In the News

God’s Holy Wisdom in Washington, D.C.

October 14th, 2005

Efthalia Walsh
The National Herald

Saint Sophia in Washington, DC serves as the Greek Orthodox national cathedral, and its history illustrates the development of the church in the United States.

The celebration of the cathedral’s 100th anniversary and the consecration of its magnificent new education building in 2004 are soon to be followed by the recognition of its priest’s remarkable 50-year tenure at Saint Sophia.

The Rev. Dr. John T. Tavlarides, born in Stamford, Connecticut and baptized at the Annunciation Church there, is the first American-born priest and graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology to serve as Dean the Cathedral. He followed a succession of distinguished priests who guided Saint Sophia through the 20th Century, serving in different ways to carry out the historic role of the Church: to transmit Greek Orthodox Christian teaching, help its members adjust to mainstream American life and, at the same time, honor their Hellenic heritage.

Since 1955, Saint Sophia has been located in Northwest Washington on Embassy Row, across from the Episcopal National Cathedral. With its renowned iconography and splendid new education building, Saint Sophia makes an impression.

Saint Sophia had a less auspicious beginning in a downtown neighborhood where many Greek immigrants then worked and lived. They fit the mold of others around the country, pushing fruit carts, running small eateries, and living modest lives. Above all, they shared the strong desire to worship in their own Greek Orthodox churches. The dedication and commitment exhibited by these people is well known and revered. They will always be in the church’s memory.

In 1906, after two years of liturgical celebrations by Rev. Nathaniel Sederis and other itinerant priests in rented halls, a church was finally established by Rev. Joachim Alexandropoulos (Alexopoulos). The church, then on the corner of 6th and G Streets, had previously housed the Adas Israel Synagogue, the first Jewish house of worship in Washington, which today is back in operation as the Jewish Museum. Within 20 years, the rapidly growing parish built and occupied their new church on 8th and L Streets.

Today, despite the establishment of four other large Greek Orthodox parishes in the Washington area, Saint Sophia has grown to more than 1,500 family and individual members. Only 25 percent live in the District of Columbia, with the majority in Maryland and the rest in Virginia. The demographic has changed in other major ways. There are still Greeks in the food business, and many others have had successful business careers, but few, if any, are pushing fruit carts these days. A large percentage of Saint Sophia’s parishioners are still transplants, but now, they are also from other parts of the United States – civil servants, lawyers, doctors, journalists, teachers and other professions.

A diminishing number of members consider themselves Greek or even Greek Americans. Many see themselves as simply American. Since more than 90 percent of the weddings conducted at Saint Sophia are interfaith marriages (and have been for the past 25 years), a significantly large number of the Cathedral’s parish members are converts to the faith, according to Father Tavlarides.

By de-emphasizing social and political activities and focusing on Christ and the historical and theological significance of the Church, Father Tavlarides has made it possible for this new generation to stay with the church. His ability to teach and preach extemporaneously has aided him in this task.

The longevity of Father John’s tenure is remarkable. His service at Saint Sophia accounts for half of the parish community’s historical life. Few parishioners even know of the extraordinarily small number of priests who helped found and lead Saint Sophia through the past 101 years.

Father John’s predecessor, the Very Rev. Aimilianos Lalousis, with a service of 25 years at Saint Sophia ranks second. The highly esteemed archimandrite, reportedly a shy man, who was consecrated a Bishop of Chicago and Charlotte in 1960, was instrumental in keeping the old 8th and L church financially solvent by networking with local Greek establishments for funds to help maintain the church, and then for the purchase of land on Massachusetts Avenue and the subsequent construction of the present church edifice in 1955. A park facing the Cathedral is a memorial and tribute to his outstanding ministry, which included the establishment of an Orthodox radio program and church publication. Three young members of the parish in those years, Emmanuel Gratsias, Maximos Moses and John Kotsonis, went onto Holy Cross and were ordained to the priesthood.

Following in length of tenure was the previously noted Father Alexopoulos at the pioneer church on 6th and G. He served some 12 years, bringing with him members of his family from Greece. His grand niece, Mary Hatzyiannis and her family, are members of Saint Sophia today. Elevated to Bishop of Boston, he published a visionary document, “The Dangers to the Hellenes in America and the Means of Saving Them,” noting the increasing acculturation of immigrants from Greece and the need for the both pastoral and liturgical use of English.

In 1930, Father Alexopoulos returned to Volos, Greece where he served as Metropolitan of Demetrias. His courage and faith during World War II were little known until his posthumous recognition in 1998 by the State of Israel, for saving the lives of 700 people who were hidden by the residents of the villages of Mount Pelion. When asked by the Nazis to hand over the list of Jewish residents, he refused, answering, “I am a Jew.” Identified as “Righteous among the Nations,” Father Alexopoulos’ name is inscribed today in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, as well as entered on the Righteous Honor Wall at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Father John Papanicholas, a history professor from Macedonia, who preceded Bishop Aimilianos as Saint Sophia’s priest from 1926 until 1935, oversaw the completion of Saint Sophia’s first church building at 8th and L Streets. One of his sons was the choir director at that time and his grandson, Mitch Papanicholas, served as president of Saint Sophia’s board of trustees for three critical years, 2000-03, during the construction of the education building.

An equally devoted Orthodox Christian priest and passionate advocate of democracy followed Father Alexopoulos. The Rev. Dr. Basilios Lambrides, arrived at Saint Sophia with his wife Kalliopi and two of his four daughters in 1918. His tenure was short and dramatic. At the age of 54, he died of a heart attack at his home on January 8, 1921. Born in Constantinople in 1867, Father Lambrides was a graduate of the Patriarchal School of Theology at Halki; received a doctorate from the University of Jena in Germany; was ordained and served at the Patriarchal Church in Constantinople, and for three years in Bulgaria, where he edited an anti-Bulgarian paper and was ultimately expelled by the government there. In the United States, he became nationally known, while serving at new churches in Rhode Island, Atlanta, Birmingham and Salt Lake City. In Birmingham in 1916, his church raised more money than any other Greek Orthodox parish in the United States for the Venizelist cause, which so preoccupied the immigrants and the church of that period. In Salt Lake City, the local paper wrote that Father Lambrides helped settle a bitter strike at a local copper mine, where many Greek immigrants worked. He entered a mine in his vestments with a gold cross held aloft, in spite of advice that it was a dangerous and volatile situation, and that his safety could not be assured. The strike was soon settled.

Father Lambrides sudden death was also the occasion of local and national press coverage which ascribed his death in some measure due to the bitter division in the Greek American community over the conflict between the royalist and anti-royalist factions in Greek political life.

The National Herald ran a long obituary and comments by Father Lambrides’ wife and son-in-law, claiming he was greatly upset when informed by Bishop Alexander Rodostolou that he must commemorate King Constantine during the Divine Liturgy and other Church services, and that his death was a result of his crisis of conscience, since he considered the king to have betrayed his country by supporting Germany in World War I.

Eleftherios Venizelos himself visited Saint Sophia. A photo shows him standing in front of an American and Greek flag draped over the entrance of the new church under construction at 8th and L. Surviving correspondence from an Episcopal priest at a mission center in Elkton, Virginia also reveals Father Lambrides ability to reach out to non-Greeks; his interest in understanding the situation of poor and uneducated people; and that the use of English in the liturgy had been a topic of conversation between the two clergymen. Father Lambrides’ granddaughter, Daphne Ross is a member of Saint Sophia today.

By 1956, when Father Tavlarides arrived at Saint Sophia, American acculturation had indeed taken a strong hold. His marriage to an American-born graduate of St. Basil’s Academy, Harriet Anastiades, his subsequent ordination, his service as an assistant priest at Holy Trinity Cathedral in New York City and his assignment as assistant priest at Saint Sophia two years later all occurred at a time when a rising generation of educated Greek Americans, as well as recent Greek immigrants, placed new demands on priests serving in Greek Orthodox churches.

Father John’s new assignment was an acknowledgement that then Archbishop Iakovos believed the young priest had the skills and ability to deal with this educated Greek Orthodox contingent, which was drawn to government and politics in the Washington, according to Elaine Daniels, a Saint Sophia parishioner and editor of “Growing up Greek in South Bend,” who arrived in Washington in late 1960 to work for Congressman John Brademas shortly after Father John assumed the head priesthood.

Father Steven Zorzos, assistant priest at Saint Sophia for the last 22 years, maintains that Father John was a man born to be a priest, citing his extraordinary ability to bring new members into the church through baptism, chrismation and marriage. Among members at that time was the distinguished Mike Manatos from Wyoming, who worked for the newly elected President John F. Kennedy. Another active member, Washington lawyer George Charles, played a prominent role at both Saint Sophia and the Archdiocese.

Chosen for their spirituality and liturgical ability, Father John’s assistant priests have also added luster to life and worship at the Cathedral. They include Fathers Steven Zorzos, George Kambanis, Anastasios Diakovasilis and Maximos Moses.

The baby boom of the 50’s and 60’s also brought large numbers of children to Saint Sophia. Education became an even greater priority for the church. They needed the kind of Orthodox religious education appropriate for Americans growing up in a country in which the Greek Orthodox tradition was known to very few other Christian and non-Christian religious denominations. Parents and children needed to be able to talk about and discuss their faith with non-Orthodox, as well as to worship in the vernacular. And they were of a generation which had the interest and education to look back to the Byzantine Church which is the basis of their Orthodox Christian heritage.

Father John inaugurated a 10-week pre-Lenten lecture series which is now in its 46th year. The nursery-school-through-high-school program which he developed is still on-going. Sunday School teachers began meeting two evenings a month for lectures and discussion led by Father John. Service in the altar by boys attending Sunday School was not optional; all 14 year olds served, as well as attended an early class before the liturgy taught by Presbytera Harriett.

One of Father John’s stipulations originally caused some controversy. In order to engage in other church-sponsored activities, like basketball, children must attend Sunday School regularly. A theologically-based discussion with all Sunday School students and teachers during the proskomide proved to be fruitful for parents, as well. Greek education and holiday programs, however, have not been slighted. Saint Sophia runs a successful Saturday program at the Cathedral, and weekday ones in Bethesda, Maryland and Virginia.

It should also be noted that a Sunday School teacher became Saint Sophia’s first woman board member in 1976. Amelia Catakis recalls that Father John sought her out to run because the board needed new blood. “It wasn’t a landslide, but I won.”

In 1986-87, Angene Rafferty was elected and ably served as the first woman president of the Board. In 2004, Fotini Economides, a teacher and lawyer, was elected president of the board, which includes Diane Cerniglia, a longtime senior class Sunday School teacher, and Vasiliki Christopoulos.

The search for knowledge also led Father John on his own theological and ecclesiological quest. An honors graduate of Holy Cross, his vitae list graduate studies at General Episcopal Seminary, Catholic University, American University, Wesley Seminary and, in 1996, a Doctor of Ministry Degree awarded by St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary.

The essence of his teaching is expressed by Andrew Walsh, a former altar boy and graduate of the Cathedral’s Greek and Sunday Schools.

“As a preacher and teacher, Father John has always followed two strains of thought. One is to know Who Christ is and the practical and ethical questions of what He (and we) should do; and two, a spirituality derived from the Desert Fathers,” explains Walsh, now Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and managing editor of the magazine, “Religion in the Media” at Trinity College in Hartford.

Another former altar boy and perfect-attendance graduate of Saint Sophia’s Sunday School program, the highly regarded crime writer George Pelecanos, explains his own Orthodox trajectory. After college, he drifted away from the Church. Fatherhood and his books about Washington’s inner city made him realize that the Orthodox Christian Church was the bedrock of that community. And it made him even more aware of his own Orthodox identity. At home, and when traveling on business, he often worships at Orthodox churches. “This is my home. These are my people. This is my community. I want my three children to feel that way some day.”

The increased liturgical usage of English under Father John also helped enhance the community’s understanding of its faith. His inauguration of a bi-lingual liturgy helped avert the divisive struggle often found among parishioners in other parishes in the Archdiocese over the use of Greek or English.

Father John’s focus on deepening the experience of worship extended to providing Byzantine liturgical music and a richer understanding of ancient Christian tradition. To that end, he sought out Harilaos Pappapostolou in Athens who, for more than 25 years as chanter and choir director, filled Saint Sophia with more authentic Byzantine music than could be found at many churches still using primarily late 19th Century liturgical music. After Harilaos’ death in 1998, Father John again tracked down and found another gifted Byzantine chanter in Greece, Stelios Kontakiotis, who continues this tradition.

Alex Ross, a music critic at the New Yorker magazine, also a product of the Sunday School and an altar boy under Father John Tavlarides, says “It is always thrilling to remember that my great grandfather helped establish Saint Sophia. The Easter service is intimately related to my work as a classical music critic, I think, because it taught me how to sit patiently through experiences of long duration, and it also taught me the meaning of epiphany – that one transforming moment in which the meaning of a great experience becomes clear. In this world filled with unnatural light, electricity, technology and mechanization of every motion, there is nothing more profoundly moving than that one flickering light in the immense dark space of the church.”

Father John also understood that teaching and worship were not only the result of words or even Byzantine music, but that art was a major component of Orthodox spirituality, and that providing an appropriate iconographic program was essential. He turned to outstanding Byzantine scholars at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks – Drs. Paul Underwood, Cyril Mango and Gary Vikan – for counsel on how the new church interior could be decorated in the authentic Byzantine tradition. It was modeled on a 9th Century Byzantine church and executed by the outstanding iconographer, Demetrios Doukas. Instead of following trends current in the 50’s (e.g., the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Milwaukee commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design their modern church), Saint Sophia’s decision to turn back to Byzantine models helped to spark a Byzantine revival across the nation.

It was also instrumental in causing a major controversy at the Cathedral, however. After erudite pro-and-con discussions at undoubtedly the largest general membership meeting in Saint Sophia’s history, the iconographic programs’ plan to replace stained glass windows in memory of deceased former members because they were not part of a truly Byzantine tradition and style was ultimately voted down.

The dissenters were victorious. The windows are still there. Nevertheless, it may have precipitated the departure of some of these dissenting members to other churches.

Peter Koutsandreas, who served on Saint Sophia’s board from 1956-05, and was its president for ten years, believes that the iconographic program will be Father John’s most enduring legacy. “While in his ministry Father John has touched the lives of the thousands who have passed through the portals of Saint Sophia, his lasting legacy is the monumental tribute he had made to our faith in the nation’s capital. A virgin church has been transformed into a magnificent cathedral – a jewel of Orthodoxy in the Americas.”

The selection of Saint Sophia parishioners Paula and Bill Morris as architects of the new education building will also contribute to this legacy. The striking classroom and reception building built of the limestone from the same Indiana quarry as the church edifice to which it is it adjoined now also helps to welcome Washingtonians, and the world, to come and see God’s Holy Wisdom in America’s capital.