render financial assistance to the church.
In 1937, changes took place at Koraes. Seventh and eighth grades were added, which followed what was taking place in the public schools. The curriculum was reorganized and departmentalized. English became the chief language used at the school.
In 1941, the United States entered World War II. Many young men of the parish were called to serve their country. Father Petrakis began a tradition of recognizing their service to our country by presenting a cross to each young man on the Sunday prior to his deployment. This act was a way to honor each man for his service and keep him connected to the church.
The parish joined the national war effort by engaging in a number of patriotic activities, which included the sale of defense bonds, paper drives and Greek War Relief programs. The parish published a book with pictures of each soldier who had served during the war. This book was also a fundraiser for the parish. It included advertisements, lists of people who made donations to the community, financial statements of the parish, and various pictures of the parish life. It was printed in both Greek and English.
The first establishment of a SS. Constantine and Helen Red Cross Unit took place in 1942 during the height of the war years. Numerous women of the community, a total of 100 at its peak, met twice weekly preparing needed surgical and medical supplies. A younger group of working girls met weekly in the evening. In addition, this Red Cross Unit donated blood plasma en masse to the Red Cross Blood Bank on three separate occasions. This unit received a commendation from the American Red Cross Association for its significant contribution to the war effort. In 1946, this unit was reorganized. The young ladies of the community met weekly, making surgical bandages in order to supply the needs of area veterans’ hospitals.
Due to demographic changes, the decision was made to sell the entire church property for the sum of $175,000 during a General assembly meeting held in the autumn of 1946. At a later General Assembly meeting, the parishioners voted to purchase property for $30,000 in the South Shore district of Chicago on Stony Island Avenue. This was the site for the new church. All this took place approximately twenty years after erecting the second church edifice of SS. Constantine and Helen.
This phase of the church history began with groundbreaking ceremonies on February 12, 1948. When the community vacated the Church premises on Michigan Avenue in June 1948, the parish was once again without a Church building. Worship services were held at the Graham Taylor Chapel of the Chicago Theological Seminary at the University of Chicago. In late autumn of 1948, a considerable portion of the Church structure had been completed, thus allowing the celebration of church services. This was where the community conducted services until the final completion of the upper portion of the new structure in 1952. When completed, this structure would be on a grander and larger scale than what the parishioners had previously known.
The third parish of SS. Constantine and Helen Church was an enormous structure of Indiana limestone located at 7351 South Stony Island Avenue. The church was modeled after St. Sophia of Constantinople, thus constructed in the traditional Byzantine style. This design included a huge dome pierced by twenty-four windows, surmounting an elongated crucifix and half-domes. The iconography of the church was also done in traditional Byzantine manner with huge gold-leaf murals and mosaics of the Pantocrator, Platytera, Apostolikon, Crucifixion, Resurrection and, Panagia. The interior of the church was completed in Italian Carrara marble, and bronze fixtures portrayed by the magnificent iconostasion, altar rail, bishop’s throne, and pulpit.
When erected, the church edifice was a skeletal structure, waiting for walls and the dome. The interior was completed in various phases as the finances of the church allowed. The new church was reputed to be the seventh largest church structure in the United States. The overall length of the building was 220 feet. The center aisle was so long that the church provided brides with the runner because no florist had one long enough. The seating capacity was 2,300 and the church structure was equipped with air conditioning systems and radiant heating. This move to Stony Island did not render a “finished product” until the late 1960’s. The total cost of the edifice when completed was estimated at $1,200,000. The new church was void of iconography, stained glass windows, and even pews until that time. Tan Samsonite metal folding chairs were used for seating until pews were acquired.
The parish embarked upon a tremendous campaign employing every conceivable method of fundraising to finance the new church. These included gala benefit balls at the Trianon and Aragon ballrooms, huge banquets attended by Greek royalty and other dignitaries at leading Chicago hotels, and wrestling matches with world-famous Jim Londos at the Chicago Stadium. Raffles of all sorts were held, including scrolls, pledges, and the sale of church bonds. This great financial need of the community made it necessary for all parish members to come forth and offer their help and support.
While the new church was being constructed, Koraes Elementary School, Greek School, and Sunday School were housed in enlarged temporary quarters adjacent to the new church. In September of 1954, Koraes became an eight-classroom school with the addition of four classrooms in the church. This provided geographical challenges for Koraes: 1st and 2nd grades were held in the little red schoolhouse, 3rd and 4th grades were held in the basement of the church, 5th and 6th grades were held in the church balcony, and 7th and 8th grades were held in the little red schoolhouse. Thus, one’s career began and ended in the 4-room schoolhouse, which also housed the school principal and secretary. Throughout the years, the little red schoolhouse became a symbol of life-long friendships, academic success, and fond memories.
In 1951, Andrew T. Kopan assumed principalship of the school. Koraes was reorganized as an American bilingual institution. Classes in English studies were conducted from 9:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. Lunch was from 12:00-12:30, recess from 12:30-12:55 and classes in Greek from 1:00 p.m-3:00 p.m. Recess was a fun time for all. The students would organize themselves to play games, or they would just sit around and socialize. Students played on the grass or on the gravel. When the World Series was played in September, many students brought their own transistor radios to listen to the games. When the school bell was rung, all students went to their Greek class.
During the morning classes, music and physical education were taught. In addition, the parish priests taught religious education. As part of the music program, the students were introduced to the production of musical plays. The mothers of the Koraes PTA were instrumental in helping with the costumes and logistics of presenting the productions to the community. An example of an ambitious undertaking was the musical production The Mikado. In addition, the Greek presentations for March 25th were quite extraordinary. The mothers elaborately decorated the stage, the students were dressed in Greek costumes, and the plays and poems were conducted with style.
Many families lived near the parish, and the students would walk to school. For those who lived further away, there were 10 school buses available to bring the children to Koraes. Principal Kopan would be present at 8:30 a.m. in the Church basement with hot chocolate for the patrol boys (crossing guards). These boys arrived first, thus allowing Mr. Kopan to know what staffing arrangements to make for absentees.
A new tradition became part of the graduation ceremony. The 8th grade boys and their 7th grade partners wore suits. The 8th grade girls wore white dresses and their 7th grade partners wore pastel colored dresses. The graduates carried a candle and their partners carried a rose. When they reached the altar, the 8th graders passed the light of wisdom to the 7th graders, and the rose was passed on to the graduates by the 7th graders. The 7th grade PTA parents hosted a reception, which included punch and cookies in the basement at the conclusion of the promotional ceremony.
Many memories of Mr. Kopan’s years as principal abound. He was an inspiration to many students to be successful in life. He also was extremely involved with the everyday operations of the school. His deep voice was a constant reminder of his presence and concern for his students. Mrs. Piniotes, a longtime secretary of the school, was like a mother to all students, comforting them when ill, guiding them to be good and behave, and instilling in them the importance of working hard. She was the buffer of logic and fairness between students and principals. She added humor when things were too dry. As a school nurse, she dressed many schoolyard traumas. She was at the helm during multiple school building transitions. Her smile and warmth were always a welcome sight.
In 1961, the Archdiocese held a contest for students enrolled in all the Greek schools in the United States. The 7th grade students at Koraes were administered a multiple-choice test and were required to write a Greek essay. The Archdiocese selected 40 boys and 40 girls for an all paid boat trip from New York to Athens, a two week stay at a summer camp, and two weeks of sightseeing. The boys and girls traveled on separate boats and stayed at different camps outside of Athens. Two male Koraes students were winners of the contest. This was a testament to the education taking placing at Koraes.
In 1963, the decision was made that all Koraes students should wear school uniforms. All the girls wore blue/green plaid jumpers with a white blouse and a white headband. The headband was not optional, but mandatory. The boys wore dark blue pants, light blue shirts, and a dark blue tie. Uniforms made it easier for the students and parents. The students were neatly dressed and nobody had to worry about what anyone else was wearing. The trend was started, and uniforms have been the required attire at Koraes ever since.
The 8th grade girls served as “Myrofores” on Good Friday. There were 8-12 girls who stood for the entire service, wearing their white choir robes with a black bow, white blouse, black skirt, and black shoes. Many of the Altar Boys would remain behind the Altar after the Apokathilosis service because they did not want to give up the robes that fit them well. On those occasions, Mr. George Dimopoulos would add water to some wine and dip prosforon in it to feed the boys since they were all fasting.
The church building was completed in 1954. There were no murals or iconography, only a temporary iconostasion. During the first Anastasi service in the church, the crowd was so immense that it spilled over the front steps to Stony Island with worshippers huddled under umbrellas in a driving rainstorm. During the first Christmas Eve service in the church, the junior and senior choirs sang Christmas carols in Greek and English. Mr. George Dimopoulos started the junior choir in September of 1952. Confession was heard in the room located behind the choir, which was not visible, but accessed through a door next to the altar. Inside was a huge mural of the Resurrection.
The basement of the church was a huge, cavernous space, which played a significant role in the spiritual, social, educational, and organizational life of the parish. The basement had two levels. One could reach the first level, which resembled a large landing, from both the north and south end of the church narthex. This level housed two classrooms, one at each end, as well as two conference type multi-use spaces with a half wall facing the landing. One of these spaces was used as the Sunday School office. The other was multi-functional as a meeting room, coatroom, choir robe room, and in the earlier years as a type of kitchen or serving area. This level had another set of stairs leading down to the main basement. This was where many of the activities of the parish were held. It was also utilized as the gymnasium. On January 20, 1953, a 21-inch television was brought to the church basement so the Koraes students could see the invocation given by Archbishop Michael at President Eisenhower’s first inauguration.
In 1956, the Christmas pageant was presented in the hall with a tableau of the Nativity. Live sheep, which were provided by a parishioner, got away and were running up and down the backstage area. A young boy, wearing a foustanella, was playing Greek Christmas carols on the accordion.
The annual PTA bazaar was held in the basement, with all the items sold being handmade. The 8th grade students also had a booth to raise funds for graduation activities. A favorite item was a pig, shaped out of a Linco bottle that would be used as a piggy bank. One fond memory of the bazaar was the cherry blossom tree. Inside certain blossoms were prizes. Many girls won their first Barbie doll or Barbie doll case at the bazaar.
When the kitchen was completed in 1955, the “Koulouma” meals were prepared there. A memorable vision of the “Koulouma” was watching our mothers clean the squid that was always prepared for the meal. Parishioners would attend the Compline service on Clean Monday (1st Monday of the Lenten Period) followed by the dinner. Another fond memory was seeing our grandmothers dressed in their Red Cross Uniforms at the church every Tuesday making necessary items needed by the American Red Cross.
During the Sunday School year, the Divine Liturgy was held in the basement every Sunday prior to Sunday School classes being conducted. The Junior Choir, comprised of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade girls, sang every Sunday during the liturgy under the direction of Mrs. Helen Fotopoulos. Each girl was responsible for providing her own short, white choir robe, as well as for its maintenance: washing, starching, and ironing. Sunday School classes were held in various rooms throughout the basement, on either side of the stage, partitioned areas, and even in the kitchen. Some classes were held in the church balcony. Altar boys attended Sunday School classes during the Divine Liturgy in a classroom behind the Holy Altar. This made it possible to summon the boys back to the Altar for additional duties. A fundraiser for the Sunday School included the sale of movie tickets for a major movie release (i.e. The Ten Commandments). This motion picture was shown…you guessed it…in the basement.
The annual church festival, known as “The Picnic,” was attended by parishioners and friends from sister parishes. It was a social event. The unwritten dress code for men was suits and ties. Women wore dresses or suits with high heels, and sometimes they even wore hats and gloves. In the early 1960’s a memorable picnic occurred. The rain came hard and the parking lot was under water. The fire department was called to pump out the water. Rather than cancel the picnic, the committee decided to host the picnic the following weekend.
The parish priests were involved with the children in various ways. Father Tripodakis had the 8th grade students recite the Creed in Greek, one at a time in his office. Father Gregory held classes in front of the altar and described the vestments worn by the priest. In 1954, he rented the stage at Bryn Mawr School on 73rd and Jeffrey and held a musical review, with the upper grade students as participants. He also restarted the Altar Boys Guild in 1957.
In 1960, we all met Father Byron for the first time. From the time of his arrival, Father Byron left his mark on us with his favorite word “IPOMONI.” He immediately began pulling on our earlobes out of love, thus having us joke that one earlobe will always be longer than the other. In 1963, Father Byron kicked a football off the church steps and played softball to the joy of the children. In his 5th grade religion classes, he had his students write the Creed in Greek. He took the children behind the Holy Altar to teach them about the church. Father Byron also held summer Bible class.
The youth also became involved in various capacities. In October of 1961, Junior GOYA presented “Junior GOYA Cottage Grove Style.” In the early 60’s, Junior GOYA only included the high school age group. The meetings consisted of a one hour or so lecture about religious topics. Meetings were held in the basement, as were the meetings of most organizations. Junior GOYA social activities were also held in the basement. Father Byron did not approve of the dance music of the early 1960’s, which included “The Twist.” During Jr. GOYA social events, if Father Byron’s black shoes were seen coming down the steps to the basement, the music would change.
Father Byron reactivated the Sr. GOYA upon his arrival to the parish. This became a very active and vibrant group. For 4 consecutive years, they presented the play “Amal and the Night Visitors” at Christmas, depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary. A George Washington dance was sponsored in February, and for props, statues of George and Martha Washington were used. In the spring, they did a comedy titled, “Karpouze Kefalo” (Watermelon Head). Dances were held annually, which were a spin off of American Bandstand. At the parish’s picnic on Stony Island, the Sr. GOYA hosted and ran a Spin Art booth, which was fun for all. Frequently, all the GOYANS attended the Divine Liturgy and then shared a meal together after church.
The construction of a new Koraes School building in 1965, complete with a gym and small multi-purpose room changed the composition of uses for the basement. Large events could now be held in the gym, as well as athletic events. Meetings for the organizations were now held in the new multi-purpose room. This new facility was a starting blueprint for the needs of the growing community and its youth when the move to Palos Hills commenced.
Many parishioners of the community began to move from the vicinity of the parish and went west. Since the community was on the move to go “west” the parish decided to follow the community. Thus began the search for our next location. A key factor in this search was to find a location that would provide long-term stability for the parish.
During a General Assembly meeting in early 1972, a decision was reached to sell the property on Stony Island. Due to the tremendous influence of Mr. Pierre Austin DeMets, the community averted a major bankruptcy. He was able to secure a bid and purchase price of four million dollars for the Stony Island property. With this money, the parish was in a position to pay off its huge mortgage of close to eight hundred thousand dollars.
In addition, through the efforts of Mr. DeMets, the parish was able to purchase seventeen acres of prime land in the suburb of Palos Hills at 111th and Roberts Road. With interest rates being at an all time high of 19%, the money earned from the sale was invested with the guidance of Mr. DeMets, thus earning the community much additional funds until construction of the new facilities were completed. Due to this wise investment, the parish had more than enough funds to complete the purchase of the land and construction of a church, school, and community center. Once again, the parishioners were put to the test when confronted with the task of erecting a fourth edifice.
1972 – Present
Through the strength, resolve and faith of the people, the community embarked on the next arduous task of rebuilding the community at a new location.
Prior to the official move to the community’s current location, an interim period took place for the next three years. This allowed time for the design and construction of the new church and school. The community was fortunate in finding a temporary home for Koraes and its religious services at the First Church of the Nazarene at 8345 South Damen Avenue. It was cramped, but Koraes continued in mobile classrooms and all religious services, including weddings, baptisms, and funerals were held at this location. Even though several parishioners held their weddings and baptisms at sister parishes, they never lost hope that a new facility would be built.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for this edifice took place on the Feast Day of SS. Constantine and Helen in 1974 with the school and auditorium being built first. The parish celebrated its first Divine Liturgy on Palm Sunday of 1975 in the new auditorium, which later became the gym. It was named in honor of the man whose efforts provided the parish with the opportunity to move successfully and construct a new school, auditorium and church debt free. The total cost of the project was completed with the sum of $3,500,000. On May 21, 1976, precisely two years after construction began, His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos officiated at the Thyranoixia (Door Opening) Ceremonies.
The current church complex has an impressive gold dome and cross in the modified neo-Byzantine style. Twelve distinctive stained glass windows grace the church’s interior. The Byzantine iconography includes the Pantocrator and Platytera. The brass iconostasion and chandeliers are elegantly crafted, and the marble solea is embedded with the mosaic Byzantine eagle.
The parish of SS. Constantine and Helen held its consecration ceremony on May 11, 1980. This was the 1650th anniversary of the consecration of Constantinople, founded by St. Constantine the Great. The steps of this service included baptizing, anointing, sanctifying, consecrating and dedicating the church of God as an Orthodox Christian house of worship.
As in the preceding periods, pastoral leadership was and continues to be very paramount to the success of the community and the development of its spiritual ministries. Father Byron’s loving and patient leadership traits have become noted throughout the Archdiocese. Several young priests from the seminary have come to serve and learn under Father Byron’s tutelage. They in turn have gone on to become pastors at their own parishes throughout the country. Each has brought a new dimension to the community. Their personalities have had an impact on the community and the community life. Everyone has brought something unique to the table.
Father Alexander Karloutsos had a cosmopolitan view of the world that he related to parishioners either through sermons or dealing with individuals in all age groups. He moved on to serve our Archdiocese in a variety of capacities spreading the word of Orthodoxy from a small town parish to the Oval Office. Father Dean Paleologos shared his humility and spirituality by offering an example of Christian love to young and old. He is currently the dean of St. Spyridon Cathedral in Worcester, MA. Father Kosmas Karavellas demonstrated his zest for life when he shared the Christ in him with the Christ in us. He is pastor of SS. Constantine and Helen Church in Annapolis, MD. Father Nicholas Jonas energetically developed new ministries and further developed existing ones, thereby increasing our spiritual awareness. His administrative talents were recognized by the Archdiocese and he was assigned to Holy Trinity Cathedral in New Orleans, LA to assist with the upcoming Clergy-Laity Congress. Father Nick’s love and respect for Father Byron and our parish brought him back to our community a few years later where he once again served as an assistant and is now the pastor.
During the past two decades, the parish has had several pastoral assistants to help ensure the success and implementation of the many programs taking place in the community. James Greanias, Peter Spiro, Tom De Medeiros and Chris Avramopoulos, have served under the guideful hands of both Father Byron and Father Nick, training them in the liturgical life of our parish as well as our varied ministries. Time has seen them serve the Orthodox Church as priests and in other spiritual capacities.
The visions of the original founders remain alive today. The parish has seen a continuation of the many programs implemented during the previous church periods, as well as the inclusion of many new ministries and programs. With all the parish offers, the present facilities are utilized seven days a week.
Even though fundraising efforts were not needed to finance the construction of the parish facilities, it has been necessary to reach out to the parishioners to help fund the ministries and programs as well as maintain the facilities of the community.
Over time, the parish has slowly assimilated itself to “Americanize” in serving the people. There has been an increase in the use of English in the Divine Liturgy and other sacramental and liturgical services of the church. This has taken place because of the number of converts to the Orthodox faith and the growing number of people who do not understand or know the Greek language. This change in the community was the impetus for the creation of Road to Orthodoxy (convert classes).
Father Byron organized the Spiritual Life Committee to promote spirituality among the faithful. This led to the formation of Adult Bible Study groups conducted in both Greek and English. As part of this committee, specialized classes have emerged to address current needs of the community, which include Journey to Oneness (pre-marital seminars) and Godparent Seminars.
The youth continue to be an active segment of the community, engaging in religious, social, and athletic activities. The various segments of the youth program are focused on JOY (Junior Orthodox Youth ages 7-13), GOYA (Greek Orthodox Youth of America grades 8-12) and YAL (Young Adult League-college and older). Throughout the year, many programs are conducted on both a parish and diocesan level to keep the youth involved. A majority of these programs evolved and grew during this phase of parish life.
The Metropolis Junior Olympics, the “brainchild” of Father Kosmas, was first held in May of 1982. It has been nurtured and staffed by this parish ever since. This Memorial Day weekend event brings together over two thousand youth from the states of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin for athletic competition and Orthodox Christian fellowship. This event has expanded since its inception. Originally, facilities at the church complex and Stagg High School were used. Now facilities at Moraine Valley Community College are utilized as well. Different sporting events have been added over time.
The parish priests continue to be involved with the youth of the parish. Father Alex has led discussions in homes of young adults. Father Dean has led spiritual retreats. Father Kosmas, better known as Father Ike, did cartwheels and headstands with the children. Fr. Nick has played baseball with the youth.
In September of 1984, Father Kosmas began the JOY Basketball League. This and GOYA basketball have evolved over the years by providing opportunities for both boys and girls to participate on a competitive team. In 2004, pastoral assistant Tom De Medeiros began JOY Nite, a way for the younger members of the parish to learn more about their faith in a fun way. GOYA has weekly activities that bring the youth together. Also included is a teen discussion component which provides opportunity for the youth to engage in dialogue about the faith and issues they face in their everyday lives. GOYAns have the opportunity to participate in a yearly ski trip; a Great America outing; raise money with the Community Christmas Card and bake sales; and participate in philanthropic works, such as Christmas caroling, and nursing home visitations. The Young Adult group meets for social outings and religious discussions on a regular basis. Campus Ministries began as an outreach program for college students by providing a time for students of the Orthodox faith to gather on their college campus and engage in spiritual discussions with a parish priest.
When the parish hosts the picnic, the community relies on the parishioners and our youth to provide necessary assistance needed for the set-up and clean up of the event. An added benefit of the festival is the support from the local community of Palos Hills and surrounding communities. Many come to this event for the Greek food and pastries.
JOY basketball and soccer is very popular because of its popularity in the American culture. The Folk Dance Troupe have entertained spectators at the Festival, dinners, and other events by invitation. This group has afforded the youth a look at their Greek heritage through another venue. Learning the dances of different regions of Greece has enlightened them to learn about various costumes and differences within the Greek community.
Another great adventure the youth of the parish can partake in is a trip to Ionian Village. This is an Archdiocesan Camp in Greece for 7th-12th graders. This is a wonderful opportunity for youngsters to make life-long friendships with others from across the country. Closer to home is Fanari Camp. This is an opportunity to become better acquainted with other Orthodox youth within the Metropolis.
The St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival is an Archdiocesan speech competition dealing with religious topics. The parish expanded this event to include the Sights and Sounds Youth Festival. This expansion has allowed the opportunity for all youth of the parish, K-12, to celebrate their artistic talents. Talents judged are music, dance, painting, mosaics, drawing, clay building and others. Winners are awarded medals and ribbons for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. Winners could be individuals or a group.
To better involve the young ladies in the life of the church, the Sunday Church School organized the Handmaidens. The young girls, grades 5th-8th, serve the church with candle duty, Epistle reading, Narthex duty and monthly workshops. They learn about the church, conduct philanthropic projects, and help during Saturday of the Souls. Their patron saint is Saint Tatiana. This complements the service of our many Altar Boys who weekly and during Feast Days, serve our Lord’s Altar alongside our Priests with great dignity and strong faith.
The parish has expanded the awareness of service to the community at large through Project Diakonia. This group has been involved with new ministries of our parish or expanding philanthropic programs conducted by other organizations within the parish, such as the food pantry, soup kitchen, I.O.C.C., missions, Holy Land outreach, orphanages, toy drive for DCFS and SAMP (support a mission priest). This outreach to the community and beyond is due in part to the education of the new generation, the increase of parishioners with professional careers, and the assimilation into the American culture. Another means of service orientation is Witness to Christ’s Love ministry. This is for persons who would like to participate in nursing home visitations.
Orthodox Charities Weekend is held the last weekend in September including a bike/run/walk/skate-a-thon to raise money for various Orthodox charities. Participants approach sponsors to pledge money. Another aspect of this weekend is the blood drive. Members of the parish donate blood for local blood banks.
Compassionate Support Group was begun to provide an opportunity for parishioners who have lost loved ones to come together to deal with their grief. The group is a support network for persons who have a difficult time coping. Changes in society prompted the formation of Orthodox Christians for Life. This is a Pan-Orthodox ministry “from the womb to the tomb” that the parish is actively involved in.
An outlet provided for all senior citizens is the Golden Circle. This group is in cooperation with the Hellenic Foundation. Monthly activities, such as speakers, outings, or lunches are planned for the seniors.
St. Helen Women’s Philoptochos continues to play a vital role in the life of the community. The bazaar has now become a craft show with outside vendors. There is also an extensive food festival during this event. As with the church festival, the Palos Hills community and outlying communities support this event.
The Ladies Hellenic Society, Agia Paraskevi, has also remained an important component of the community life. The ladies continue to support the philanthropic efforts of the parish.
Changes in society have brought changes to the parish in other ways. Computers are now an integral part of the day-to-day operations in the church office. Communication with the community includes e-mail messages. The church has a web site that is updated with articles and pictures regularly.
Over time, many changes have also occurred at Koraes. The students now work in a computer lab. Greek instruction is only one period a day. Physical education takes place on a daily basis. There is a school band. Eighth graders wear caps and gowns for the graduation ceremony followed by dinner at a restaurant. A Pre-School program and full day Kindergarten are now offered. Sixth through eighth grades are departmentalized. School buses are no longer a means of transportation.
Our parish shares a strong community relationship with the city of Palos Hills. The city council honored Father Byron by naming Roberts Road between 107th and 111th Street “Honorary Father Byron Way.” This was an honor the city wanted to bestow upon Father Byron, not only for the leadership he has offered the Greek community, but also the greater Palos Hills community.
The community has attained the heights of Christian fellowship that the original founders had intended through the strong, compassionate, and consistent leadership of Father Byron. Father Nicholas Jonas succeeded Father Byron as pastor on June 4, 2006. He has put forth the challenge for the community beyond 2009. “In all that we do in our sacramental, educational, social, philanthropic, athletic and organizational ministries…we need to go forth…from the Altar to the streets.”
This article was originally published in the Saints Constantine and Helen Church 100th Anniversary Commemorative Album