The 1890s witnessed the initial proliferation of Orthodox churches in the contiguous United States, and most of those early parishes are still with us today — both Greek churches in New York City, the Greek and Russian churches in Chicago, St. Alexis Toth’s parishes in Minneapolis and Wilkes-Barre. But one early effort didn’t make it to the 21st century; in fact, it didn’t even make it to the 20th. The first Orthodox church in Baltimore, Maryland — founded in 1893 — died in infancy. It’s a story that’s easily forgotten.
Today, Baltimore has a thriving Greek cathedral, Annunciation. It also happens to have perhaps the preeminent Orthodox parish historian in America, Nicholas Prevas. Prevas has written several books on the Greek Orthodox community in Baltimore; most recently, he authored the outstanding House of God… Gateway to Heaven. In that book, Prevas writes the following about the first church in Baltimore:
In Baltimore, the first meaningful attempt to fill the religious void came in or about 1895. The first Greek Orthodox place of worship was established at Bond and Gough Streets through the financial support of Christos Tsembelis (Sempeles) and his five brothers, George, Nicholas, Peter, Sarantos, and Theodore, who were prospering confectioners at 427 Colvin Street near the Belair Market. One of the brothers, George Sempeles, would later have the distinction of being elected the first parish council president.
This event was consistent with the fact that the Greek Orthodox Church in America originated from the actions of the immigrants themselves, and not by the directive of the church authorities in Athens or Constantinople — the latter being the world center of Orthodoxy. Living in a new land, religion played an important factor in uniting the Greek immigrants. A missionary priest, Reverend Theodoros Papaconstantinou, was brought to Baltimore to conduct services, and for the first time Greek Orthodox chanting was heard in the city. Unfortunately, the timing of the venture was not right. The small number of Greeks, unable to keep up with the expense of maintaining a house of worship, soon abandoned this attempt. It would be another decade before regular church services would be conducted in Baltimore.
This early Baltimore parish was actually organized in the latter part of 1893. On December 18, 1893, the Baltimore Sun reported that the community, named for St. John the Baptist, had been formed a few weeks earlier. After spending those initial weeks worshipping in a parishioner’s house, the community moved to an “improvised chapel” at 403 South Bond Street. The priest, according to the Sun, was “Rev. Constantinus Pappagorgu, of Athens.”
At the Divine Liturgy the day before, 51 people were present: 50 men and one woman. There were, said the paper, around 200 Greeks in the city. A week later, two children were baptized — the first documented Orthodox baptisms in Baltimore.
The Baltimore parish was only a year and a half younger than the Greek churches in New York and Chicago, but both of those communities took an interest in the goings-on in Baltimore. On January 6, 1894, the Sun reported that the Chicago Greek parish had promised to send $1,000 to Baltimore; for its part, the New York congregation would contribute $500.
The priest of St. John the Baptist church, listed in the papers as “Constantinus Pappagorgu,” appears to be listed on this Port of New York passenger manifest (3rd line from the top). From the manifest, we learn that Constantine Papageorgios, a clergyman from Greece, came to America on December 26, 1892. He was 45 years old, and his initial destination was New York. He didn’t bring a wife or children, which suggests that he might have been a monastic priest. I’m not sure what he did for most of 1893, but he appeared in Baltimore in the autumn of that year to start a Greek church. And I don’t know what happened to him after the parish closed; my best guess is that he returned to Greece.
St. John the Baptist church first appears in the newspapers in December 1893, and it’s gone after January 1894. A year later — January 14, 1895 — the following notice appeared in the Sun:
The Greek Catholics of Baltimore yesterday celebrated the beginning of their new year. There was no public celebration of the event as there is no Greek Catholic Church in Baltimore. About a year ago the Greek Catholic congregation on South Bond street, which was organized by John Mitchell, of 1630 Thames street, was disbanded for want of support.
Eleven years later, Evangelismos (Annunciation) Greek Orthodox Church was formed in Baltimore.