Lighting candles

Katerina Seal, 5, of Gainesville, Va., lights a candle inside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Holy Saturday morning, the day before Easter. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / April 14, 2012)

Inside Baltimore's St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church early Saturday, the Rev. Michael Pastrikos stood on the dais and chanted prayers before an ornate altar adorned with icons of holy figures.

The smell of spiced incense filled the dimly lit sanctuary as the faithful slipped into pews and counted down the hours until their Easter celebration would begin.

They were among the many Orthodox Christians and others around the world and throughout the region celebrating the holiest of weekends using a Julian calendar different from that observed by other denominations. For the parishioners at St. Nicholas, the occasion is both a holy observance and a time to honor their Greek heritage.

After the solemn service, the churchgoers would rest — and some continued to fast — until midnight, when they will dine on a special lamb soup and begin their celebration of the risen Christ.

Throughout Holy Week, observant parishioners will spend some 20 hours at the church.

The Holy Week rituals culminate Saturday night with a vigil and resurrection ceremony that will spill out into the streets of Greektown. On Sunday, families will gather to feast on lamb and hand out Easter baskets to children.

Takis Papadopoulos, a 58-year-old cabinet maker who moved fromGreece'sMacedonia region in 1976, for years has been the first to open the church at 5:30 a.m. for the Saturday morning service, which celebrates the Great Vespers and the Liturgy of St. Basil. The beauty and the aroma from the flowers takes his breath away, Papadopoulos said.

"It's like you live in heaven," he said of those sacred moments.

In the tradition of ancient monks, Father Pastrikos tossed bay leaves into the congregation as parishioners rang bells and thumped their hands on the pews.

"Today, there is life eternal because our lord and savior Jesus Christ has risen," Pastrikos announced.

Kaliope Parthemos, Baltimore's deputy mayor for economic development, said she grew up at St. Nicholas, which continues to bring Greek-Americans together through their shared heritage, traditions, culture and language.

"I think your soul opens up when you enter the church and you smell the incense and hear the chanting," Parthemos said.

Alexandra Forakis and her husband, Michael, knew each other growing up through St. Nicholas and Greektown's tight-knit community.

"I like that we uphold the traditions," she said. "It has been such a big part of our lives, that if we didn't come something would be missing."

Sophia Seal, who immigrated from Greece with her parents when she was a year old, came with her daughters, Katerina, 5, and Aliki, 3, back to Baltimore's Greektown from her home in Gainesville, Va., to celebrate with family.

"It's very moving — just coming here and seeing how the community comes together," Seal said.

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