We’ve spent a lot of time on this website talking about Fr. Raphael Morgan, the first black Orthodox priest in America. Morgan was attached to the Greek church in Philadelphia. When he went to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be ordained in 1907, he had two letters in his possession. One was from the Greek community of Philadelphia, which supported Morgan’s ordination, and said that if he failed to establish a black Orthodox church, he was welcome to be the assistant priest at their parish. The other letter was from the parish priest in Philadelphia, a remarkable man named Fr. Demetrios Petrides.
Petrides was born on Samos in the mid-1860s. He was a married priest, with children, but his wife died before he came to America. Back in Greece, Petrides’ daughter fell in love with a young man, John Janoulis, and they wanted to get married. Petrides approved, but Janoulis’ father wanted his son to get an education, rather than get married. (I think there was also a bit of a wrong-side-of-the-tracks dynamic at work here, too.) The pair got married, Janoulis was disowned by his father, and Petrides took the couple under his wing. Janoulis went to America to earn money, which of course was common at the time, and then Petrides was asked by the Church of Greece to become the new priest in Philadelphia. He arrived in 1907, and brought along his daughter, reuniting her with her husband. Just a couple of months after he arrived in America, Petrides wrote his letter, recommending that Robert Morgan be ordained a priest. For a while, Morgan actually lived in Petrides’ home.
Like so many of his fellow priests, Petrides traveled throughout his region of the country, ministering to the Orthodox people he found who didn’t have a priest. One time, he went to Ithaca, New York, to do a baptism. After the service, unbeknownst to Petrides, a 16-year-old Greek girl had advertised that she would go into a “spirit trance.” Greeks had traveled from all over to witness the spectacle. Petrides caught wind of what was going on, and he burst into the room, stopped the girl’s trance, and told the people that spiritualism is against the teachings of the Orthodox Church. This was the sort of man he was – completely unafraid to stand up for what was right, no matter what.
It was this gumption that got Petrides run out of Philadelphia. Like a lot of early Greek communities, the Philadelphia church was dominated by a rich layman — in this case, Constantine Stephano, a millionaire cigarette manufacturer. Stephano and Petrides did not get along. Things came to a head in 1912, when Stephano sent the following message to Petrides – this is almost unbelievable. It said,
Constantine Stephano commands you to appear at his office every evening at sunset and salaam low upon entering his presence. Then you are to stand erect, with folded arms, with your eyes cast downward, awaiting a word from Stephano before sitting down or otherwise changing your position. If you are not asked to be seated you are to remain in this position until Stephano leaves his office, and when he passes through the door you are to salaam low again and depart with bowed head.
Stephano was obviously trying to humiliate Petrides, and Petrides would have none of it. He responded, “I will not thus humiliate myself before this maker of cigarettes.” Now, as you all probably know, in the early twentieth century, Greek parishes in America had only a loose connection to the church authorities in Athens or Constantinople. As a practical matter, the parishes were run by all-powerful boards of trustees, which would hire and fire priests at will. Constantine Stephano arranged for Petrides to be ousted from the Philadelphia church, by the slim margin of seven votes.
But, characteristically, Petrides left with his head held high. In September of 1912, newspapers in Georgia began reporting that a daring Greek priest was coming to Atlanta. One newspaper called Petrides “the stormy petrel of the cloth.” Another paper said that he was famous for his “lambasting of the rich Greeks who loved money for the sake of power.” He was warmly welcomed by the Greeks in Atlanta, who seemed to have a good idea of the sort of priest they were getting.
But Petrides was not simply focused on his fellow Greeks. At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a very active dialogue taking place between the Orthodox and the Episcopalians. This led to the creation of a group called the “Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches Union.” The group’s Orthodox members included clergy from various ethnic backgrounds, including Antiochians, Russians, and Greeks. For several years in the teens, Fr. Demetrios Petrides was the group’s Greek representative. He thus was engaged in this national inter-Christian dialogue, and he was also cooperating with his fellow Orthodox of different ethnicities.
As the teens wore on, Petrides developed diabetes, and in the days before insulin, that was a death sentence. He died in September of 1917.
Several of the early Greek priests in America were notable, significant historical figures, and Fr. Demetrios Petrides is no exception. But he was more than that — he was a courageous priest, who, time and again, did what he thought was right, regardless of the potential consequences. Practically every time I find information about Petrides, it has something to do with him standing up for his principles — supporting his son-in-law who had been disowned by his father, mentoring the first black priest in America, breaking up the “spirit trance” spectacle in Ithaca, rebuking a corrupt millionaire in Philadelphia.
In many ways, Petrides reminds me of his fearless contemporary, Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, the great convert priest in the Russian Archdiocese. And even more so than Irvine, Petrides has been almost totally forgotten since his untimely death. That is largely a function of a general ignorance of the history of Greek Orthodoxy in America prior to the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese. But Petrides is, in my view, one of the greatest Greek priests who ever served in America, and we would do well to preserve his memory, and learn from his courage.