A church that's closer to home

Orthodox: Tired of lengthy commutes, Harford County's Greek community bands together to form its own church.

September 19, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Apostolos Giannas grew up in Baltimore, where the tight-knit Greek community helped make up the fabric of the city. He went to the Orthodox church and attended Greek school after regular classes, and now steeps his two children in the ancient church's traditions.

But after the 49-year-old optometrist moved his family to Abingdon, the six-day-a-week, 40-minute commute along Interstate 95 to the city's St. Nicholas Church grew tiring. Of the religion's eight Maryland churches, the parish is the closest to Harford County.

He - and 109 peers - wanted to worship closer to home. So over two years, Giannas and seven colleagues worked to establish the county's first Greek Orthodox church. The fledgling parish celebrates its first Divine Liturgy today with its new, permanent priest, the Rev. Nicholas Rafael.

"This is an exciting, historic event," said Giannas, who reduced his commute to 10 minutes. "It was so hard because I had so many ties at my home church. But I have to look out for my family. I want to keep them as close to church as possible because it is the moral fabric of our children."

The church is so new - services began in mid-July - that congregants use the John Carroll School chapel in Bel Air. Even the name, Greek Orthodox Church of Harford County, is temporary, although an official one will be assigned soon.

Sunday school also begins today. Bible studies, children's traditional dance classes, a youth group and ladies' auxiliary society will begin next month.

The project was a long time in coming. Fellow parishioner George Gazonas of Bel Air first contacted the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in 2001 to ask about founding a church. The response: Find at least 50 people to support the church.

Gazonas highlighted 300 Greek surnames in the phone book, according to Giannas, but the effort stalled. He had just moved from New Jersey and had no Maryland contacts - until he met Giannas in October. By the spring of last year, their team of eight founding members had recruited 110 people.

At first, congregants met Saturdays at Holy Trinity Church in Churchville, led by a rotation of priests. But as fall drew near, Giannas said, church members worried the group would fall apart. The demands of extracurricular activities such as football and soccer would compete too much with Saturday services.

Early this month, the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of New Jersey, a district that oversees Maryland activities, assigned Rafael, a New York native. He had been considering leading a church in Pittsburgh when he got the call to come to Harford County.

"It was quite obvious, the way things turned out, that the Lord wanted me in Harford County," he said.

According to Nikki Stephanopoulos, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese in New York, Greek Orthodox churches are founded at the request of a parish. Once permission is granted, all costs are handled by the congregation.

"It takes a lot of commitment and devotion," she said.

In the United States, more than 1.5 million people attend about 510 Greek Orthodox churches, Stephanopoulos said.

Baltimore is home to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, one of the largest Greek Orthodox parishes in the country. Between 40,000 and 50,000 Marylanders are Greek Orthodox, Stephanopoulos said.

The church welcomes people of all backgrounds, Rafael said.

"We look forward to this new endeavor and we pray that this new church becomes a home to anyone who enters it," he said.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Harford County will hold Matins at 9 a.m. and Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m. every Sunday at the John Carroll School chapel at 703 Churchville Road in Bel Air. For more information, contact the Rev. Nicholas Rafael after a service. A church office will be set up later this month.

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