Greek Orthodoxy in the U.S.: A Family Affair

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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“My husband says that among Greeks in the United States there may be only 20 or so families,” declares Mrs. Nikki Stephanopoulos, Public Affairs Officer for the New York-based Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. “We’re all related!”

Indeed, the Stephanopoulos family is an example of the close-knit Greek-American family extolled by Mrs. Stephanopoulos as the secret to the success of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States. Her husband, the Rev. Robert G. Stephanopoulos, is Dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan and Adjunct Professor of Eastern Christian Thought at St. John’s University. Their daughter entered an Orthodox community in upstate New York. As Sister Anastasia, she has traveled to Jerusalem to live with a Russian community of nuns in a convent on the Mount of Olives. And their son George, an advisor to President Bill Clinton, “might have been a priest had he not a passion for politics,” his mother says proudly.

Although the idea of a common familial ancestry may seem an exaggeration, the preservation of a Greek identity, embracing culture, history, language and religion, strengthens the greater Greek-American family, which is the heart of the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S.

Interestingly, this country’s Greek-American community of 1.5 million is not a homogenous lot. Most are descendants of immigrants from Greece proper. Yet many emigrated from Greek communities in the Balkans, Cyprus, Egypt and Turkey, lands that remained a part of the empire of the Ottoman Turks after Greece achieved its independence in 1830. And though they speak Greek, eat Greek fare and claim classical and Byzantine Greek history as their own, the experiences of these immigrants are distinct.

Greeks have long emigrated to the shores of the U.S. At first, most were unskilled male laborers who left small villages in the Peloponnesus in pursuit of improved economic opportunities. Greece was an impoverished nation, slowly recovering after centuries of economic decline. These immigrants, however, were far too few and transient to influence the American scene. Not until the end of the last century did Greeks immigrate in sufficient numbers to establish a permanent presence.

These numbers escalated dramatically after two traumatic events: the pogroms that decimated the Ottoman’s large Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities during World War I and the expulsion of more than a million Greeks after the Turkish defeat of an invading Greek army in 1922. (Greece returned the favor, expelling from its soil most of its Turkish citizens.)

Greek immigrants settled mainly in the textile towns of New England and the industrial cities of Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Like most of Europe’s country people, they centered their lives on the festal cycles of the church, a way of life developed in Byzantine times and left relatively undisturbed by the Ottomans. Once in the New World these immigrants continued this pattern, even though they settled in the cities. At first, they attended liturgy at any of the local Orthodox churches that may have already been established. As the number of Greek immigrants increased, so to did the pressure to establish Greek-speaking parishes, which they believed would sustain their customs and traditions.

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Tags: Cultural Identity United States Greece Immigration Orthodox Church of Greece