Many who left the community return to pay respects at wake for longtime St. Nicholas priest

The Baltimore Sun

All day they came, sometimes a steady trickle, sometimes a sturdy stream, that led back to what was for many now the old country, Greektown.

They were coming to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Ponca Street, just south of Eastern Avenue, around the corner from where Ikaros restaurant has served the tastes of their homeland for generations.

Inside the chapel, amid the heavy bouquet of incense, the body of the Rev. George Kalpaxis lay in an open coffin before an elaborate facade of icons and imagery of the Greek Orthodox Church, which he served for more than 60 of his 89 years.

Father Kalpaxis was born in Connecticut and led Orthodox churches in New Hampshire and New Jersey and, for 12 years, in Houston. But he will be buried today in Baltimore after a 10 a.m. service at St. Nicholas, the church he had led for two decades, from 1971 to 1991 when he retired.

When Father Kalpaxis arrived on Ponca street, most of his parishioners could probably walk to worship from nearby rowhouses. But now, just as their parents and grandparents emigrated from Greece, they have emigrated from Greektown. Their destinations were not the ports of New York and Baltimore, but the suburbs of Lutherville and Towson and Rosedale.

They might have left the neighborhood, but they did not leave St. Nicholas.

"It is difficult to explain, but in the Greek culture, the church is the center," said Popi Angelos, nee Nicolaidis. "It's like the church is the center of the wheel, and everything else extends out from it."

Ms. Angelos, 37, drives from her home in Timonium to St. Nicholas every week, the adult leader of the church's youth group. Previously, she headed the PTA of St. Nicholas' Greek language school, an afternoon program with about 70 students.

She came to pay her respects to the man she knew as Father George, who performed her marriage ceremony and who baptized her children. "He was such a holy man," said Ms. Angelos, stylishly dressed, but, like almost everyone who came up the church's concrete steps, in black.

The Rev. Manuel Burdusi grew up in Greektown. His church was St. Nicholas. He was an altar boy for Father Kalpaxis.

"He was so holy that he could be a bit off-putting," Father Bardusi said of meeting Father Kalpaxis as a child. "But once you started talking to him, you got beyond that."

Father Kalpaxis had a profound impact on young Bardusi. "He inspired me to become a priest," he said.

Father Burdusi, 46, served for two years as Father Kalpaxis' assistant at St. Nicholas, then succeeded him in 1991. He left St. Nicholas two years ago to work with a congregation in Harford County.

Father Bardusi said he joined a half-dozen other priests Wednesday night to dress Father Kalpaxis' body in its priestly vestments, saying a prayer as they put on each one, all in preparation for yesterday's all-day viewing and Trisagion service.

About half of St. Nicholas' parishioners still live in the 21224 ZIP code in which the church is located, Father Bardusi said. But the other half are from all over the area. Those were the ones who kept driving their sedans and sport utility vehicles in and out of the parking lot across the street.

The Greektown that they were returning to was not the one they had left years before. Around the corner from St. Nicholas, there is a storefront evangelical church down the block from Ikaros, not far from a check-cashing business.

You can follow the names of the immigrants welcomed to Baltimore in an orderly line by the names on signs that appear along Eastern Avenue - Italian, Polish, Greek. Now there's a new language down near Fells Point, Spanish, as Hispanics keep the street's immigrant tradition alive.

The population of the older immigrant communities has been diluted, but they retain their hold on those that once lived here, and on their children who have come back to attend their churches.

Nora Kefalas, who came in from Towson, kept her vigil by the door of St. Nicholas, offering coffee and drinks to those who arrived. She talked to fellow parishioner Euatelia Salaris, who drove in from Kingsville. Both were dressed in black and chose the same word that many used to describe Father Kalpaxis - humble.

"He was my first priest here when I came from Greece in '71," said Ms. Salaris, 61, in the distinct accent of her native land. "He was the last one that let you kiss his hand. Now they just hug you."

"He was a people person," Kefalas, 51, said. "Young or old, it didn't matter."

Noting that Father Kalpaxis worked in one capacity or another until the end of the life, Ms. Kefalas said that he had served as a priest on a cruise for Greeks just before his death.

"Someone asked him where he was going to be for Lent," she said, explaining that the Greek Orthodox Lent had just begun. "He replied, 'Wherever God sends me.'"

michael.hill@baltsun.com

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