Repelled by the Greek Orthodox Church’s conservative attitudes towards women and elaborate, seemingly empty rituals, she swore at thirteen she would never attend another service. But Helen Vera discovered a different kind of church in New Haven’s own St. Basil’s, one that made her reconsider her departure and reconnect with her heritage.
I was baptized in 1984 at St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church in Los Angeles. Hundreds of parishioners worship under the enormous painted dome of St. Sophia’s every Sunday. They are led in song by nuns on the high back balcony, and in prayer by any of the several priests presiding from the massive gold altar. Thousands of candles burn from votives; hundreds of stained glass panels filter the bright sun. My parents are not extravagant, but the ceremony that herded me into the holy flock was ritualistic and decadent. Even as an infant, I must have been awed by the splendor.
My baptism was about the last really meaningful thing to happen to me in the Greek Church. As I grew up, the rituals and decadence began to seem untrue to the humility and simplicity that ought to form the core of the Christian faith. At thirteen, converted to feminism by my progressive girls’ school, mortally offended by the rules that women should never set foot behind the altar (though even baby boys may be carried there) and that they should not receive Holy Communion if they are menstruating, I announced to my mother that I could never attend another service again. At fourteen, as a junior bridesmaid in my cousin’s wedding one humid July day, I returned to the church (during my period) only to suffer from a swoon brought on by the ritual incense. Since then, I have approached the occasional service — Greek Easter (usually one or two Sundays before or after “the normal Easter,” depending on the calendar), cousins’ baptisms — with trepidation.
One of the more curious churches I have come across is St. Basil’s in New Haven, Connecticut. As early as 1895, Greeks began to settle in New Haven, and in 1919 they established a church called St. Barbara’s. Over the years, it became a center of religious and cultural life, welcoming immigrants as they arrived and teaching their American-born children and grandchildren about their native culture. Sixty-six years later, in 1985, that church moved out of the gritty center of New Haven and into the suburb of Orange. In the wake of the exodus, an immigrant named Athena Sophia Condos, her husband and a handful of other families who had wanted to keep the church in New Haven determined to build a new one. A donor named it after Vasilios, the man credited with bringing Christianity to the east and the patron saint of the donor’s ancestral village back in Greece.
Twenty years later on a Sunday in October, Athena stood in the kitchen of the St. Basil’s “Community Hall” — the home of the church since construction was completed in 1992 — presiding over a potluck lunch for the small but cohesive congregation. She held a potted plant (white daisies) as she made a speech in honor of Father Donat Augusta, who has been the priest at St. Basil’s for almost a year. He is the first full-time priest St. Basil’s has ever had. “The church is blooming,” Athena said as she presented the plant to “Father Don.”
Athena looks like a mother. She has brown eyes framed by gold wire-rimmed glasses, and her light skin crinkles when she talks. She has short, yellowish hair. Though she is of about normal height and build, she seems smaller than she actually is. When her expression is neutral, the outer corners of her eyes narrow and those of her mouth turn upward slightly. You could say that she defaults to a smile.
The potluck was a success. There was coffee in Styrofoam cups, Greek shortbread cookies called koulourakia, baked chicken from a big round pan, spinach-and-cheese pastries called spanakopita, pasta, and salad with shredded carrots and little radishes. Athena ate quickly, often rising to clear away empty platters, refill cups of soda or pat old men on the shoulders, making sure that everyone was happy and fed. Some people sat around the big kitchen table, and more sat in folding chairs at card tables in the foyer.
If it hadn’t been for all the food, the scene might have looked a little shabby. St. Basil’s is unimposing and, it must be said, unimpressive. At other Greek churches, you don’t eat so close to the altar. At St. Basil’s, you can’t help it, because the entire building is just a crammed little house and the worship space is the main room in back. Seven pews face the Iconostasis, the partition that separates the altar from the congregation and extends as far up as it can without hitting the rotating fan that hangs from the low ceiling. Even though it is tiny, the church is rarely full. The mostly middle-aged congregation fills only about half the available seats. The rest of the building is even less grand. Some of the wooden chairs in the kitchen are missing spindles, and the unvarnished coat rack tilts a little to the left. Outside, the building is one story, its double front doors framed by short Doric columns. There is no landscaping, no lines painted on the cement in the parking lot to delineate spaces for cars. There is a little sign that identifies the church, but there are no big crosses or statues announcing it. The first time I went to St. Basil’s, I couldn’t believe that this little building was actually the church.
And yet, what happens inside St. Basil’s happens inside all the other churches under the jurisdiction of the Greek Archdiocese and Patriarch. The back room is outfitted with the icons and candles that appear in other churches. As all Orthodox Christians do, the parishioners at St. Basil’s cross themselves holding their thumb to two fingers and touching forehead, chest, right shoulder and left shoulder in succession at each mention of God: “the Father” — cross — “the Son” — cross — and “the Holy Spirit” — cross. They light the candles and kiss the icons, and during those moments the wobbly music stand and the cheap blinds in the windows become immaterial.
Also like every other church, St. Basil’s runs a weekly Greek school, although it has just four students and a tiny classroom. The school has been Athena’s domain since the 1970’s, when she ran the program at St. Barbara’s. “When I started,” she said, “we were thinking we would move back to Greece in a few years. At that time bilingual education was a big thing, you know. And then we were still here. Years go by; you’re still here. Thirty years later!”
These days the students are all around seven years old, and one or two are inevitably absent on any given day. The Thursday before the potluck, Maya and Nicholas were the only children copying down Greek letters in the classroom at the front of the church under the guidance of Eleni Skokos, a research assistant at Yale who helps Athena teach. Eleni did most of the talking; Athena’s role during the lesson was primarily as disciplinarian, trying to make Nicholas sit still. He leaped to answer every question, and every time his jacket slipped a little farther from the seat of his chair towards the floor. When it finally fell down, Athena picked it up and hung it neatly on the back of the chair. She bodily forced Nicholas into his seat and clucked at his scrawled practice letters: “Don’t start with a Delta. You’re always in a hurry. Don’t be in a hurry. Take your time. Make it nice.”
“Do you know how to say potato?” Eleni asked, pointing to a new word on the board.
“Patata,” Maya answered, before Nicholas looked up.
“Kinda sounds like papas,” he offered, not to be outdone.
“That’s right, priest,” said Athena. “Yes, priest is papas.” Since then, I haven’t been able to think of Father Don without thinking of a potato.
Athena insists — almost defensively — that many people are just as involved and invested in St. Basil’s as she is, but her attitude toward the church seems the most proprietary. The first time I attended a service, my cell phone started to beep during the sermon, and, humiliated, I rushed to the foyer to turn it off; it was Athena, standing in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, who shook her head and assured me that I shouldn’t worry at all. The following Sunday, she greeted me at the door and ushered me to a pew to make sure that I was comfortable. After the service she gave me a donut and a cup of coffee, then told me to eat more, and then introduced me to Maggie and Toula and Helen, who wrapped food in plastic and told me to take it home. When she found out that I’m from California, she told me that I should drive to Vermont to see the leaves change. One evening, she called me to ask if I could join the Greek dancing group and choir that she is hoping will get off the ground in time for the Hellenic Cultural Fair in June.
Athena does occasional translation work for the New Haven courts and volunteers at the Yale Center for British Art, but since her children have left home, her involvement at St. Basil’s occupies most of her time. In addition to running the Greek school, she presides over the Philoptochos, the women’s group that organizes fundraising events. In a way, it is because of Athena and her husband Spyros that the church exists at all. Athena moved to New Haven from Athens in 1973 when she married Spyros, who was working at the Yale Medical School. In those days, New Haven’s Greek church was still St. Barbara’s. Athena and Spyros had two children, George and Anastasia (both named, according to tradition, for their grandparents), and it was during this time of young parenthood in a new country that Athena started getting interested in the church. “When you are in Greece, churches are everywhere, and they’re usually open all day long,” she said. “You can go anytime. It’s like with the Acropolis. You know, Athenians won’t go to see the Acropolis very often, because it’s close by. You know it’s there. I go to church more often here than when I’m in Greece. The feeling is so much different. In this country, church is not only the religious aspect.” By the early 1980s she had finished a master’s degree in bilingual education, and she had been asked to direct the Greek school at St. Barbara’s.
It was also during this time that the parishioners began to consider moving. Athena said that she and Spyros “were not used to the idea of moving churches. In Greece, they don’t do something like that. It was a very alien feeling.” Athena and Spyros were two active members of what she called an “opposition group” formed by parishioners who wanted to keep the church in New Haven. “The original Greek community was in New Haven,” she said. “We have a lot of history in New Haven, and we felt the church should stay here.” But St. Barbara’s did not stay, and the majority of the old parish, already settled further from New Haven’s urban center, gladly drove to Orange on Sunday mornings thereafter. Athena was one of the sixty or so people who stayed behind.
In 1985, these renegade parishioners founded what would become St. Basil’s. Initially, the Archbishop refused their request for a separate charter, citing the new location of St. Barbara’s as the official place of worship for both diverging communities. Determined to stay in New Haven, the group turned to the Greek Old Calendarists — a group that split from the Archdiocese in the early twentieth century — whose Bishop agreed to recognize the nameless, homeless church. Two years later, the Archdiocese finally granted St. Basil’s its own chapter. “There are still hard feelings,” Father Don told me, but, as Athena put it, “Right now, we have a separate church and a separate community from St. Barbara’s. Right now, I think we feel happy in our — in St. Basil’s. We hope that St. Barbara’s parishioners feel the same way in their church. Whatever happened 20 years ago, it’s not relevant. It’s history.”
Father Don, who is also a “vocational” graphic designer and a recreational carpenter, takes some pleasure in relating the tale of the church’s rocky start. “It was very dirty when I got here,” he told me many times, frowning. He is a little older than Athena, and tall, with a bald head. He takes pride in the changes that he has made to the church; for example, he showed me the squares of Velcro that he had stuck on the backs of icons to prevent their hanging crookedly. He wears a solid gold crucifix that weighs about as much as the Bible and was made for him by a priest he once knew. “When I die, this should be given to a priest,” he told me after explaining the relative benefits of his two favorite paint primers, Kills and Gripper. “But don’t write the value of the cross,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper.
Father Don’s whisper echoed through the empty church. It was the day of the potluck, after everyone else had gone. The candles against the back wall had been extinguished, but the smell of incense hovered in the air. In the kitchen, Athena was holding choir practice with Jim Nicholas, a cellist and fireman, and Deborah, the director of the church’s nascent choir. Their voices wafted into the empty chapel, the Greek words soft and clear, sometimes pausing to change keys.
Father Don led me behind the Iconostasis to show me how he and his wife had sponge-painted it beige to match the background colors of the icons. “I came here as a substitute. It was kind of a nice little church. So I came. But” — here it comes — “it was very dirty. Nobody fixed it up. Nobody could throw anything away. No one took ownership of anything. It’s like a home without a father. The kids run around and things get messy. There were holes in the carpet. The kids built the house. They did pretty well. But it was headless.”
Father Don has “taken ownership” of the appearance of the church and is a dedicated priest, but the founding group has been responsible for the success of St. Basil’s for twenty years. Their sense of ownership may not manifest itself in attention to holes in the carpet, but it becomes evident in everything that Athena says. “It’s funny,” she told me in the car one evening after Greek school, “At St. Barbara’s, I was getting paid. We used to have 30 kids, 40 kids. Over here, I’m not getting paid, because” — pause — “but, you know, now this is my community.”
When Athena said that, I realized that it was true. It’s not just that she belongs to St. Basil’s. It’s not just her church the way that New Haven is her city or Yale is my school. St. Basil’s is hers the way that Plymouth Colony belonged to the Pilgrims, the way that a nest belongs to the bird that builds it. Athena is the woman behind the church, the administrator and policy-maker who brought it into being and who keeps it going now. The Greek Church may be patriarchal in theory, its antiquated rules antifeminist, but this little outpost in New Haven is its mother’s daughter. “Spyros is almost a figurehead at this point,” said Father Don, “but Athena, being a woman, just continues to go along. When I first came she sat me down and we went through the parish list. She’s like a mother hen. She knows all the chicks.” St. Basil’s Church and all its curiosities belong to Athena.
And so it was on the day of the potluck that she was holding the daisies and giving her speech: “Since Father Don came here, I think the church is blooming.” As the priest accepted the daisies, I wondered how many gifts Athena had received for planting the seed and watering the roots.
An hour or so later, after the people had left and the choir practice was winding down, Athena conferred with Father Don about making a donation to the national Philoptochos. She stacked one last folding chair against the wall and put on her beige field jacket, ready to go.
“You’ll take care of the alarm, Father?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“And the lock?” She pointed to the front door.
She went outside and set the plant on the roof of Father Don’s car so that he wouldn’t forget to take it home. I remembered what he had said about the kids running the house and wondered who the parent was now.
I have never known a church like St. Basil’s. The imposing buildings in which I have received sacraments have not been homes to me. I don’t know the priest at St. Sophia’s, and I couldn’t direct a visitor to its fancy marble-countered bathrooms. I couldn’t tell you if the incense there is different from what they burn in St. Basil’s, or if the Communion wine is served from a goblet or a spoon. What I know of St. Sophia’s is locked in disjointed memories – red Easter eggs tied in white tissue paper, blue-and-white flags waving over the parking lot after special services, little bottles of holy water that my mother used to dab on my forehead at night. I don’t know about St. Sophia’s the things that anyone, on his first visit, will learn about St. Basil’s – that the noise I heard during the service was Basil, the elderly altar boy with dementia, “getting lost” (as Father Don put it) behind the altar; that the cantor, Nick Alexis, once trained in seminary in Jerusalem; that Athena won’t be around this summer because she’ll be visiting her family in Athens, as she does every year.
St. Basil’s doesn’t look like much of a church, and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like one. But the scale of it has turned the ancient and conflict-ridden Greek Church into something human, a home for a family. It exists for its community, but it only exists because its community sustains it. Part of me can’t understand why Athena teaches Greek lessons week after week to two or three kids at a time, why she makes coffee for parishioners who would just as happily drink their coffee at home, why it’s so important to them, why they all bother. But a stronger part of me can almost forget the anti-feminism, forget my fainting spell, and lose the detachment and ambivalence that I have felt about the Church. St. Basil’s, small and strange, is the kind of place where that can happen. No church belongs to me, but I will always be Greek Orthodox. At last, there is some comfort in that.