Saint Spyridon
 

Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church
Reverend Dr. George E. Economou

thames and brewer streets - po box 427 - newport, ri 02840 - (401) 846-0555
 
History of Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church
 
The Establishment of the Newport Community - The First Settlers
The Establishment of the Greek-Language School
The 1940s
Cemeteries
The 1960s
The Fiftieth Anniversary
The 1970s
The 1980s
The Consecration and Seventy-Fifth Anniversary
The 1990s and Beyond
 
The Establishment of the Newport Community – The First Settlers

By 1896 four Greeks arrived in the city of Newport, all from the island of Skiathos, which lies in the Aegean Sea just east of the city of Volos. Drawn by the lure of the sea, these men saw that they could make a living in Newport’s small but thriving fishing industry. Many Greeks soon followed these earliest Hellenic settlers to Newport. The early settlers in Newport were mainly from the island of Skiathos, though later they were out-numbered by Greeks from the island of Lesbos. The demographic makeup in the community continued to change over the next decade, however, despite the Greeks’ regional differences and preference, they all identified with the Greek Orthodox Church.

In Newport the Greeks began gathering at the Friends’ Meeting House (now the Community Center) in 1914. The following year they also held services at the United Baptist Church on Spring Street. With some of the community’s younger children attending services and Sunday school at Trinity Church, the oldest Episcopal church in Rhode Island, a friendship between Greeks and Episcopalians ensued, and through the efforts of Stanley C. Hughes, the rector of Trinity, its Kay Chapel was made available to the Greeks and became their principal place of worship until they purchased a church of their own in 1924.

Meanwhile the Newport Greeks elected a parish council for the purpose of incorporation, and on September 14, 1915, the state granted them a charter empowering them, as the Hellenic Orthodox Community of Newport, RI, to organize and maintain a church under the aegis of the Holy Synod of Greece. Anthony Salonikios, Apostolos B. Cascambas, Christos P. Petropoulos, Stamos Salonikios, Demetrios Damaskos, and Lambros Brown (Argites) elected Nicholas Mitchell as their first president and together they signed the articles of incorporation.

The Newport community promulgated its bylaws in conjunction with its incorporation. This document identified the locale of worship – namely, Kay Chapel at 27 High Street – and declared the purpose of establishing a religious community under the jurisdiction of the Church of Greece. (After the establishment of the Archdiocese of North and South America in 1922, the Newport Greeks would become the first of the three Rhode Island communities to receive recognition from the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.) Religious services would, of course, be held “exclusively in the Greek language by a priest appointed by the Holy Synod of Greece” after due consultation with the parish council. St. Spyridon would be the community’s patron saint, and this fourth-century wonder-working hierarch would be commemorated annually on his feast day, December 12.

The first to sign the Newport document was the community’s president, who signed the bylaws as Nikolaos Mintzelos and the articles of association as Nicholas Mitchell. His status as an “established” Greek, with an Americanized name and some knowledge of English, weighed heavily in his selection as the community’s first leader. It was at this time that the Newport Greeks also engaged their first priest, a cleric from Mytilene named Efstratios Rigellis, who remained in Newport until the community’s acquisition of a permanent house of worship in April 1924. The documents pertaining to the purchase were signed by Basil Constant, the then president of St. Spyridon’s parish council, and Dionysios Demessianos, the new priest. The Thames Street property today remains the community’s permanent home.

The Establishment of a Greek-Language School

The responsibility for educating children in the Greek language was at that time assumed by the priest. In Newport that responsibility was initially entrusted to the subsequent priest of the parish, the Reverend George Stefopoulos. Originally a carpenter by trade, Father Stefopoulos – who would construct the church’s bishop’s throne, altar table, and proskynetari, or reverence booth (on which the icon of the church’s patron saint is placed) – would be the first priest to remain in the Newport community for more than five years.

The 1940s

The Newport community again received a new pastor, the Reverend Constantine Theodore, at the outbreak of World War II. Though born in Greece, Theodore was reared in Boston and became the first priest of a Rhode Island Greek community to have graduated from the newly established Holy Cross Seminary in Pomfret, Connecticut. In a curious and not immediately evident way, his arrival marked a turning point in the development of the Greek community, a shift in orientation from the “Greek village” notions of the Church to more Americanized customs. The war and its aftermath would result in a relatively large number of “mixed marriages” in which one of the partners was neither ethnically Greek nor Greek Orthodox in religion. Such unions required a new kind of ethnic outlook, one that also regarded English as an acceptable spoken language.

In December 1945 a major testimonial banquet, chaired by Apostolos Cascambas, was held at the Viking Hotel in Newport to honor both the pioneers of the Newport community and those who had served as parish council presidents. Attended by representatives of the city government and the Navy, numerous clergymen, and such prominent Phil Hellenes as Maud Howe Elliott, this event proved to be an inspiration for parishioners to work at bringing about needed repairs and improvements in their house of worship.

The church building, a clapboard structure now nearly a hundred years old, was beginning to deteriorate, and it was clear that something had to be done if it was to survive. In 1946 Nicholas Spiratos devised a plan, which the community quickly adopted: a brick veneer was applied to the building’s exterior, the entrance was moved from Brewer Street to Thames Street, and twin towers were added, making the church visible from every point in nearby Newport harbor. The work not only preserved the exterior of the church but also made possible the redecoration of the interior, where the iconostasis was expanded and additional pews and a large Austrian crystal chandelier were installed.

When Newport author and women’s rights activist Maud Howe Elliott died in 1948, the Newport Greek community eulogized her as “a beloved benefactor of the Greek people,” one who “gave fresh impetus in support of every humanitarian cause” and maintained “until her last days the same vigorous tradition of culture and benevolence, which were exemplified by her father, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, in the war for Greek independence in 1821.”

Cemeteries

The Newport Greek community utilized the smaller cemeteries on Farewell Street and the adjacent Island Cemetery for its members. When lots became available there, the community turned to the Island Annex and Middletown cemeteries. The possibility of acquiring a section in Trinity Cemetery in Portsmouth was sometimes discussed, but no action was ever taken on this idea.

The 1960s

Fr. Spyridon Papademetriou, was assigned to the Newport community in the late 1950s, coming from the Annunciation Church in Newburyport, MA. Fr. Spyridon was a positive force in the community for the next 15 years as he was constantly on the move spreading fellowship among parishioners.

Up to this time, most parishioners still lived within walking distance or a short taxi ride of the church, and as such, what little parking was required could easily be found in the streets or private lots near the church. In 1965, as this demographic began to change, with the assistance of Mr. Greg Karabelas, a parcel of property containing an automotive garage on the opposite corner of Thames and Brewer Streets was purchased for the amount of $27,000. A second parcel of land adjacent to that property was later acquired through the assistance of the Order of AHEPA Maud Howe Elliott Chapter 245, which donated $2,000 toward the purchase. The second parcel provided limited community parking spaces.

The Fiftieth Anniversary

The Newport Greeks marked their fiftieth year in 1965 with a program of observances chaired by Chris Caragianis and guided by Fr. Spyridon Papademetriou. Toward the end of the sixties the community was thinking about relocating, for its church was at that time in an undesirable location. The Navy’s presence in Newport was a mixed blessing. Brawls among inebriated sailors were not uncommon on upper Thames Street, where the church is located, but when it was decided in 1973 that the Navy would withdraw many thousands of its servicemen from Newport, the prospect loomed that the street would become deserted and thus potentially unsafe, especially for the community’s young. Before any decision could be made about relocating, however, the city’s downtown underwent a notable revitalization, primarily through the efforts of the Newport Redevelopment Corporation and its chairman, Harold C. Petropoulos. Newport now began attracting tourists in even greater numbers than previously, and upper Thames Street, and the church, were in the midst of this bustling activity. The only regret is that the community did not acquire additional property in the area, which was offered to it (including by parishioners) at extremely discounted rates. As such, the community has remained limited due to the lack of parking and easy access for parishioners.

The Newport community had many things to rejoice about during its fiftieth anniversary observances. The sons of the immigrant founders were coming into their own. Dean Lewis’s election as Mayor of Newport several years earlier and subsequent run for Governor was a source of pride among the Greeks. Harold Petropoulos, the son of charter member Christy Petropoulos, had been elected to the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce. Nicholas Logothetes, whose father, Stamos, had been an early president of the community, served as Newport’s director of secondary education and assistant superintendent of schools. Dean C. Brelis, a newspaper and magazine reporter, war correspondent, and NBC news commentator, had just completed his first book, ‘My New Found Land.’ Chris Caragianis was the chairman of the Naval Affairs Council, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, the president of the Navy League, and the disaster chairman of the local chapter of the American Red Cross.

The 1970s

Fr. Spyridon continued to serve the community until he was reassigned to St. Matthew Church in Reading, PA in the mid-1970s. Fr. Robert Athas then served the community for a few years prior to the assignment of Fr. John Theodore in 1976.

By the mid-1970’s, the Newport church facilities had fallen into a state of disrepair. Chris Caragianis challenged his fellow parishioners to rise to the task of restoring and beautifying the church. His contribution of $50,000 was quickly matched by church organizations and individuals, and James Georgiou was contracted to perform the work. The first stage consisted of gutting and restoring the adjacent parish center and kitchen, which had served as the community’s only classroom, and constructing offices and classrooms on the lower level, under the church. The second stage involved the refurbishing of the church’s interior and the restoration of its appointments, including the alter screen icons, by the Tinneys of Belcourt Castle.

The 1980s

The few parking spaces in the adjacent property were no longer adequate for the communities growing parking needs, as many parishioners no longer lived in Newport or near and around the church. Many parishioners now lived in Middletown and Portsmouth. Therefore in 1982 the automotive garage building on the second church-owned parcel was taken down to make room for more parking and the possibility of hosting fund raising events.

In 1983 the community, with the assistance of Fr. John Theodore, initiated its annual three-day Hellenic Fest, a major event that has since become the church’s biggest fundraiser and a much-anticipated Newport tradition.

Through the devotion and generosity of St. Spyridon’s parishioners, important restoration projects were carried out at the Newport church during the 1980s. These included work on the church’s interior and the parish hall, and a complete organ restoration.

After eight years of service in Newport, Father Theodore was transferred to St. Catherine’s Church in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1983. The following year Father Stephen Kyriakou arrived from Boston, where he was chancellor of the Boston Diocese, as his replacement. Fr. Kyriakou remained in Newport until March 1987, when he was reassigned to the Cathedral of the Annunciation in San Francisco, CA, where he served as dean. His successor, the Reverend Thomas Chininis, came to St. Spyridon after serving for four years as assistant pastor at the Holy Trinity Church in Dallas, Texas.

The Consecration and Seventy-Fifth Anniversary

In 1990 the parish marked its seventy-fifth anniversary with a festive banquet and the publication of a commemorative book. The church was also consecrated as a prelude to the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration (September 17, 1989) by Bishop Methodios, after it was discovered that this had never taken place when the property was first acquired. The church was dedicated and the relics of three saints were deposited into the Holy Altar: St. George, St. Kyrikos the Martyr and the Holy Fathers martyred at Sinai and Raitho. All past living pastors of the parish returned for the consecration ceremony.

At the consecration, instead of having the honor of Godparent of the church going to only one individual, it was decided that any member donating to the consecration would be considered a Godparent. All names were placed in a box and one was drawn to represent all of the honored Godparents. Mr. George Koulouvardis' name was drawn as the representative NOUNO AXIOS!!

The 1990s and Beyond

Fr. Chininis left for St. Philip Church in Nashua , NH in the Fall of 1994 at which time Fr. Peter Balkas arrived from the St. George Church in Des Moines , IA to serve the community. Upon Fr. Peter’s departure for St. Nectarios Church in Palatine , IL , Fr. Anthony Evangelatos arrived in the summer of 2001 from St. George Church in Eugene , OR and served the community until June, 2008 when he was reassigned to the Annunciation Church in Brockton , MA .  Fr. George Economou arrived from the Assumption Church in Pawtucket, RI to serve the Newport community in the Fall of 2008 and currently serves as the community’s spiritual leader.

In the early 1990s, the community began working toward a renovation of the exterior of the church building in order to make it conform more to Byzantine tradition and standards. The project was abandoned when it became evident that due to the lack of parking in the area, the fact that most parishioners no longer lived within walking distance of the church, and the difficulty in getting downtown due to tourist traffic during certain times in the year, the community would be better served to invest in a parcel of land outside of the downtown area in order to build a new church and community center. This remains a challenge for the community, however, with a recent extraordinary bequest by a past parishioner, the parish now again hopes to pursue this option in order to better allow the community to grow and thrive in the future.