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Posts by William Samonides
The Remarkable Life and Career of Reverend Father Demosthenes Chiamardas (Tsiamardas, 1864-1957), Part 1
Erie, Pennsylvania (AP). “The Reverend Demosthenes Chiamardas, 93, reportedly the first Greek Orthodox clergyman to be ordained in the United States, who came to this country in 1905, from his native Greece, died Thursday.”
On June 6, 1957, this one-sentence obituary from the Associated Press appeared in newspapers around the country and around the world. During his long life, Fr. Chiamardas served as priest in twenty parishes in seven states. He was the founding priest of one parish and contributed to the establishment of three others. Despite these accomplishments and his special place in the history of Greek Orthodoxy in the United States, he is little known outside Erie, Pennsylvania, where he served for fourteen years as priest of the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, and where he spent the last thirty years of his life.
Nothing about the life and career of Fr. Chiamardas was ordinary. His background was unusual, giving no indication that he would become a priest. No one else in his family had taken that vocation. He had neither seminary training nor any formal education. He married late, waiting until he was nearly 40, and then fathered eight children. He came to the United States in middle age and did not begin his 33-year career as a priest until he was 53. In order to introduce this remarkable man to a wider audience, I will focus on his life story in this and several subsequent contributions to this web site.
The life and career of Fr. Chiamardas is documented in a journal written by his nephew, Demetrios (James V.) Chiamardas (1888-1960). It tells the story of his uncle’s large family, detailing the consequences of choosing a priestly career with frequent travel, long absences, periodic moves, and periods of unemployment. James maintained the journal over many years, recording events as they occurred, and providing a source of information that has proven to be reliable. It is a major contribution to our understanding of the struggles encountered by early Orthodox priests in North America, shedding light on seldom-seen corners of a priestly life. The journal, a wealth of other documentation, and many vintage photographs have been lovingly preserved by the family and are now in the possession of Fr. Chiamardas’s grandsons, Jim Chiamardas of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Charles Chiamardas of West Palm Beach, Florida.
James Chiamardas was not merely his uncle’s Boswell; he also had a special relationship with his uncle’s family. James lost his mother when he was only three. After his father died a few years later, in 1897, James was taken in by his uncle and raised as his own. He would live with his uncle’s family for the remaining sixty-three years of his life. When James came of age, he followed his uncle and became a barber, working with him in Greece and America. Later he held positions as chanter, sexton, choir organizer, parish council secretary, and other supporting roles in the parishes where his uncle served. He also acted as surrogate father to his uncle’s children during the times when their father was away serving parishes around the country.
Demosthenes Chiamardas was born in 1864 in Delihanasi, a small village near the town of Megalopolis, Arcadia, in the central Peloponnesus peninsula of Greece. He was one of six children born to Ioannis and Chrysi Tsiamardas. Demosthenes was an autodidact, who learned to read and write from friends who were schoolteachers. He is said to have learned Byzantine music and chant from the priest at a local church. He served twice in the Greek army, fighting against the Turks in the wars of 1886 and 1897. As a young adult he moved to the town of Gargalianoi in the southwest corner of the Peloponnesus peninsula, where he would work as a barber.
Demosthenes did not marry until November 1903 when he was 39 years old. Most of his siblings had died young, and it appears that he was the financial support for his family. In 1903, he married Calliope Protopapa from Pylos, a town south of Gargalianoi. In her family, there was a tradition of the priesthood: her paternal grandfather and two of her brothers were priests.
In October 1905, less than two years after his wedding, Demosthenes sailed for America. Emigration was a bold step for the 41-year-old barber, and it is unclear what motivated him. Perhaps the reason was financial. He was from one of the poorer areas of Greece. Early on, there were many Greeks from this area who immigrated to North America. Of course he needed to provide for his growing family. He and his wife had twin boys, and his wife was expecting another child as he prepared to leave. Sadly, one of the twins died shortly before his departure.
Demosthenes was the first of his extended family to come to the United States. His destination was the home of a friend in Woburn, Massachusetts, a town north of Boston. He did not stay long, soon moving to Boston where he worked long hours in a barbershop for only $7 a week. He also served as chanter at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Boston. In 1906, his fortunes improved when he moved to Brockton, Massachusetts, a small city south of Boston. The thriving shoe industry there had attracted a sizeable community of Greek immigrants. He found work in a union barbershop on the main street for $14 a week. After settling in Brockton, Demosthenes was joined by his nephew James, who arrived in New York in the summer of 1907.
By 1909, Demosthenes had saved enough money to bring his family to the United States. In October he returned to Greece and was reunited with his wife. Four of their first six years of married life had been spent apart, and much had changed. After his departure, their remaining twin son had died, and son Ioannis (John) had been born. Demosthenes spent two months in Greece, and then set out with Calliope, their three-year-old son Ioannis, and their 12-year-old nephew Panagiotis for New York. They crossed the North Atlantic in the middle of winter, when the seas are usually rough. Their stay in the United States would, however be brief. Panagiotis was diagnosed with trachoma, an infectious eye disease. After three days in the Ellis Island Hospital, they were all deported, returning to Greece in January 1910. Four months later, the Chiamardas family tried again. Calliope was by this time pregnant with their fourth child. Her older brother Demetrios accompanied them this time. The Chiamardas party of four was successful this time, being admitted to the United States on June 1, 1910. They immediately set out for Brockton, where they were reunited with nephew James, who had maintained the family residence and worked at the barber shop during his uncle’s absence.
This was the end of the first leg of their journey. Much more travel and many more adventures – and struggles – awaited Demosthenes Chiamardas and his family in the years ahead. During an eight-month period in 1909-1910, he had crossed the Atlantic four times to bring his family to their new home. He would never again step foot on Greek soil, spending the last 52 years of his life in America.
This article was written by William H. Samonides, Ph.D.
Exhibition of Early Spiritual Leaders Inaugurates History Room at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Canton, Ohio
Editor’s note: Today we are very pleased to introduce a new author here at OrthodoxHistory.org. Dr. William Samonides of Canton, Ohio, is one of the foremost historians of Greek Orthodoxy in America. With his wife Regine, he coauthored the book Greeks of Stark County (Arcadia Publishing, 2009). I feel pretty confident in saying that Dr. Samonides knows more than anyone about early Greek parish clergy in America.
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church was established in the city of Canton, Ohio, in the early 20th-century boom years of the American steel industry. Orthodox Christians, who flocked to Canton, had already formed three other Orthodox parishes: Romanian, Syrian, and Greek.
Chartered in 1917, Holy Trinity was founded five years before the establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. It was created as the direct result of a political split in the Canton Greek community. Saint Haralambos, which had been established in 1913, became the parish for supporters of the Greek King Constantine, while backers of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos worshipped at Holy Trinity. This Royalist-Republican split was not unusual; most large Greek communities around the world experienced similar divisions. It is, however, noteworthy that Holy Trinity has maintained its independence long after most of the other parishes that were formed for political reasons have disappeared.
The history of Holy Trinity is quite useful for the study of early Orthodoxy in North America. Stark County was and is home to a concentration of Orthodox Christians from the Pontos region along the Black Sea in the northeastern part of modern Turkey. Holy Trinity is one of few parishes in North America founded primarily by immigrants from Asia Minor. At 10th Street NE, the original site, the first Greek Orthodox church in the region was constructed. In 1927, a Greek community center and hall – also the first in the region – were added.
In recent years Holy Trinity has been at the forefront of Greek Orthodox parishes in the exploration and exhibition of its history. In spring 2004, the parish was the focus in a major exhibition at the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton. In 2009, the history of Holy Trinity and two other Greek Orthodox parishes was featured in Greeks of Stark County, a book issued by Arcadia Publishing in the Images of America series. Several months ago, a History Room was created to display changing exhibits exploring different aspects of parish history.
The first History Room exhibit, which is in the process of being mounted, examines the history of the parish through its spiritual leaders. The exhibit focuses on the priests and their accomplishments at Holy Trinity, also discussing their careers before and after serving in Canton. The exhibit also surveys the sacraments – the baptisms, marriages, and funerals – that the priests performed for parish families.
For reconstructing the biographies and understanding the careers of early Orthodox priests in America, parish histories are essential. Unfortunately, all too often the priests who served a parish are reduced to a list of names. Usually the focus is only on the priests’ experiences at the parish. The work of John S. Moraites at Holy Trinity-Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, Ohio is a notable exception.
Parish histories can also shed light on larger issues that affected the church and the clergy. One issue that emerges from the study of Holy Trinity history is how much special attention the parish received from the early hierarchs of the Archdiocese. Judging from the visits they made to the parish, it was an important “battleground” in the early years of the Archdiocese. Over 150 parishes were founded before the establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in 1922. The first two Archbishops of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America visited Holy Trinity early in their tenure. Archbishop Alexander consecrated Holy Trinity on May 28, 1922, less than three weeks after his appointment as the first Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. This visit to Canton was probably his first extended road trip from New York after becoming Archbishop on May 11.
His successor, Archbishop Athenagoras, made visiting Holy Trinity a priority. In May 1931, he celebrated his first Pentecost as Archbishop at Holy Trinity; this was quite an honor for the parish considering the number of parishes in North America named Holy Trinity.
Archbishop Athenagoras would make many more visits to the area as he worked to reunite the Canton Greek community [see photo]. His efforts were not, however, successful, and the two Canton parishes remained separate. This was not the only area in which Holy Trinity rebuffed the Archbishop. The Holy Trinity Koraes Ladies Society, founded in 1927, resisted joining the Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society. Philoptochos, the official philanthropic organization of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, was established by Archibishop Athenagoras in November 1931 and now has more than 475 Philoptochos chapters in the United States. At Holy Trinity, however, the Koraes Ladies Society continues its independence to this day.
Another issue that emerges from the study of early Holy Trinity history is the large number of priests who served the parish before 1940. During the first 22 years, there were 14 priests. This is in contrast to a parish established at about the same time just 20 miles to the north in Akron, Ohio; the Akron parish has been served by only three priests since 1926. Of course, parishes – like priests – all have different “personalities.” The high turnover in priests at Holy Trinity is not a source of pride, but it provides useful information in studying the early priests of the Greek Orthodox Church in North America.
In some respects, Holy Trinity should have been a preferred parish for early Greek Orthodox priests. At the time, most parishes initially rented spaces or purchased buildings from other denominations before raising enough money to construct their own church to Orthodox specifications. Holy Trinity was different. Immediately after receiving its charter, it began to build, and the church was completed before the first priest arrived in October 1917.
Money does not seem to have been an issue. Considering that the parish was mid- sized and most of the parishioners earned low wages in the nearby steel mills, the church was on remarkably firm financial footing. The mortgage was burned less than three years after the state charter was issued. However, none of the parishioners was wealthy, and the parish in later years never paid priests top dollar. During the early 20th century, prior to the establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, there were no guidelines for salaries and benefits, and the shortage of priests created a sellers’ market.
Unlike Greek Orthodox parishes, like the Annunciation Cathedral in Atlanta, which has preserved all the minutes from parish council meetings, Holy Trinity has very few early records. Built in a flood plain, the parish was plagued by damaging floods for most of its history, and many of its early records were destroyed. Most of the information on the early history of the parish and priests has been painstakingly compiled from numerous external sources, including local newspaper accounts. This makes it difficult to state with certainty what accounts for the high rate of turnover of priests. Local newspaper reports, however, suggest that the relationship between parish and priests was at times contentious. In January 1921, members of the board of trustees accosted one priest and his wife after Divine Liturgy and were sued for assault. Two years later, another priest sued a parishioner for $10,000, alleging libel. Yet another early priest had a brief stay, because he molested an adolescent girl and was run out of town by her enraged father.
The parish was served by a corps of extremely mobile clergy. They were a well-traveled lot, some serving as far west as Idaho and Utah or as far south as North Carolina and Texas. Most, however, served primarily in the northeastern U.S. Only two are among the “pioneer” priests who founded parishes across North America, and these two served at Holy Trinity toward the end of their careers. All but four of the early priests were ordained before their arrival. Many had been in the U.S. for some time – some more than 30 years – before coming to Canton. Those who did not come to North America as priests had worked in a variety of professions: from sponge diver to confectioner to assembler of automobile parts. Most of the early priests were middle-aged or older; only two of the first priests were under forty. Very few would be buried in the U.S.; even those who had family in America or had become naturalized U.S. citizens chose to retire to Greece.
All but one of the early priests were originally under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch or the Church of Greece. The one exception later became an Archbishop in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Little is known of these priests before their arrival in America. Holy Trinity, unlike many other Greek Orthodox parishes established before the Archdiocese, did not summon priests directly from overseas, but hired priests who were available in America. Although most of the parishioners were from Asia Minor, no priest from Asia Minor ever served the parish. Instead, the island of Samos provided more priests for the parish than any other area. There seems to have been an unofficial network of priests from Samos operating in America, which may have been the reason for the high number of Samioti priests at Holy Trinity.
The inaugural exhibit at the Holy Trinity History Room examines these and other issues based on information and photographs collected over the last six years by Holy Trinity Historian, Dr. William H. Samonides. A number of photographs and stories about the early priests of this area can also be found in Greeks of Stark County (Arcadia Publishing, 2009), which he co-authored with his wife Regine.
[This article was written by Dr. William Samonides.]