Most of us have at least some familiarity with Greek culture.
We study Greek mythology in high school. We are members of Greek fraternities and sororities in college. We shop for Greek yogurt on the dairy aisle. And we eat gyros and spanakopita while watching the comedy “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding.”
Yes, we have heard of Plato and studied Aristotle. But when somebody mentions Athens, some of us immediately think of tailgating at a Saturday afternoon football game rather than one of the world’s most ancient cities 5,690 miles across the ocean.
If the conversation turns to the Greek Orthodox Church, most folks would shrug and concede “that’s Greek to me,” a popular expression for something that is not understood.
“We had a saying when I was growing up in the Orthodox church that it was the best-kept secret in America,” said the Rev. John Stefero of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Macon.
The seventh annual Central Georgia Greek Festival is another opportunity for the church to entertain and educate a curious community that turns out in large numbers. Holy Cross has a membership of about 80 families and is the largest Greek Orthodox church between Atlanta and Tallahassee, Florida.
The festival began on Friday and continues Saturday and Sunday. It is much more than dancing, food and pageantry. Stefero and others offer church tours and lectures on Greek Orthodoxy. There is also a church bookstore.
“Our primary focus at the festival is to open up the church and let people know about Orthodox Christianity,” said longtime member Spyros Dermatas.
Said Stefero: “Even if people initially come for the food or dancing, this is a chance for them to see the church and come in and ask questions. I have had them come up to me and tell me they didn’t know that much about Greek Orthodoxy. But they’ve read a book about it from the library and they want to know more.
“We do have some converts in our church, but we are not trying to proselytize and take people away from other faiths. This is an educational opportunity we would not have it if wasn’t for the festival.”
There are about 5 million Orthodox Christians in the U.S. in about a dozen ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Holy Cross is one of about 500 parishes in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is the largest.
Many Greek immigrants began arriving in America in the late 19th century, bringing the ancient faith of the Orthodox Church with them.
Those who settled in Macon and Middle Georgia in the 1890s carried last names such as Andros, Zaloumes, Malliotis, Floros, Lamis, Roniotis, Zolotas, Pappas and Callianos. They often worshipped in homes and other available locations.
After World War II, the Greek community of faith was made up of loosely organized congregations from Macon, Warner Robins and Milledgeville. From 1933 to 1955, the Rev. Panos Constantinides, a Greek Orthodox priest from Atlanta, led the religious services.
Fifty years ago, in 1964, the Greek Orthodox Church of Macon was granted a charter to four founders: George Zaloumes, John Cacavias, Nick Dermatas and Harry Andros. A church building fund was established, and George Andros and Johnny Vastakis joined them as benefactors.
If some of those names sound familiar, it’s because they should be. George and Harry Andros were stepbrothers who immigrated from Greece and whose careers at Nu-Way Weiners spanned parts of eight different decades. They held almost every job there from curb boy to dishwasher to owner.
John Cacavias and Nick Dermatas were brothers-in-law who married sisters in the Andros family and eventually became owners.
Their sons, Spyros Dermatas and Jim Cacavias, are currently co-owners of the Nu-Way. Johnny Vastakis was a former Nu-Way manager who eventually opened his own chain of local hot dog restaurants called Johnny V’s.
For many years, services were held in the chapel at St. Paul Episcopal Church on College Street.
The Rev. Homer Goumenis, of the Atlanta Cathedral, served as priest in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In 1976, the church purchased a small chapel and house on Bloomfield Drive that was owned by St. Francis Episcopal Church. The chapel underwent extensive renovations and the house became the parish hall. The church celebrated its first “divine liturgy” in its first real “home” in August 1976.
By the following year, the church changed its name to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church. The Rev. Michael Vastakis, who had been a chanter for many years, was ordained in September 1978 and served for the next 27 years.
The church is now in its 10th year on First Street. It purchased the downtown property from First Street United Methodist in April 2004 and began renovations four months later. It began a five-year capital campaign and held its first service there in June 2005.
Holy Cross is a regional church, drawing parishioners from Warner Robins, Milledgeville, Thomaston, Cordele, Americus and Eatonton. Their heritage includes Greek, Russian, Romanian, Albanian, Hispanic, Ethiopian, Hungarian.
“We have shown growth over the last seven years,” said Spyros Dermatas. “A lot of it has had to do from moving from a small chapel in west Macon to a prominent location in downtown Macon next to the Medical Center.”
Stefero lives in Atlanta and is in his fifth year with the parish. He commutes from Atlanta on the weekends. He served as a chaplain in the Air Force for 28 years, so he has had experience with people from different religious backgrounds and all walks of faith.
“I have had several Methodists tell me they would like to thank us for purchasing the property and keeping it a place of worship,” Stefero said. “They wanted to make sure it was still used as a temple of God.”
Stefero said he realizes a lot of folks come to hear the festive music and dancing and enjoy the food rather than to learn big words like iconostasis -- a wall of icons and religious art between the holy altar and the sanctuary.
And that’s a reason to celebrate, too.
“My grandparents came from eastern Europe, so I have a Russian Orthodox background,” he said. “But I have to admit I really enjoy the Greek food.”