Celebrating a century

One hundred years ago today, a cross section of Baltimore's nascent Greek community came together at the Union Hall that stood then on East Fayette Street.

Greeks, many from the Peloponnesian prefecture of Laconia, had been coming to the city since the 1890s. Already they had attracted itinerant priests to conduct services and perform sacraments in private homes and rented halls. Now they were ready to form a church - the first in Maryland for their Eastern Orthodox Christian faith.


That initial congregation of immigrant confectioners and fruit dealers, laborers and bootblacks, heard the Divine Liturgy and raised $400. In time, their Ekklisia tou Evangelismou would grow into the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. Today the church, now on Preston Street at Maryland Avenue, is one of the largest Greek Orthodox parishes in the nation, with 1,300 families participating in a full range of religious, educational and charitable programs.

"I don't think the 150 people who gathered in that Union Hall could have imagined this place today," said the Very Rev. Constantine Moralis, the 39-year-old dean of the cathedral. "Our people have a lot to be proud of."


The church, still a focal point of the city's Greek community, will celebrate 100 years of Orthodoxy in Maryland tomorrow with a Divine Liturgy to be led by Metropolitan Evangelos Kourounis. Up to 1,000 people are expected to attend a banquet with Metropolitan Evangelos, who heads the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of New Jersey. Cardinal William H. Keeler, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, and other clergy are to join in a celebration that will recognize the past while looking to the future.

"Certainly we will raise our glasses to our founders, because we wouldn't be here if they hadn't put the hard work in and hadn't had the desire to establish a religious community," said Georgeann Morekas, president of the parish council.

From that first meeting in 1906, the founders moved quickly to expand their Church of the Annunciation, according to a history written by Nicholas M. Prevas. A council elected that day voted to offer the Greek community in Washington $100 to use their priest once a month for services in Baltimore. The following year, the Rev. Constantine Douropoulos sailed from Greece to become the new church's first full-time priest.

The parish purchased property at Homewood Avenue and Chase Street in 1909 and established a Greek-language school in 1912. The community set up a Greek American Building & Savings Association in 1913, and purchased the first of several sections of Woodlawn Cemetery for their dead.

There were growing pains, for the church as for the community, according to the Prevas history. As the post-World War I struggle between Royalists and Venizelists split Greeks, so it divided the immigrants who made up the new parish. Royalists hired their own priest in 1923 and formed the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. Annunciation, meanwhile, went through eight priests from 1920 to 1930.

At the same time, Prevas writes, the community was forming charitable groups, regional societies and fraternal organizations that would help the church reunify when hostilities ended in Greece at the end of the 1920s.

Carolyn Marmaras Tsakalas grew up at Annunciation. Her grandfather was a longtime member of the parish council; her grandson is an altar server. She thinks of the days when Annunciation was the only Greek Orthodox church in Baltimore.

"Everybody knew everyone else," she said. "We were one big family. This is where you came to meet. This is the hub."


Now one of three Greek Orthodox parishes in Baltimore, Annunciation was declared the Greek Orthodox cathedral for Maryland in 1975. There have been other changes. Slowly, the liturgy has evolved from entirely Greek to mostly English. More non-Greeks have joined, either as spouses of members or converts attracted to Orthodox Christianity.

Still, Annunciation remains a spiritual base for the Greek community, a meeting place, and a means of maintaining a common heritage through religious services, language and religious training, and festivals and celebrations.

"With the customs and traditions that were passed down to us, we're now passing them on to future generations," said Jeanne Tsakalos, a lifelong member.

The church is also active in charity, through its Philoptochos organization - the word means "friends of the poor" - and other efforts. The parish sent thousands of health kits to the victims of the Asian tsunami, and more than a planeload of relief supplies to the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Moralis, known as "Father Dean," said he knew from the age of 9 that he wanted to be a priest. A native of Baltimore, he is in the unusual position of serving as priest in the church in which he grew up. He said he is looking forward to this weekend's celebration.

"There is a genuine feeling of excitement around here because of the accomplishments of those who came before us," he said. "We're looking to the future now, planning for the next century."