The History Of Our Community:
1931 To The Present
While officially incorporated by the State of New York on June 25, 1931 under the name "Washington Heights Hellenic Orthodox Church, Inc.," Greek Orthodox faithful residing in upper Manhattan had attempted some years earlier to organize a parish. Services were held in various locations by the Rev. Kanellos Kanellopoulos and the Church was know as Pantanassa - the Virgin Mary. It was not until the assignment of the Very Reverend Archimandrite Vaselios Lokis in 1931 that the church was organized and named Saint Spyridon. The certificate of incorporation was signed by Nicholas Botsakis, Otto D. Prounis, Marcos Yampanis, George Papaeleas, Evangelos A. Negris and Socrates Angelson.
The faithful congregated at first in a small hall above a theater located on St. Nicholas Avenue at 185th Street. Later, they met in a room above a garage on 183rd Street east of Broadway. Holy Rood Episcopalian Church on 179th Street and Ft. Washington Avenue, made available an auditorium for use of our parish.
During a general assembly meeting in September, 1934, Anthony J. Miller was elected chairman of a real estate committee and charged with the responsibility of acquiring a permanent location for the community. Within weeks, they succeeded in securing a building available on our present property. Originally constructed in 1928 as a Baptist Church, it was subsequently sold and used as a Masonic Temple. The terms of the transaction called for the renting of the building for a period of three years, with an option to buy at a cost of $50,000. In grateful recognition of his leadership, Mr. Miller was unanimously elected president of the community in December, 1934. Others elected to the parish council were Michael Goulandris, George Eliades, Ayisilaso Papachristou, John Staikos, Pierre Psillas and Jason Chios.
The first divine liturgy was celebrated by Archimandrite Lokis in January, 1935 and the church was consecrated in March of the same year by Archbishop Athenagoras (later to become Patriarch of Constantinople). During the services, Mr. Paul Coufos had the distinction of serving as Godfather of the community. In 1936, Rev. Lokis was named Dean of the Annunciation Cathedral in San Francisco. The Rev. Archimandrite Chrysostomos Papalambrou (later titular Bishop of Mirinis) was assigned as pastor. In September of the same year, the purchase of 124 Wadsworth Avenue was finalized. The parish continued to thrive. By 1937, Saint Spyridon grew to become one of the largest communities of the Archdiocese, supported by 850 members. It was reported at a general assembly meeting in November, 1942, that membership had increased substantially and that the Sunday School - with 600 students - was the largest in the entire Archdiocese.
During the Great Depression, the Rev. Deacon Theodotiros Kokkinakis (later to become Bishop of Boston and Archbishop of Great Britain) was assigned to the parish. To better understand the financial hardships facing the parish during the depression, Rev. Kokkinakis served as deacon, chantor and secretary of the parish - all for $90 per month!
The 1940's were active years at the community - especially for the young adults. The E.O.N. (Elliniki Orthodoxos Neolaia) was divided into four large groups - Sigmas, Deltas, Alphas and Omegas. Boy Scout Troop 725 was founded in 1945. The Greek American Youth Group (G.A.Y.S.) was established for young men and women 19-27 years of age. Over 275 students were attending the various sessions of the Greek Afternoon School. During these years, the question of where a new church and community center should be built was once again discussed. Among the many sites considered were 186th Street from Broadway to Bennett Avenue, 185th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, and Ft. Washington Avenue across from St. Elizabeth Hospital. The consensus of the parishioners was that the community should remain at the 124 Wadsworth Avenue location and that additional property be purchased adjacent to the existing building, upon which a new church could be constructed.
In 1947 a catastrophic fire destroyed the existing church, but within a few months it was renovated. Shortly thereafter, two buildings, 653 and 655 West 179th Street were purchased. In 1949, the architectural firm of Kokkis and Lyras submitted plans for a new church complex - one that would become one of the most magnificent Byzantine churches in the world.
The 50s: The Great Dream: A New Church And School
The community had now reached a most crucial juncture in its history. After many years of preparation, the community was ready to proceed with the construction of the new church. Archbishop Athenagoras decided to appoint Archimandrite Lokis once again as pastor of Saint Spyridon. An eloquent preacher and a man of vision, Fr. Lokis worked zealously for the realization of the great dream. Serving as his assistant priest was the Rev. John Psillas, a newly ordained priest who was raised in the community.
God blessed the community with two great benefactors, Theodore P. Tsolainos and Constantine Goulandris who, inspired by their beloved mothers, contributed over $300,000 towards the completion of this great undertaking.
The cornerstone was laid in 1951 by Archbishop Michael and construction began on one of the most magnificent churches in the Orthodox world. During construction, the parish used the facilities of the Ft. George Presbyterian Church. Saint Spyridon was officially opened on September 7, 1952 in a most beautiful Thyranoixia Service (Door Opening)conducted by Archbishop Michael. It was during the presidency of Mr. Tsolainos that the interior decoration of the new church was undertaken. He personally travelled to Greece to supervise the entire project. The beautiful, handmade iconostasion was purchased at a cost of nearly $17,000. The Bishop's Throne and the pulpit were purchased shortly thereafter thanks to generous donations made by several parishioners. The renowned iconographer George Gliatas was commissioned to do the Byzantine artwork. He was assisted by Constantine Yioussis.
Late in 1953, Archimadrite Lokis suffered a heart attack while working in church and died shortly thereafter. With the passing of this great churchman, another era of our community had come to an end.
In June, 1955, the Rev. John Poulos was appointed pastor. A most enthusiastic leader, it was during his ministry that the preparations for the consecration were made. The long-awaited blessed day arrived on May 4, 1958. The memorable service was attended by thousands of the faithful. In September, 1958, the Rev. George Roussos, pastor of St. George Church in Philadelphia, was appointed pastor of Saint Spyridon Church. His rich educational and pastoral experience greatly contributed to a most successful ministry.
It was during his pastorate and the presidency of George Mikroulis that the community built its Parochial School. Thanks again to our great benefactors, the dream of providing a school for the community where our young men and women could learn their Orthodox faith and cultural roots became a reality. On Palm Sunday, April 26, 1959, Archibishop Iakovos, in the presence of a large congregation, officially opened the Saint Spyridon Parochial School. In recognition of their large donations, the parish assembly named the school "The Theodore P. Tsolainos - Constantine P. Goulandris Parochial School."
The 60s, 70s And 80s
After the appointment of Fr. Roussos, Archbishop Iakovos assigned the Rev. Alkiviadis Calivas as pastor. During his ministry, Fr. Alki, as he liked to be called, provided dynamic leadership. Together with Rev. Constantine Xanthakis and later Rev. George Matsis and Rev. Theodore Stoupis, Fr. Calivas labored tirelessly for the benefit of the community. Among the many projects undertaken was the complete renovation of the church hall and offices and the installation of air conditioning in the school and church.
In 1976, Fr. Calivas decided to continue his education in Greece and the Archdiocese called upon Fr. John Psillas to return to Saint Spyridon, this time as the pastor who would assume the spiritual leadership of the flock. No stranger to the community, Fr. John assumed the leadership of the parish for four years which were characterized by much activity and progress. All facets of his ministry were crowned with success. It was during his pastorate that the community purchased a building at 621 West 179th Street and that the interior of the church was renovated.
The community continued to grow. Saint Spyridon Church became the largest parish in the United States with over 900 members. The Saint Spyridon School graduated hundreds of students, many of them going on to New York City's specialized high schools and later assuming prominent positions in their respective careers.
But by the late 60s, it was obvious that Washington Heights, along with many other neighborhoods in New York City, was undergoing a dramatic transformation that would have a profound effect on the community. Many Greek families that called Washington Heights their home were now moving to the suburbs and newer Greek Orthodox communities were built to serve those parishioners. Saint Spyridon Church, like many other inner-city parishes, saw the number of parishioners decline dramatically. In spite of this, the community continued to serve the needs of its parishioners, while at the same time, searched for a new role for itself in the coming 21st century.
With the reassignment of Fr. Psillas, Archbishop Iakovos appointed his Archdeacon, the Rev. Methodios Tournas (now Bishop Methodios of Boston) as the community's new pastor. It was during his pastorate that three additional buildings were purchased across the street from the church. In 1981, Fr. Methodios led the 50th anniversary celebration of Saint Spyridon. Archbishop Iakovos celebrated the special service, attended by hundreds of current and former parishioners. The 50th anniversary banquet was attended by many dignitaries including Hugh Carey, then Governor of the state of New York.
Fr. Methodios was ordained Bishop of Boston and Fr. John Poulos was brought back to Saint Spyridon. Repairs to the exterior of the church and school were done during his pastorate. Fr. Poulos spent eight years at Saint Spyridon and was replaced by the V. Rev. Chrysanthos Zois. During these years, the community struggled, but survived. When Rev. Anastasios Garaboa was assigned to Saint Spyridon, and with the help of the Archdiocese, the Saint Spyridon School started offering a Pre-K program funded by the City of New York.
Saint Spyridon Today
Washington Heights is undergoing a transformation once again. With its easy access to midtown Manhattan, a world renowned medical center, and dramatic parks overlooking the Hudson River, the area is becoming home to a new generation of families. As such, Saint Spyridon's commitment to the community is the same as ever, while it evolves to meet the needs of its parishioners in the 21st century.
ST. SPYRIDON GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH
124 Wadsworth Avenue
New York, NY 10033
Phone: (212) 795-5870
Fax: (212) 795-4758
Rev. Nicolas Kazarian