The Rev. Ernest Arambiges, a former pastor of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church who, as its first permanent clergy member, worked to establish the parish, died of cancer Saturday at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Towson resident was 89.
Known as Father Ernie and recalled as a wise man who championed the role of families in his congregation, he shepherded the growth of his parish and oversaw construction of the church he served until his 1996 retirement.
Born in Steubenville, Ohio, he was the son of Kereakos Arambiges and his wife, Pauline Dermitzis. He moved with his family to Baltimore in 1941, where his father, who was once a barber, opened the Twin Cities Restaurant in the Saint Helena section of Southeast Baltimore.
Father Arambiges was a 1947 City College graduate. He entered the seminary and graduated in 1954 from the Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. He later earned a master’s degree at Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois.
While singing in the choir of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation on Preston Street, he met his future wife, Maria Sitaras. They were engaged for four years and married on June 21, 1953.
Father Arambiges became pastor of All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Peoria, Illinois in 1954 and remained at the post until 1972.
“My father did not care about race, color or religion. He was a priest first and people came to him for advice and to get the benefit of his wisdom. In Peoria, he had Syrian, Russian, Lebanese and Armenian congregants and he was open to them all,” said his daughter, Renee D. Arambiges, a Towson resident.
In 1969 members of Baltimore’s Greek community became interested in establishing a new parish in the northern suburbs. They gathered many families, raised an initial $100,000 and established a Greek language school at a private home.
Their first services were held at Cromwell Valley Elementary School before they acquired 30 acres on Cub Hill Road. Retired priests and college professors led the group early on and they later worshiped at Parkville Senior High School.
Father Arambiges was assigned to the parish on Sept. 15, 1972 when it numbered 130 congregants. The parish was then known as the Suburban Greek Orthodox Church and its members chose the name St. Demetrios in 1974.
In a 1975 Sun story, Father Arambiges described the young congregation as “living out of suitcase.”
He stressed the importance of family life and participation. The congregation founded a Grecian Festival and a theater company, the Suburban Players. Many were in the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof” in the early days of the parish.
“When he was assigned as the permanent priest, Father Ernie said his mission was to ‘solidify the identity of the parish, to look to its needs and to solidify the life and program of the parish,’” said a 1978 Sun story about him and his congregation.
The name they chose, St. Demetrios, was taken from a Third Century Greek martyr who was a Roman Army officer.
“Father Ernie explained that Greek Orthodox laymen play an important role in the life of the church and have a very strong voice in the operation because it is a democracy. That is why the laity chose the name," The Sun’s story said.
He and his congregation built their first parish structure, the Saint Demetrios Educational Wing Chapel in 1976. In 1984 he presided over ceremonies when a cornerstone for the church structure was set in the ground.
Helen Makres, his secretary and office manager, said Father Arambiges had excellent organization skills.
“He was a man of few words but his words were powerful,” she said. “People were drawn to him because his demeanor was so Christ-like. He taught us to love God and to love one another.”
She said he believed in a tightly knit congregation.
“The family as a nucleus has always been very important to the Greek people and the influences in today’s contemporary society are pulling the family apart," he said in a 1983 Sun story. “St. Demetrios in its own way is trying to slow the trend."
His daughter, Renee D, Arambiges, described her father:
“He was thoughtful. His eyes expressed a lot about his personality. He listened patiently to speakers. He was a teacher and he mentored people. He was a true servant of God and and as a pastor, he was a shepherd.”
She also said, “As a pastor, he was the spiritual father of his congregation.”
Recalling his 1996 retirement, she said the church was filled to capacity.
“Their love and compassion was overwhelming,” his daughter said. “He was a humble man who was devoted to his ministry. His flock came first, always. He was such a compassionate man.”
“He had a great sense of humor and he loved practical jokes," his nephew, former Baltimore City Council member Anthony “Tony” Ambridge, said. "You could even kid him about his bald head and he didn’t mind it. He was a soft spoken man. If I had to describe him, I’d say he was saintly.”
Father Arambiges will lie in state from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, 2504 Cub Hill Road. An Orthros service will be held at 9 a.m. Wednesday, followed by a 10 a.m. Divine Liturgy. Funeral services begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the church.
In addition to his wife of 66 years and daughter, survivors include another daughter, Vivian Markella Maroulis of Mamaroneck, New York; and five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A son, Craig Jon Arambiges died in 2001.