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St. Sophia serves food, culture and fellowship

New London — John Louziotis recalls that when he was a child, attending Sunday Mass took up much of a day.

The Waterford resident has been a member of the city's St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church since it was established in 1939, but he still remembers the family trips to Norwich each Sunday in the years before the New London church existed.

"You got the 8 o'clock bus to go to church for 10 o'clock in the morning," he said, noting no local buses ran on Sundays, so the trip relied on the New London to Springfield, Mass., bus runs. "You stopped off in the middle of the town. You walked up to Boswell Avenue. You waited until church started and then at 12 o'clock when the church ended, but the bus coming this way wasn't there until 1 o'clock, so we had to wait for an hour for the bus to come home."

The establishment of St. Sophia not only resulted in less travel for the Orthodox faithful, but also allowed the New London and shoreline Greek community to build a parish knit together by shared ethnicity, sense of community, faith, love of food and dedication to service. While over the course of the church's more than 80-year history, the Greek community has declined in numbers and fanned far into the suburbs outside of New London, the church and its deep traditions remain a focal point of life for some 350 families between Haddam and southern Rhode Island.

"We step up and take care of each other," Michael Podeszwa, parish council president, said of the church community. "So, this is family; everyone is family. You support each other, keep each other going."

That support extends beyond shared worship at the ornate and beautiful church. It means providing meals and volunteer labor for the city's Community Meal Center on Montauk Avenue and for the Church of the City's meal center, stepping up to contribute funds to causes important to the Greek community, and sharing traditional cuisine with the larger community at an annual Greek food festival that usually attracts thousands, although this year has been canceled due to the pandemic.

According to the New England Historical Society, Greek immigration to the Northeast began slowly around the time of the Civil War. But, as with many European immigrant groups, the bulk of migration occurred around the turn of the 20th century. Between 1890 and 1924, more than 400,000 Greeks arrived in the United States and many found their way to New England to work in manufacturing. After the community established itself, many Greek Americans opened their own small businesses. In Connecticut, by the late 1970s, three-quarters of all Greek families worked in pizza restaurants.

In New London, the Greek community followed this general trend, growing in the first half of the 20th century. According to an official parish history, a large number of Orthodox believers settled in the New London area after World War I, which increased motivation to establish a parish.

For the first year after St. Sophia was formed, services were conducted inside the St. James Episcopal Church chapel. The Hempstead Street site that is the location of the current neo-Byzantine-style church and Hellenic community center was purchased from a local funeral home.

Louziotis said the deal was a combination of money and barter: Without enough funds to pay the full asking price for the land, the parish agreed to more or less pay over time by using the funeral home's services when parishioners died.

"People still use that parlor today," said Podeszwa, referring to members of the Greek community.

Just before the pandemic shut down in-person worship services for several months, a group of parishioners recalled some of the parish's history while gathered over a pasta lunch at the church hall.

"We're Greek, we eat, sorry," parish secretary Maria Whalen told this visitor, whom she urged to enjoy the pasta, as much of the discussion focused on the popularity of sharing traditional cuisine.

In 1952, the parish started hosting the annual Greek food festival in the fall. Some years, a second one is hosted in the spring. Lou Delegan of Waterford said people call the parish in the summer to ask about the dates and times of the festival, so they do not miss the event.

"All the food is cooked here in the kitchen. It's all fresh. It's all Greek cooking and pastries," Delegan said. "The women and the men do it the whole thing — the whole nine yards, very popular."

Louziotis recalled when the food festival began, the food was cooked by parishioners at home or at their restaurants and was brought to the church hall and kept warm with Bunsen burners. He said he used to wash the dishes using three buckets of water.

"The kitchen was very small, still down there," Louziotis said of the facility more akin to a residential-sized kitchen. "We used to feed a lot of people. We had a line going up the stairs, through the back."

George Gianakos, a former parish board member, former vice president of the parish and former head of the maintenance department, said he also helped out at the festival.

"I've always been lending a hand, if not in labor-wise, donation-wise and some of my expertise in the restaurant," said the co-owner of the city's popular Mr. G's restaurant. "If they have any questions or are looking for ways to do things, I've helped them out."

The Jean G. Venetos Hellenic Center, which currently houses the festival, was completed in 1974. It houses a commercial-grade kitchen, where food is now prepared for the four-day event.

Podeszwa said the festival generally serves up some 1,000 chicken dinners, among numerous other homemade offerings, and attracts at least 5,000 people. "Our whole philosophy is to share our food and our heritage and welcome anybody and everybody," he said.

Food also has been central in other St. Sophia fundraising efforts. The parish held a gyro fundraiser on Sept. 11, 2014, to benefit the St. Nicholas shrine in New York City, which was damaged during the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Podeszwa said the Archdiocese of America asked for $10,000, but St. Sophia raised almost $4,000 more than that. The rebuilt church is scheduled to reopen in 2021.

Food also has played a role as the parish navigated a new chapter of its history: the coronavirus pandemic. As the church closed to on-site worship and Mass services began being livestreamed, some parishioners who own restaurants, including Gianakos, stepped up to help by donating food.

"I've done so much donating, I forget where I donate," Gianakos said. "We donate whenever they (the parish) have a food drive or anything like that, we donate."

Parishioners now have returned to the church for in-person services, although the capacity has been capped at about 40.

Gianakos gave credit to other restaurants associated with the parish, as well. "There's a bunch of Greek restaurants here and everyone seems to help out, chip in whenever it's needed."

At Easter, when most were sheltering at home and family celebrations were canceled due to the pandemic, Gianakos said his restaurant cooked traditional Easter food, including moussaka and lamb shank. "We put it out and a bunch of the parishioners ordered it and we're donating money to the church, to give back," he said.

Besides this food support, Podeszwa said the parish family sought to support its members in other ways.

The Philoptochos Society, the parish's woman's society, along with the parish council and pastor made phone calls to members, starting with the elderly, who may not have internet access or Facebook. "Touching base just calling. Just, you know, civilized conversation, 'How you doing?' kind of thing," Podeszwa said. "But also, if they need anything, need any food, any help, shopping, or just letting them know that they have support. If they need anything, we have people that can help them with those needs."

Pandemic or not, personal and caring support is an aim for all the parish leadership.

"It's like a family, so you are always going to have some disagreements in a family, and what I try to do is allow people to have their disagreements," Pastor James Katinas said.  "But I said if we're going to disagree, we need to disagree respectfully and lovingly, so I just basically tried to hear everybody out and try to refrain (from) the conversation."

Moving forward, St. Sophia faces a challenge that is common among many traditional faith communities: an aging membership.

Podeszwa said about 75% of parishioners are over 60. "I'm 52 and I am the youngest person on the parish council," Podeszwa said. "We have some parish council members who are in their 80s."

He said getting younger members involved has been a goal. "One of our goals really is to get the younger families involved in it, provide more opportunities for them to be involved in the church," he said. "It requires a lot of outreach on our part and making those connections and having younger families new in the area come and participate."

About this series

"Spirit of the City" is a project completed by University of Connecticut journalism students studying community news reporting. The class of eight students worked with Professor in Residence Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald, a former Day reporter, as well as journalism department head professor Maureen Croteau and editors at The Day to produce stories about New London's faith communities, the diversity these communities represent and the extensive outreach and social justice work they perform.

Students began working in January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic that shut down houses of worship, along with most businesses and schools in March, severely delayed and impacted the students' ability to conduct face-to-face interviews but they completed these stories under these adverse conditions. The students who contributed to this project are: Kevin Arnold, Margaret Chafouleas, Olivia Hickey, Allison O'Donnell, Daniela Luna, George Penney, Maxine Philavong and Joseph Villanova.

The entirety of the series can be found at bit.ly/nlsotc2020.

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