The Founding and Organization of the Greek Orthodox Churches of Reading, PA (1890-1914)
The present edifice of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church at 1001 East Wyomissing Boulevard represents the end of a long and interesting story that began more than 100 years ago by a handful of Greek immigrants who had settled in the Reading area. As news of their successes and accomplishments were received by friends, relatives, and fellow villagers in Greece, many others decided to join this group as they pursued the American dream in seeking a better life.
The first family that settled in Reading from Greece was the Hollis Family-William, Milton, Themis, and Despina. They arrived here from Mytilene, located on the island of Lesbos, circa 1890. Although the Hollis Family began their new life with a small candy making business that they operated from their home, they soon flourished into the largest manufacturer of confectionery in eastern Pennsylvania by 1910. This achievement brought many other young men from the same area as well as from close-by villages in Asia Minor, Aivali and Smyrna. Due to this influx of people in the early 1900's, their descendants are still the largest group of Greek-Americans in this area.
Around the turn-of-the-century, George Thomas arrived in Reading from a mountain area in Greece called Mani. These fiercely independent people are well-known for their continuous stand against the Turks during the entire 400 years of the Turkish occupation. George returned to Mani in 1903 to marry a girl from his village. He brought his new wife and his 13 year-old nephew back to Reading. It was his grocery store that soon became the unofficial Post Office for the Greek immigrants. He also provided these newly-arrived people with food and other products that they were familiar with from their homeland. Again, as news of George's success became known in Mani, many others followed him to Reading. These descendants number in the hundreds today.
Near Mani there is a village called Vlahokerasia, from where a young man came to make his way in America. His name was Constantine Mantis, later known as "Papa Mantis". He, along with some other young men, opened the famous Crystal Restaurant which became a landmark in Reading for over 50 years. Today, there are several families in Reading whose ancestors also came from Viahokerasia.
The fourth area of Greece represented in Reading today came here as a group from the Island of Kos and the area of Aretsou near Constantinople, Turkey. Although some of these young men found work In New York, most were still searching for jobs. It was one of them, a graduate of the Baxter School in Smyrna who saw an advertisement that a company in Lititz, Pennsylvania was looking for workers for its Animal Trap Company. Almost the entire group left New York and went to Lititz where they all found work in the factory. Now that these men finally found some job security, they began to see a need to fulfill themselves spiritually. They agreed to form an organization called Konstantinos Paleologos, named after the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Their principle aim was to locate a priest who would be able to occasionally minister to them. Since George Thomas still had the only place for these immigrants to get word from Greece or to purchase familiar products, these men would routinely travel to Reading. In 1909, when this group had the misfortune of being laid off from the factory in Lititz, they happened to notice a sign in front of the Berkshire Knitting Mills stating. "Boys and Girls Wanted". Most of this original group moved to Reading where work was now available. (Some chose to relocate in Lancaster.) The Reading contingency brought with them their newly-formed organization and the treasury. Their descendants are the second largest group of Greek-Americans in Reading today.
It was George Thomas who brought a priest here from Philadelphia to baptize his daughter on May 20, 1908. This priest was convinced to remain here to celebrate the first Divine Liturgy in Reading, on May 28, 1908 in the home of Costas Lambros at 28 Lemon Street. Although now hopeful of starting a church here in Reading, their meager finances prohibited them from pursuing the idea.
The above information is a result of a data search conducted by Sprios S. Lecatsas over the past 6 years & we are now in the process of transmitting all the research to our Heritage Room at Sts. Constantine & Helen Church.
PREVIOUS PARISH PRIESTS
In the early 1900's, there were very few Greek Orthodox priests serving in this country. Those few were mostly celibates (not having families ties) who were able to relocate and serve far away from home. There were a only a few churches, too, mostly in large metropolitan areas such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington. These priests would find time to visit other area where Greeks had settled to give Holy Communion and baptize their children.
After 1913, when the church was formally organized, there were a limited supply of priests - some from Greece, some from Turkey, and many without proper credentials. But Reading was served by a series of dedicated men who labored under extremely difficult circumstances to serve their flock. Although we know, from having talked to those present at that time, that this parish had a regular priest since 1914, the Archdiocese files show the first priest was appointed in 1918. Here are a list of clergy that served in the first few years of our parish's life until 1929:
Rev. Demetrios Petrides
Rev. Papastavropoulos - 1908
Rev. Alexopoulos - 1908
Rev. Antonios Panakrtios - 1912
Rev. Skapnas - 1912
Rev. Panagiotis Kotsopoulos - 1913-1914
Rev. Spiridon Vasilas - 1914-1915
Rev. Riggelis - 1915
Rev. Demetrios Speriades - 1916-1920
Rev. Demetrios Vainikos - 1920-1921
Rev. N. Papavasiliou - 1921
Rev. Constantine Aretos - 1921-1922
Rev. Eugene Petoulis - 1922-1923
Rev. Menetzopoulos - 1923
Rev. George Menexopoulos - 1923-1926
Rev. Nicolaides - 1924
Rev. Ouzoun - 1925
Rev. Christ Agelopoulos - 1926
Rev. Panagiotis Anastasiou - 1927
Rev. Ioanides - 1927
Rev. Amfilochios Sarantides - 1928-1929
Rev. Stamatiades - 1929
In 1929, a man who had served here as a Greek School teacher was ordained and assigned to this Parish. His name was Father George Nassis and he served here until 1937. He was a well-educated man with a terrific voice, a good knowledge of music and was a most devoted individual. He trained our first choir and to hundreds of youngs boys and girls of the first generation born in this country, he was and still is today, THE priest. Their respect and admiration of him grew with the years and although he left in 1937 and eventually passed away in 1976, to that generation he remains a holy figure. Among the many wonderful blessings he brought to our community, he was blessed with a vision that helped rediscover a saint who had been forgotten for over 1500 years. Saint Xenia came to him in a vision, and he had an icon written of his vision. It is because of this vision that our Philoptochos choose St. Xenia for its Patron saint.
After Fr. Nassis there was again a series of priests who served a short time in our parish. Here is a list of the priests that served in our community until 1944:
Rev. Demellis - 1937
Rev. Papaleonidas - 1937
Rev. Theodore Stratigos - 1937-1938
Rev. Nicholas Spiliotis - 1938-1939
Rev. Nikolaou - 1939
Rev. John Aslanides - 1939-1944
Rev. Karaphilis - 1944
Rev. Mikropoulos - 1944
In 1944, Father Symeon Emmanuel was appointed to our parish. Fr. Symeon came from Constantinople orginally. He had a good background of Byzantine Music as did all the clergy who came from Constantinople. He served as our priest at a time when our community realized that our small church at Lemon and Chestnut Streets could no longer serve them adequately. Negotiations took place to sell our old church (as a lot only for $18,000) and buy the building at 8th and Court Streets complete, ready for use for $22,000 - a good situation by any standards.
Father Symeon was succeeded in 1949 by Father James Aloupis, the first American-born priest to serve here. A very eloquent and intelligent young man, Father Aloupis took the church out of obscurity and brought it out to the public and the Community at large. He helped encourage the parishioners to spread the word to the community that there was a church among them with many young people in it serving the same Lord. The church became active in the Greater Reading Council of Churches and in its community-wide efforts. In 1954, Father Aloupis was transferred to the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Newark, New Jersey, where he served the remainder of his ministry.
Father George Hiotis was then appointed to our church in 1954. Also an American born priest (although he moved to Greece when he was seven years old and then back again to America when he was 37) Father George brought enthusiasm, love and spiritually moving services. Many of today's middle-aged men served behind the altar under Father George and everyone has fond memories of him. He was also instrumental in inspiring at least two local boys to become priests of the church. During the time he served here, the Community outgrew the cramped facilities used as a Sunday School. The building next to the church was purchased, completely remodeled, and put into use as a Sunday School. He remained the clergyman for our parish until 1963.
In 1963, before we received another permanent priest, we were blessed to have two clergy come and help offer services so that we could still attend church. These two individuals were:
Rev. S. Sophocles - 1963
Rev. Kaisaris - 1963
In 1963, Fr. Peter Murtos came to Reading. He served our parish during one of the most difficult times in the history of the Community. A decision had to be made whether to build a new church, and where to build was not an easy decision to make. Father Murtos, therefore, fell in the midst of a controversy. He was a dynamic individual with a forceful personality. He was also a prolific writer of music using the old Byzantine Chants and putting them in a setting using today's western musical notes. He worked very hard to see that the present edifice was built and started having services there as early as possible. He remained the priest for our parish until 1970, when he went to Holy Trinity Church in Raleigh, NC. He served that parish until he retired in 1980.
Father Murtos was succeeded in 1970 by Father George Giannaris who found and even more difficult situation here. Some of the parishioners had left to start another church and because of this finances were strained and at times it was hard to find money just to pay our bills. However, Fr. George was a fighter having lived in Greece during the German occupation, and was imprisoned several times while he took an active part in the resistance. Consequently, faced with such a financial obstacle, he helped the community in the introduction of the Bazaar and the high returns contributed greatly to putting the church in a much better financial standing. Father Giannaris' sermons were always well prepared and eloquently delivered. He was transferred in 1985 to Youngstown, OH.
In 1985, Father Tom Pappalas came to Reading. He brought here a new approach to service as a priest. He realized that the vast majority of our Parish was third generation, American born, with very little, if any, knowledge of the Greek language. He also realized that there were many communicants in our church who had no Greek background at all. Father Tom, slowly, but surely changed the services to include as much English as possible, having the congregation sing the services, and convincing the people that they are participants and not spectators in the services. Much has been accomplished during his time here, but two noteworthy accomplishments to the church building itself: 1.) The interior has been completed as it was orginally intended, and 2.) Our Parish, after almost 90 years, was consecrated. Father Tom speaks the people's language figuratively and literally and he, as a great spiritual person, brought a much needed spirituality to the Community.