Greek community's family network preserves culture

June 09, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

It's Sunday morning and the electric chime on the roof of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in East Baltimore is calling parishioners to the Divine Liturgy.

Grandparents, parents and their children walk to the South Ponca Street church, the center of this Highlandtown community's religious life.

The parishioners live on Lehigh, Mason, Newkirk, Oldham, Ponca, Quail, Rappola, Savage, Tolna and Umbra streets, south and west of the old Baltimore City Hospitals campus. Many call this section Greektown.

"Everybody here knows everybody else's business," said George Fotis, a sophomore at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who lives with his parents on Tolna Street.

"There's a subtle change in these streets from the other parts of Highlandtown," he explained.

That difference has something to do with the interlocking family network here, where half the neighbors on certain blocks are cousins and fig trees flourish in many backyards.

"We have a pride in our heritage and we love to offer hospitality to guests," said his mother, Ethel Anthipi Fotis.

She lost no time offering a visitor almond-flavored water, a candied tangerine, cheeses, cookies, breads and sweet biscuits.

"This is what we call a morning coffee. When I go visit my sister-in-law, this is the sort of food she would have out for a guest," Mrs. Fotis said.

In a few minutes, she and her son were walking along the alley between Tolna and Umbra streets. They stopped in the garden of Evangelia Tsakiris, the neighborhood's green thumb. She has dozens of containers filled with jasmine plants, gardenias, larkspur, roses and pomegranates and the small-leaf basil used in Greek cooking.

Mrs. Tsakiris does not speak much English but she explained that basil, which derives from the Greek word for king, has some religious significance. By tradition, St. Constantine and his mother Helen, when searching for the true cross of Jesus Christ, recognized it by the tuft of the herb basil growing on it.

"We all center on our church," Mrs. Fotis said as she walked through the painstakingly tended rear garden. Many of the pots and containers will be sold this weekend at the Saint Nicholas Church Greek Folk Festival.

George Perdikakis and his wife, Zoe, are running this year's festival, whose theme is unity and togetherness.

"The festival brings us together. We forget about our problems. We drop the individual entrepreneurial spirit and work for the good of the church," he said.

Mr. Perdikakis immediately poses a question: How much octopus has his group bought for the event that runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday? The answer: 1,200 pounds, which his all-male kitchen staff of retirees cuts up, boils in a red wine mixture and then fries.

"I want people to learn about Greek culture -- the music, the dancing, the history -- to get a true picture of Greek heritage beyond the trays of moussaka," Mr. Perdikakis said.

"There are no outside food vendors allowed at this festival. All the food is prepared in the church basement. The men make the octopus. Then the kitchen is washed and scrubbed down and the women come in and make the pastries," he said.

"This is a Greek community that remains very traditional. There are some customers here you do not see many places outside of Greece," said the Rev. Manuel J. Burdusi, the church's pastor. A one-time altar boy at St. Nicholas, he was born on Bonsal Street.

He tells how members of his church give thanks to the saints who intercede in their lives.

"Our people firmly believe in the power of prayer to Christ through His saints. They often ask for healing and will take a small silver plaque and place it on the icon of the saint they have prayed to," Father Burdusi explained.

He points to a large Byzantine-style painting of St. Irene. Someone had put a silver "toma" -- a kind of medallion -- on it. This "toma" was a human torso, perhaps to give thanks for a breast cancer cure or successful heart operation.

The Sunday church collections, offerings for candles and this weekend's festival help the congregation meet its annual expenses, including the cost of running a large school at which the children can learn Greek language and history.

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