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.
SS. 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
This article was originally published in the Saints Constantine and Helen Church 100th Anniversary Commemorative Album