Sunday Story Conversation: The Greek Americans of Mattituck, Long Island

first church
first church

“The Libraries of the Town of Southold are excited to present a series of community conversations in honor of the Town’s 375th Anniversary. One Sunday each month from April to November, Sunday Story conversations will shine the spotlight on individuals and families who have made a significant impact on our community,” said Jeff Walden, Director of the Mattituck – Laurel Library.

On Sunday, June 28th, at 2 p.m., at the Mattituck-Laurel Library meeting room a Sunday Story Hour on the Transfiguration of Christ Greek Orthodox church was held. Very Rev. Constantine Makrinos and Catherine Tsounis Siolas were interviewed in analytic, sharp questions of who, what, when, where, and why. The participation of members of the Transfiguration of Christ church in a Southold Anniversary event has not taken place since the 1976 Southold Town Bicentennial of the United States. Southold Town supervisor Scott Russell attended and told his memories from the 1970’s. Mrs. Stavroula Nicolas Raia, of the Kimisis tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church of Southhampton, donated her photography and public relations services.

They came in the rain. Turbulent weather did not stop young and old. All attended to listen about their parents aunts, uncles and grandparents to hear about the unknown persons who changed the face of Eastern Long Island.  Through one action: the building of a Greek Orthodox Church with roots from the footsteps of St. Paul. The creation of the Transfiguration of Christ church on Breakwater Road created a community. It was the catalyst creating other churches in Greenport and Southampton. The Mattituck-Laurel Library revealed their story.

The Galanis family
The Galanis family
St. Panteleimon
St. Panteleimon

“I came out of retirement, where I have been a hermit putting fifty years of newspaper articles in books.,” explained Catherine Tsounis Siolas. “This Sunday Story Hour is taking place because of the energetic drive of two persons. Our priest on July 15th will have his six-year anniversary at the Transfiguration Church. He inspired me by saying ‘we will do it together.’ For three months. He announced at Sunday services The Sunday story Hour, inspiring nieces  and nephews os deceased members to come. He will be completing thirty years of his ministry in august 4th 2015. Very Rev. Constantine Makrinos is to be congratulated in making this event happen.”

audience
audience

“The second person responsible is the low-key Director of Mattituck – Laurel Library,” continued Ms. Tsounis-Siolas. “The director said ‘the idea germinated from monthly meetings of the East End library who wanted to celebrate the town’s past in a unique way.” He told me that listening to one another’s stories can help the past come alive — and help us to ask questions and solve problems together in the future. Story telling is a positive change that can change our present and future history.  The Director changed the date several times to accommodate my schedule. How could I refuse to help Southold in their 375th Anniversary? Our director grew up in Greenport, L.I. during the growth of the Greek community and their church. Jerry Matovcik, his Administrative Assistant, created an excellent power point slide presentation of our church from the time period 1969-2014. Jeff Walden, Director of the Mattituck – Laurel Library, is responsible for creating this moment in history on June 28th.”

“We have a unique person with us today who grew up with members of our community in the 1970’s and has been a friend to all to this day,” said Ms. Tsounis Siolas. “He attended youth dances at the church in the late 1970’s with his friend Michael Tsontakis. The Epidy twins were his friends. He grew up with Greeks, understanding their culture. He has been in the shadows helping all as an Assessor and Southold Town Supervisor for ten years. He does not have a Greek name. This political leader understands and supports us more than anyone with our surname. We are honored to have with us Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell.”

Persons who attended were library attendees and Greek and Cypriot-Americans whose families were founders and rebuilders of the Transfiguration of Christ Church. They included: Katerina Mihaltsis, representing the Jimmy Mihaltsis family whose uncle Theofan Kyvernitis built the church; Helen Mahares, a founder from the 1960’s who remembered church services on the beach; Helen Lignos, whose Mother was a founder of the church, president of the Philoptohos, whose sculpture of the face of the late Archbishop Makarios greeted all who entered her home: Many Constantine, whose grandfather Harry Constantine was one of the founders and three generations of his family have been in Mattituck from 1950 to 2015; Mrs. Stavroula Nicolas Raia, Southhampton photographer who has donated her photography and public relations services for over seven years to the Transfiguration Church; Mr. Peter and Popi Pappas, former Parish Council President and chanter who has donated his services for thirty years; Mr. Andreas Markakis, former President and a major force in rebuilding the church from 1984 to the late 1990’s; Mr. Tony Coutsouras, former president who inspired regrowth in-2013; Mrs. Virginia Tripolitis, church secretary/administrator and editor of the Church Dance Journal; Mr. Amaras, the husband of the late parish council member Tula Samaras, with his family Effie Lemodetis-Galanis, Tom Galanis; Dr. John G. Siolas;  and their sons; Pam and Vince Conlon and members of the Mattituck community.

August 6th Feast Day
August 6th Feast Day

“In the 1960’s, Greek- American middle class families from Riverhead to East Marion had a dream of establishing a Greek Orthodox Church on the tip of Long Island” explained Rev. Makrinos in his presentation. “The first President was Theofan Kyvernitis. Steve Tsontakis was the architect. And Peter Demetriou, the church lawyer, donated their services. William smith of Yennecott Realties of Southold was the builder.They formed an organization called the North Fork Greek C Association. Funds were gathered through cake sales held every Saturday by the association ladies and donations to the building fund. Services were held in the backyards of members until they secured the premises on Saturday at the episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Mattituck. . How was the name chosen and why? Catherine Siolas was there. The families had a luncheon in the Church of the Redeemer in Mattituck. They began giving donations for saints names. The highest amount of donations was for the Transfiguration of Christ Church name

The church was built-in Potato fields now replaced by vegetable fields. On October 11, 1969, under the leadership of theofan kyvernitis, a Cypriot immigrant/businessman, the groundbreaking ceremonies took place on Breakwater Road with the late Very Rev. Dr. john Poulos of St. Demetrios Church in Astoria, New York. Mr. Theofan Kyvernitis donated the property from the land of former farmer/real estate broker Stanley Sledjeski. The late Harry Stavrides paid for the foundation. The late Mr. james Moaraitis donated the kambana (bell). The first liturgy was held on August 6, 1970. The first annual dance hosted by the North For Greek community was held on September 5, 1970 at the American legion Hall, Greenport. More than six hundred persons attended under the chairmanship of  the late Angelo Panagopoulos.”

“A youth organization was established in July’1970 and a Sunday school in June 1973 by Catherine Tsounis. The first Philoptohos president was Mrs. Esther Demetriou. A Hellenic culture School was organized in September 1975 under Gabriel Kousouris, parish council president and co-ordinator Catherine Tsounis. Playground facilities were completed in September 1975 with chairman John Epidy. The church had an outdoor playground of two basketball fields and a tennis court. Today we have a covered picnic area with a shed for cooking.

Jeff Walden, Rev. Constantine Makrinos, Supervisor Scott Russell, and Catherine Tsounis
Jeff Walden, Rev. Constantine Makrinos, Supervisor Scott Russell, and Catherine Tsounis

Rev. Makrinos explained “ the church was consecrated on Sunday august 8th, 1976 by His Eminence archbishop Iakovos, with pastor Rev. Timotheos Tenedios , Very rev. Anthimos Draconakis and Archdeacon Methodios.  The relics of Sts. Tehona, Iakovos the monk and Asnatasia were sealed in the Holy Altar table. Mr. Elias Kulukundis donated one thousand dollars to become Godfather of the church and pledged seventy-five thousand for a community center.

“In November 1984, the church burnt due to candle left lit in the altar. There was total destruction. Church were held in the basement. Donations by middle class families built the church. Their Building Fund motto was “together We Will Grow.”The architect was Gordon K. Ahlers of Jamesport, Long island. The builder was John )’Neill of O’Neill Builders, Inc., Bayport, N.Y.The reopening took place on May 1, 1988.”A power point presentation of the groundbreaking in 1969 inspired the lecture audience to get up and point to persons they knew. The rich iconography was described by Rev. Makrinos. The altar was hand carved by Konstantinos Pilarinos and donated by the Late Peter Phillips.

Presentation
Presentation

The platera (ceiling icons) in the altar sanctuary were drawn by the late Rev. Spilios of Brooklyn. Theodore Fillipakis created the iconography in the Cretan style. Icons were donated by parishioners from different Greek monasteries. The original contract of the altar from the papers of the late Cleo P. Tsounis, parish council president from 1986-87 and church secretary who donated her services indicates:  September 2, 1988, a woodcarved iconostasis in the Byzantine style will be hand carved; size 45’x9’ with a height of 13” for $58,500. At that time, one could buy two houses in Mattituck for that price.

Documents from the papers of the late Cleo P. Tsounis, added more facts.

On May 16, 1987, Mrs. Tsounis asked Lilco Chairman William J. Catacosinos for three phase service to cool church. Paul J. Walsh, of commercial & Industrial Services Department replied “I reget to advise you that we will be unable to provide the donation you seek. However, I have asked Mr. H.A. Hagemeyer, Eastern Suffolk division Manager to review your requirements concerning the three phase line and determine what costs if any are involved in providing service for the additional air conditioning capacity (Lilco letter, June 22, 1987). Mr. Hagemeryer replied in September 4, 1987 “We are pleased to advise that based on such a three-phase load addition, our tariff provisions would permit extension of our facilities to provide three-phase, 120/240 volt service at your existing service pole with no contribution required from your church.”

In the Southold archives, dated Feb. 21, 1991, Architect Ahlers uncovered the column replacement work was not followed by subcontractor. He asked the town of Southold to let the church celebrate Easter. His vigilance even in the overcharging of a well, helped the church save money. Mr. Andreas Markakis, who was vice-president in 1988, has his signature on numerous Southold rebuilding archives. Stanley Sledjeski, the real estate broker who sold the church their building lot, son-in-law Gerard P. Goehringer, chairman of the Southold town Board of Appeals, worked to help the church get complete documentation.

The Dance journal books shed additional information on the 1984 Fire rebuilding project. In an august 4, 1986 Journal letter, Archbishop Iakovos said “Each day is a test of our faith, our courage and our determination to proceed with what needs to be done…..It is time to give first consideration to the spiritual life of the family—as a parish and as individual families so that present and future generations may have a sacred house, a church, and all necessary community facilities to enable the church to reach out to young and old alike.’

August 6h Feast Day
August 6h Feast Day

The 1987 Dance Journal highlight interesting facts about the rebuilding project. “Last year, we started our Building fund drive,
said Parish council president Cleo p. Tsounis. “We started with $80,000 insurance money. We now have over $150,000 in the building fund. We have worked hard to collect this money, from people all over the country. Very few of our own people from the North Fork have donated toward the building fund. This is your church and it needs your help.   Our church survives because of this volunteer work.”  Later donations started coming in, with the late Peter Phillips donating the costs for altar and Platytera. The accounting documents show the following information: 1984 a cash balance of 96,814; 1985 a $189,097 balance and $232,082 of 1986.

Director Walden introduced the second speaker.“ Since 1961, Catherine Tsounis Siolas has been coming to Mattituck where her parents were among the original founders of the Transfiguration of Christ Greek Orthodox church, which celebrated its first liturgy in 1970,” explained Director Walden. “ In the 1970’s, Catherine established a Youth Organization and Sunday school at the church, and was a teacher and coordinator at the church’s Hellenic culture School. Catherine has written a book on the history of the church and numerous articles on Greek culture. She will speak about her rich Greek Orthodox heritage and its ties to the Mattituck community.”

I grew up In Astoria by St. Demetrios Church. My parents were looking for a summer cottage without cliff stairs so we could walk to the beach. They loved the Mattituck jetty. It reminded them of where they came from, Chios and Tseme on the coast of Western Anatolia. In 1961 we moved to Breakwater Road. It was a summer community of mostly unheated cottages or bungalows with loads of American youth at the beaches,  whose parents were Americans who fought in WWII. We all hung on, all nationalities united by our American culture. The beach was the focus of our socializing. I learned how to swim that has saved my health till the present time. We had backyard church services. I remember my Mother taking me with Mrs. Anastasia Kyvernitis to see Mr. Stanley Sledjeski who was going to sell his farmland to the church below market value because of the influence of his very religious wife Mrs. Helen Sledjeski.

 

The majority of the Greek families in the late sixties were from St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. Rev. John Poulos performed the groundbreaking. Rev. John Antonopoulos in his history of St. Demetrios Church  chronicles the close relationship of the Transfiguration Church in Mattituck with St. Demetrios Church in Astoria.

The first Greeks were all related and were mostly of Cypriot background. My family buying a cottage in Mattituck altered my life. I took Red Cross Swimming lessons with Former Mattituck Principal Bruno Brauner. My swimming instructor gave me a positive image of myself and shaped me into a long-distance swimmer. I have weathered illness and tragedy and the swimming I learned with Principal Brauner made me a stronger person.DSC_6110 (350x226)

My parents and their Cypriots immigrant friends encouraged me to write articles about their church building efforts. My first break was with the Long Island Traveler Watchman, then Suffolk Times and Suffolk Life. They published everything I wrote from the age of 16 years old, as a High School sophomore. This inspired me to continue writing and build a career in Greek-American newspapers My writing helped me find a husband. Dr. John G. Siolas was a Ph.D. student who read everything I wrote for years. When he relocated to New York he asked me out and we were married shortly after. Marrying Dr. John was the best thing that ever happened to me. I owe it to all my friends in the Mattituck newspapers who encouraged me to write. My exceptional publishers, newspapers and organizations include: Tony Barsamian, Publisher/Editor of the Queens Gazette: Paul Kotrotsios of the Hellenic News of America and President of Hermes Expo, Apostolos E. Zoupaniotis, Publisher/Editor and Photographer/Editor Dimitrios Panagos of the Greek News; Anastasios Papapostolou, Editor of the GreekReporter.com; Mary and Christos Papoutsy of Hellenic Communication Service; Margo Catsimatidis and Jimmy Kapsalis of the Hellenic Times; Hellenic Voice; Hellenic Chronicle; Proini; Orthodox Observer; Tribune; Courier; Bayside Times; Queens Chronicle; Argus and other publications.”

Teaching Greek in Mattituck led me to secure a Greek Teacher’s License from the Archdiocese of North and South America and a Bilingual Greek ancillary license from the city of New York. It led to a career in as a Greek translator and later as an adjunct instructor of Modern Greek in St. John’s University for thirteen years. Communicating in Greek helped me sell and invest in Mattituck real estate. Through the help of Val, Andrew and Erica Stype of Andrew Stype Real-estate, I have been an associate broker from the mid 1980’s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
George Fillipakis created the iconography in the Cretan style

Finally, I raised my only child, Despina Cleopatra Konstantina Siolas, in Mattituck. She took the same red cross swimming lessons, becoming a competent swimmer. The Mattituck-Laurel library inspired a love of reading till his day. What prompted your parents and other members of the Greek community on the North Fork to build the first Greek Orthodox Church on Eastern Long Island?

“The Greeks were colonizers. They created all their economic power through work and sacrifice,” said Salvatore Furnari in his book, Myths, Legends and Customs in Greek and Roman Sicily. “We must say that the Greeks, among ancient people, were those that used slaves the least. They respected and never brutalized them. Even though they were excellent warriors, the Greeks were peaceful people who preferred colonizing to occupying. For them, war was their last remedy.”

Greeks are builders of civilization for 2,500 years. Wherever Greeks go, they build a church that perpetuates their language, culture and Greek Orthodox faith. In the case of Mattituck, a business community built a church that created a Greek neighborhood. The Transfiguration of Mattituck church is the only community in walking distance after Astoria’s churches. For many of us who have no Greek village, it is our Greek village.. I owe my life to the Transfiguration of Christ and the Town of Southold that encouraged me in intellectual projects. The Greek community has and is flourishing because of the Southold government and merchants who are our friends. Today we are showing our appreciation  to the town of Southold on the 375th Anniversary.”

Photographer Stavroula Raia with honored guests.
Photographer Stavroula Raia with honored guests.

At the conclusion, Very By Rev. Constantine Makrinos showed the church’s appreciation and recognition to Jeffrey Walden, Director of Mattituck-Laurel Library for outstanding work in creating the Sunday Story Hour, Jerry Matovcik. for creating the excellent slide presentation of our church and Stavroula Raia, Southampton Photographer from the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox church who donated her photography/public relations services.

“This was a fascinating informative presentation, that we learned from,” said Stavroula Nicolas Raia. “I wanted to learn more. The director asked specific questions that highlighted history unknown. On a horrible, rainy day,  the attendance was extraordinary. An Asian American came and took the Greek News and articles on the church. Everyone was happy the history of the church was in English. They took all copies of the Greek News newspaper, Hellenic News of America, Greek Reporter.Com and Queens Gazette.  A young woman took notes. I was pleased to see the hall full. Persons kept coming in. Everyone was so happy to see a photo of the groundbreaking in 1969. A person got up and identified families in the power point presentation. Many families learned what they didn’t know from original documents. The Southold Town supervisor backs the church festival each year. He socializes, enjoys himself and have photos I have taken from previous years to prove it.”

“Priests are paid only the chanter was not,” said Peter Pappas. Mr. Pappas served as chanter for free at the Transfiguration Church in Mattituck for over thirty years. His late wife Andrea worked with him to rebuild the Church when it was burnt in 1984. He served as President of the parish council from 1980-84. His second wife, Popi, is a member of the Philoptohos. Mr. Pappas continues to volunteer as chanter in the summer months.

Supervisor Scott Russell, Catherine Tsounis and Dr. John Siolas
Supervisor Scott Russell, Catherine Tsounis and Dr. John Siolas

“This was not about Catherine Tsounis Siolas,” explained Tony Coutsouros. “It is about the community. It let everyone know who we are. The Greek people must come out and support all public events. We believe in our church. Everything is for our church. You make your name what it is: respected or not respected.  I sincerely thank Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell who attended , representing Southold Town, by honoring the Greek Presence on the historic occasion of Southold Town’s 375th Anniversary.

The book “Transfiguration of Christ church, Mattituck, New York”  reflects the building of the first Greek Orthodox Church in Eastern Long Island from 1969-2014. It is probably the only record of a Greek Orthodox Church in the United States based on a writer’s photographs and journalism for fifty years. It is on loan to the public at the Mattituck-Laurel Library.IMG_4671 (350x262)

Links:

http://usa.greekreporter.com/2015/06/18/rebirth-of-a-church-transfiguration-of-christ-church-mattituck-1978-2015-part-2/#sthash.hNUgZyBn.dpuf

 

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