Pews (or lack thereof) in early Orthodox churches

Yesterday, I introduced one of my ongoing research projects, a study of the origins of pews in American Orthodox churches. Oh, I’m famililar with the old story — that early Orthodox parishes bought old Protestant churches and retained the inherited pews — but whenever I hear that story, it seems to be just a bald assertion, without any evidence to back it up. Certainly, that must have happened in some cases, but is it really the primary reason? Can we prove it? And if it’s not, then why do so many of our churches have pews?

As we saw yesterday, most early Greek parishes were actually built by the Orthodox communities themselves, so the old story about buying Protestant or Roman Catholic churches can’t be the only explanation. Today, I’m giving you a rather enormous post, looking at numerous individual parishes for clues. As with yesterday’s article, for efficiency’s sake, I’ve decided to focus initially on Greek churches.

I relied heavily on old newspaper accounts of the various churches in question. Other valuable sources included parish histories and conversations with individuals — parish priests, longtime parishioners, parish historians, etc. I’m basically trying to systematically study something that has never been documented until now. It’s a rather painstaking process, and what you’re seeing is less a finished product than a work in progress. If any of you out there have information that I can add to my study, please, by all means, email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.

We’ll jump into this in a roughly chronological order:

San Francisco: Holy Trinity Greek Church in San Francisco purchased 24 chairs in 1903. It does not appear to have had actual pews at this point. By 1925, the church did have pews. All of its buildings were constructed by the parish, as opposed to being purchased. (Thanks to Jim Lucas of the Holy Trinity Historical Society for this information.)

Salt Lake City: The Greeks of Salt Lake City built their first church in 1905. A couple of years later (5/6/1907), the Salt Lake Herald reported, “There are no pews or benches in the Greek church, the reason being that the communicants prefer to show their confidence in the faith by standing for hours in a single position during the services.” In the mid-1920s, the community built a new church. According to longtime parish historian C.J. Skedros, this building did have seats, but originally, they were lines of chairs, rather than pews. At the beginning, men and women were separated. In the late 1940s, the parish added regular pews. (Many thanks to Mr. Skedros for his assistance.)

Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Inquirer (1/8/1906) had this to say about Annunciation Greek Church: “As in the Jewish church the men and women are segregated, and only the women are allowed to sit down during the service.”

Savannah, GA: Earlier this year, I spoke with Nick Donkar, who was born in the 1910s and is a lifelong parishioner of St. Paul’s Greek Church. Mr. Donkar told me that the original St. Paul’s was purchased from an Episcopal church in 1907 (in fact, that’s how the got the name, “St. Paul’s” — they retained the Episcopal church’s name of the building). Since the newly-purchased church had pews, the community retained them; however, men and women sat separately in those early years. This is one of the first churches I have been able to document as having pews. (Thanks to Mr. Donkar for this information.)

Pueblo, CO: Built in 1907, St. John the Baptist Greek Church in Pueblo is one of the oldest surviving Greek church buildings in the United States; in fact, it might be the oldest such building west of the Mississippi. Originally, the church had no pews. Instead, “stadia,” or leaners lined the walls of the nave. These seem to have been a common feature of early Greek churches in America. Today, you’re most likely to see them in Greek monasteries; I’ve personally seen them at Holy Archangels Monastery in Texas. I can’t pin down exactly when the Pueblo church added pews, but they were present by at least the 1940s. Fortunately, the parish has kept a few of the leaners as historical artifacts. (Thanks to Penny Zavichas for this information.)

Manchester, NH: I’m told that St. George Greek Church, built in 1907, originally had no pews and only leaners along the sides. Pews were eventually installed, but I don’t know when.

Boston: Annunciation Greek Church erected its first temple in 1907, and its second in 1924. Neither structure had pews; however, in 1927, pews were added.

Tarpon Springs, FL: St. Nicholas Church was also built by the Greek community in 1907. I can’t tell if it originally had pews, or not; the parish history says, “The seating capacity held 250 people.” Later, the same history tells us, “The [society of] women of the church reached their first major accomplishment in 1963, when they purchased the church pews.” I assume that the church had pews before 1963, and that the women simply bought new pews.

Washington, DC: In 1908, the Washington Herald (11/1/1908) wrote of St. Sophia Greek Church, “In the back of the church are seated women and children. No other seats are used, and the men of the congregation stand on the sides of the room with a broad open aisle down the middle.” In 1920, the Washington Greeks built a new church, and this one did include pews. The Washington Post (8/8/1920) said, “The church is designed to seat 600 in the main auditorium.”

Baltimore: Annunciation Greek Church purchased its first building in 1909, and moved to a new location (formerly a Congregational church) in 1937. This is from Nicholas Prevas in his outstanding history, House of God… Gate of Heaven:

In the Old World, Orthodox churches did not have pews. At Homewood Avenue, the congregation had followed this tradition with the men standing on one side and women standing on the other. Their new church, however, featured three sections of beautifully carved oak pews for seating up to 750 people during worship services and additional theatre-style seating for over 275 more in the balcony area.

In Baltimore, then, it looks like the old story — parish buys old Protestant church and keeps the pews — fits. However, it’s worth noting that the parish bought its first church from Protestants in 1909, but did not use pews. It was only with the purchase of the new church, in 1937, that the community began using pews. By that point, pews were a common feature of Greek churches in America. (Thanks to Mr. Prevas for his assistance.)

Portland, OR: Holy Trinity Greek Church was built in 1910. In 1921, the Oregonian (12/25/1921) said, “In the interior the main floor is for the men and the women and children have the gallery for their use. This is provided with seats, but on the main floor there are only a few seats for the use of aged persons or cripples.” In the late 1920s / early 1930s, the parish added chairs to the church, and in 1937, pews were installed. (Thanks to Deacon David of Holy Trinity Cathedral for his assistance.)

Minneapolis: Annunciation Greek Church was also built in 1910, and, according to longtime pastor Fr. Anthony Conairis, the church originally had folding chairs, and men and women were separated, with women sitting in the balcony. This persisted until the mid-1920s. Eventually, the chairs were replaced with pews (though in which church, I’m not sure; the parish has had five different buildings in its history). (Thanks to Fr. Anthony for this information.)

Pawtucket, RI: Shortly after Assumption Greek Church was built in 1913, the Providence Journal (3/30/1913) wrote, “Attending mass at this church would be a severe trial for one not accustomed to the Orthodox Church seeing that there are no sittings except for the very aged and infirm. For three and one-half hours the congregation stands while the impressive service is conducted and Papa George delivers the sermon.”

Price, UT: The Price Sun (1/28/1916) reported on the soon-to-be-built Greek church, “The church proper will seat approximately five hundred persons.” I’m quite skeptical of this. Did Price really have a Greek church large enough to seat 500 people? Isn’t it more likely that it could hold 500 people, standing? Here’s a photo of the church building (which was enlarged in 1941). It sure doesn’t look big enough for a seating capacity of 500:

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Price, Utah

Los Angeles: Like the church in Pueblo, St. Sophia in Los Angeles had leaners along the sides of the nave. From the Los Angeles Times (4/8/1917):

In the center of the church there are no seats. The congregation stands or kneels during the services. The aged or infirm, who cannot stand, are provided for by seats placed along the walls on both sides. These seats are high, with arms on which the worshiper may support himself while yet remaining in a standing position, if possible, but there are narrow seats that may be folded down and used if necessary.

Roxbury, MA: St. John the Baptist Greek Church in Roxbury also appears to have had leaners. From the Boston Globe (8/30/1924): “For religious services the church has a seating capacity for 100 people, with additional room for 300 standing.”

St. Louis: Here’s something interesting. In 1917, St. Nicholas Greek Church was built. It had no pews, and the parish council decreed that women were to sit in the balcony, separate from the men. From the parish website:

In a sign of the times, it is interesting to note that discussions at several parish council meetings during this era involved the place of women in the Church: Woman’s place, they decided, was in the balcony – unless it was full – in which case they would be permitted to sit on the main floor. Needless to say, the fairer sex was not amused. However, the Council stood by its decision. A few years later, a new seating arrangement evolved with women sitting to the left of the main aisle and men to the right. By the 1950’s, families began to sit together in worship.

In 1920, Fr. Mark Petrakis took over as pastor of the community. Again, from the website: “Father Petrakis introduced chairs for parishioners in the nave. This became a controversial matter because parishioners were accustomed to standing during the entire Liturgy, with a few ‘stadia’ (wall stalls) provided for the elderly.” This is the first direct reference I’ve yet found to a controversy over pews.

Chicago: In the mid-1920s, Fr. Mark Petrakis moved to Ss. Constantine & Helen Church in Chicago. The community’s first building had been constructed in 1910, and it did not have any pews. In 1926, that original church was destroyed by fire. Presumably under the direction of Fr. Petrakis, the new church was built with pews (and a communion rail) in 1927-28. From the parish history: “The new church not only evolved into one of the most beautiful Greek Orthodox churches of its time but also became an innovative influence for future churches. In addition to a new communion rail, church pews were installed.”

A communion rail?

This Fr. Petrakis sounds like an interesting fellow. He was apparently a strong proponent of what you might broadly call “Americanization” — not only pews, but (as we’ll see in the future) organs and mixed choirs.

My research into this subject is only in its early stages; still, some trends are apparent. Most of the Greek churches founded in the 1900s and 1910s began without pews. Leaners were rather common, and men and women were typically separated. Things began to change in the 1920s, when a number of churches introduced pews (or, in some cases, lines of seats in lieu of pews). I have yet to detect any consistent connection between the introduction of pews and the purchase of former Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. In other words, the addition of pews in Greek churches was typically an active, rather than a passive, phenomenon. For whatever reason, many Greek parishes actively desired pews and added them to their buildings.

In the future, we’ll continue to look at the question of pews in early American Orthodox churches, as well as other forms of Americanization (including organs and mixed choirs).

4 Replies to “Pews (or lack thereof) in early Orthodox churches”

  1. I suppose it would also be worth knowing (though probably difficult to find out) where the pews went when an Orthodox congregation did purchase an existing church. Did they remove them? Did the former congregation take them along? I don’t know what would have been normal practice back then when vacating a church. If cost was a significant enough issue, I could see them trying to save money by retaining the old pews, which would also mean the Orthodox parish had cost savings as a possible motivation for retaining the form from the old country. On the other hand, if they removed pews that were already there, it would suggest a more determined effort to keep the old ways.

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