One of the best things about New York City is that you can literally walk across the world by just jumping off the proper subway station. While everyone associates Greece with Astoria, rewind the clock 70 years and head east over to the foot of the George Washington Bridge and you will be in the Astoria of Manhattan, Washington Heights. In its heyday, “The Heights” as it is affectionately called by locals, boasted roughly 20,000 Greeks. And the center of the Greek presence in The Heights was and still is St. Spyridon’s Orthodox Church. St. Spyridon’s, at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, is incidentally as old as the Bridge itself.
A large wave of Greeks started immigrating to NYC after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the economic crisis following the two world wars and Greek civil war. From the 1920s onwards, many settled in Astoria, but others chose Washington Heights.
The first congregants in the area met at a theater, a garage, and an Episcopalian Church before Anthony Miller (an Americanized version of long Greek name) headed a committee to find a permanent house of worship. A building that once housed a Baptist Church-turned Masonic Temple on Wadsworth Avenue was purchased for $500,ooo (a huge sum in those days) 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).
The church suffered a major fire in 1947 basically burning the structure to the ground. But this event was a blessing in disguise because the Byzantine structure that one experiences today, complete with marble columns and a dome modeled after Agia Sophia’s of Constantinople, was erected soon after. The church was consecrated on May 4, 1958. A year later its parochial day school was founded in 1959.
Since that time, the church and The Heights have undergone enormous changes. The Greek presence in the neighborhood unlike that of Astoria has practically vanished, making way for a new wave of immigration from the Dominican Republic, which is the “flavor” the neighborhood holds currently.
Yet, there remains a core remnant of those original members that refuses to stray from a community that has defined them.
Vicky Adams, a long-time Greek member of St. Spyridon and currently on the Parish Council, is one of the few remaining Greeks who still call the Heights home. “I have been living in Washington Heights since I was born,” she says. “I work here, I still have roots here. I still live in the same apartment that my parents moved into when they were married in 1935.”
Vicky Adams credits the fact that she did not move away as is the pattern with the Greek American community that moves on to the more affluent northern suburbs because of the warmth and nurturance of that Greek community of The Heights she grew up in.
“I had such warm memories of doing activities with Father John Psillas with the Sunday school and the Girls Scouts and GOYA, that as you grow up you wanted to give back in a different capacity,” she explains.
She emphasized the love of community over individual priests or cults of personality for her insistence on staying rooted at St. Spyridon’s, a parish that has suffered much negative press in the wake of the defrocking of the former priest George Passias. While individual priests come and go, it is the community that continues. “We cared about our community,” she says. “We all loved our community. It’s like your mother and father. You can get married and move away but you still keep them in your life.”
St Spyridon’s and The Heights have always been inextricably connected to her life. She remembers waiting as a student to be made an assistant Sunday school teacher at 13; she now leads Sunday school. She remembers walking across the George Washington Bridge with Father Psillias as a Girl Scout; she is now the Girl Scout leader for the neighborhood. She led a troupe to the Little Red Lighthouse, officially Jeffrey’s Hook Light, a small lighthouse located in Fort Washington Park on the Hudson River right under the George Washington Bridge.
Her parents married through a “proxenio” or match making episode. Her grandfather concerned that his son had come of age and needed to get married sought out Mrs. Pourisi who only had eligible daughters. It was her eldest that eventually married Panagioti Adam in St. Spyridon’s Cathedral.
“We had the largest Greek community in the US at one point,” Vicky remembers. “They would keep tabs by counting the number of candles and cups they would sell every Sunday.”
The emphasis on community is echoed in the words of Jeannie Nikiforos, another long-time parishioner and Sunday school teacher. Nikiforos drives an hour from Rockland County to attend services at St. Spyridon’s her spiritual home from childhood.
“When I married my husband, I told him everything is negotiable except the church,” she explains. While she could conveniently attend an Orthodox Church literally across the street from her present residence, she treks to St. Spyridon for the same reasons.
She remembers feeling overwhelmed as a child to see the church so packed. “If you came late for Pascha services, you would have to wait on the staircase.”
Nikiforos who attended Sunday school reluctantly as a child because of a bad experience with a teacher resolved to grow up and give lessons that are not boring to her students. This is what she has done for decades now.
The same sentiment is repeated by Eleni Basil, a parishioner who grew up and attended the Greek day school of St. Spyridon in its glory days. She drives in from Bayside, Queens where she too can attend a local Orthodox Church five minutes from her house with her 5-year-old daughter.
“I grew up here,” she explains. “It’s home.”
“I was born in this Church, I got old in this church, I will keep going here until I die,” remarks Vasiliki Apostol who has been attending faithfully for 55 years. “We have been through it all.”
For this core group of parishioners, the yearning to keep a spiritual home, no matter what tides of the times break, is the essence of the Orthodox tradition.
A gallery of images that chronicles the tides of St. Spyridon follows: