The history of the Greek Orthodox Parish of Rockland County very much resembles the history of the American immigrant. It is the story of immense courage, energy, and strong will of people who were determined to establish a successful life for themselves and their families away from their homeland.
Migration into the County
Mr. Tom Vasiliou was the first one of these pioneers who set foot in Rockland at the beginning of the 1900s. He was well-known as the "Candy Man" by the Nyack residents, where he ran the Eagle Confectionery store on Main Street with his brother, Chris. The brothers came to America as teenagers and Tom, without any knowledge of English, secured employment in a confectionery store in the Catskills, where he learned the trade. During the early 1960's, several Greek families had moved to Rockland County from the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens. In leaving their close-knit neighborhoods of the city, many of them missed not only their Church but also a sense of a Greek Community. With Orthodoxy in their hearts, they decided to organize the local Greek families, with the sole purpose of establishing a community upon which their religion would grow. Most of them were traveling long distances to New York or New Jersey to attend religious services.
Their first meeting in early 1962 was highly encouraging, bringing together 78 families with a warm desire to form a parish. Father Constantine Volaitis of Saint Nicholas Church in Flushing became the group's advisor. Gus Pappas, of Pearl River, who eventually became the first President of the Parish Council, led the group. Since all Canonical Orthodox Churches are in communion with one another, Father John Havriliak of Saint John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church, in Spring Valley, offered the use of his Church for worship services and Sunday School classes. Mrs. Cynthia Thanos, who together with Mrs. Antigone Joakimides and Mr. Gus Pappas were the initial organizers of the group, became the first Sunday school teacher. The Sunday school met for the first time on November 25, 1962 with 39 students in attendance.
As the group's size increased, it became clear that the foundation for a new parish was laid and the Archdiocese was officially contacted. As a result, the Archdiocese appointed a committee headed by Fathers Constantine Volaitis and George Bacopoulos, Archdiocese Chancellor at that time, to assist the group in their effort. With this approval, the newly-formed parish rolled into action to form the necessary committees to secure their own Church building and establish financial security. This effort was necessary to satisfy the second requirement of the Archdiocese that the parish show a stable financial status before a permanent Priest could be assigned.
On December 25, 1962, the first Divine Liturgy of Christmas services was celebrated at Saint John the Baptist with Fathers George Bacopoulos and John Havriliak officiating. The Christmas service was so well-attended that additional chairs had to brought in to accommodate the large crowd.
Founding of Ladies Philoptochos Society
During this month, the Ladies Philoptochos Society was formed and Mrs. Christine Kirtsopoulos was elected as the first president. Without any delay or hesitation, the Ladies started a very intense fund-raising campaign to help secure the funds needed for a church building.
On February 22, 1963, the Greek Orthodox Community of Rockland County was incorporated. The subscribers to the certificate of incorporation, who witnessed, executed and acknowledged it were (in accordance with the sequence of their signatures): Gus Pappas, John Fagas, Irene Weggy, Cynthia Thanos, Nicholas Lassios, Antony Zacharakis, George Psaras, Kyriakos Lambros, Harry Fotopoulos, Vera Fotopoulos, Nicholas Camenares and Antigone Joakimides. All the above were named as Trustees to hold offices until the first annual election was held. Gus Pappas was named their first president.
Immediately after the incorporation, pledges of financial support for the amount of $11,000 were received, a very respectable amount of money in that particular period. These pledges, together with other funds secured through the very active fund-raising program, gave the group the momentum to look for a piece of land to buy and build a Church structure as their own house of worship.
First Easter Services
In April 1963, the newly-chartered parish celebrated their first Easter services at Saint John Episcopal Church in New City, of Rockland County, with Father George Bacopoulos officiating.
Beginning of Sacramental Life
Later in the year, on August 3rd, 1963, the first registry was formally recorded at Saint John the Baptist when five children of various ages were baptized by Father Constantine Eliades of Huntington, Long Island, with the approval of His Eminence, Archbishop Iakovos. The newly-baptized children were the four sons of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Sarantopoulos of Bardonia and the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Georgiades of Nanuet. With these baptisms, the sacramental life of the newly-formed parish began.
In September, the first building fund dance was scheduled and attended by 500 people. In October of the same year, a four-acre piece of land was purchased at One Mary Crest Road in West Nyack where the first church, a white wood-framed structure, was later built through the efforts and the initiative of the small Greek community.
First Priest Assigned: Rev. Arthur Pappas
In September 1964, Father Arthur N. Pappas was assigned as the first permanent priest of the new parish and he conducted Sunday services, on a temporary basis, at the Saint John the Baptist Church in Spring Valley.
Greek School Foundation
The Greek school was then organized and taught by Father Pappas. Later, Mrs. Fofi Rottman was appointed the teacher of the Greek school and she ran the school of sixty students five days a week as a volunteer.
Later, the parish rented the Lamplighters Hall in New City, where a portable altar was erected and dismantled each Sunday for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. This effort continued until 1966.
â€œLabor of Loveâ€?: Building of the First Church Building
In the meantime, every Saturday morning for three years, around twenty workers (including Father Pappas and Mr. Tom Vasiliou, the oldest member of the parish of age 87 in 1964, who was affectionately-known as â€œPapouâ€?) turned out to mix mortar, carry concrete and work on construction. During 1965 and 1966, the parishioners continued their religious services at the Lamplighters Hall while their fund-raising benefits were taking place all over Rockland County. By the time the white wood-framed Church was finished in 1967, the size of the congregation had grown to over a hundred families and it became apparent that an even larger building was needed.
Rev. Emmanuel Vasilakis
At the end of 1969, Father Emmanuel Vasilakis was assigned priest of the parish, replacing Father Pappas who was transferred to another community after five years of dedicated service and leadership. During Father Emmanuel's short three years of tenure, the spiritual life of the parishioners was enriched. Schools, both religious and cultural, were increased in size and substance, a youth program was developed and expanded, and often religious retreats and picnics were organized to bring the kids to the Church and challenge their bodies and minds. He initiated a bible study group, a senior choir with Leo Michaels as the Director, the Sunday school teachers training program at Saint Vladimirâ€™s Academy, and organized the senior citizens group for which he showed a special affection.
Dedication of the Church to Saints Constantine and Helen
During Father Vasilakis' tenure, the Church was dedicated to the Saints Constantine and Helen who became the patrons of the Parish. From this point on the Church became known as Saints Constantine & Helen Church of West Nyack.
First Annual Festival
The growth of the parish continued and it was realized that significant funds would be needed if a larger Church building were to be constructed. In June 1970, the Community, under Father Vasilakis' direction, inaugurated the annual Greek Festival, which was co-chaired by Stan Xenakis and Jim Dellas and became an instant success.
Rev. John Maheras
In 1972, Father John Maheras succeeded Father Vasilakis and he continued the progress of the parish as it was passed down to him by his two predecessors, setting the foundations of hard work and fund-raising for a badly-needed building expansion. The Sunday School blossomed and a Junior choir was initiated, with Joan Yannis as the Director. Fund-raising continued to be successful and volunteering was getting stronger. The desperate need of a new Church building had become the motivating factor for all the parishioners to devote time and resources and start the process for the construction of a new building.
Building Program Kickoff
On February 2nd, 1977, a general meeting of the parishioners at the Church hall kicked off the new building fund-raising campaign. On February 20th, a general assembly voted to proceed with the first phase of the construction, the planning phase, whereby plans and specifications for the new Church building would be prepared and submitted to a second general assembly for approval. On February 23rd, a meeting was called at Sheraton Inn at Route 59 to discuss the general assembly's vote and proceed with the phase plan. The building fund campaign needed to start the construction was initiated and 253 pledges for a total of $329,000 to be paid through 1984 were received.
Father John was involved in the building planning but he left the parish in 1980, before the actual work began.
Rev. Nicholas Katsoulis
Father Nicholas Katsoulis replaced Father John during the second half of 1980, and it was under his ministry that both the signing of the building contract and the groundbreaking ceremony of the Neo-Byzantine Church of Saints Constantine and Helen was celebrated. Through his perpetual dedication, strength, and faith, the vision of our new Church became a reality.
Ground Breaking/Early Construction
On October 26th, 1981, Saints Constantine & Helen Church represented by Father Nicholas, John Drakopoulos, the Parish Council President, and Gus Pappas (chairman of the building committee) signed a contract to begin the building phase. A month later, on November 22nd, 1981, the congregation gathered at the excavation site for the "Ayiasmo" and prayers for the foundations of the New Edifice.
The second phase of construction involved the outer shell of the Church itself, which was completed by 1983 and financed by monies collected from fund-raising events. The third and final phase of the construction was the structural completion of the Church.
Property Sale to Rivervale Realty
During the Eighties, the parish was given a special blessing. The Rivervale Realty Company had expressed an interest in obtaining a fifty-foot-wide strip from the west line of the Church property to be utilized for an access road to their development in exchange for a 3.5 acres parcel adjacent to the south side of the Church property.
The Church officials realized that the offer was an excellent opportunity and negotiated a very good deal, extending the Church property and securing other financial and structural benefits. The Deal was finally signed on November 7th, 1985.
After almost two years, the construction of the Church was completed and the Parish held the official door-opening services (Thyranixia) on May 20th, 1986 with His Eminence, Archbishop Iakovos officiating.
Stewardship Program Foundation
In 1987, the parish adopted and put into effect the Stewardship program, which replaced the annual dues with voluntary contributions. The program, chaired by Panayota Bitha, became a tremendous success from the very first year of implementation, more than tripling the income of the old membership system.
Father Nicholas was very instrumental in introducing the new program to our parish and both he and Father Constantine Sitaras, who chaired the program at the Archdiocesan level, guided the committee in their effort to carry out the implementation of the Stewardship program.
Rev. Theodore Sideris
In the fall of 1992, Father Theodore Sideris became the new spiritual leader of the parish, replacing Father Nicholas after twelve years of excellent service to the community. Father Theodore arrived at the time of our parish history when his personal contribution was needed to supervise the final phase of the new Churchâ€”which involved practically everything inside the Church from the iconostasis to iconography, stained glass, seating, carpeting, etc.
Completion of the Interior
Seven years later, through their generosity, the parishioners were able to complete the interior and transformed the building into a beautiful house of the Lord under Father Theodore's spiritual guidance and supervision.
Finally, by the grace of God, we arrived at the most important event in the ministry of the Parish: the consecration of the Church, to be dedicated to the glory and the worship of God. This event took place on two days, Saturday and Sunday, October 2nd and 3rd, 1999.
On Saturday evening, the relics of the Saints, who were to be placed in the Holy Altar the next day, were brought by His Grace, Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, and the Great Vespers of the Consecration was celebrated by His Grace, assisted by many priests of the area. After the Vesper Service, the Philoptochos gave a reception in the church hall.
The next day, Sunday, the consecration service was celebrated by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, assisted by Bishop Philotheos of Meloa, Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, Father Theodore Sideris, our Parish Priest, Father Nicholas Katsoulis, Father John Maheras, Father Anastasios Kousoulas, Father Peter Kyriakos, Father Nicholas Lassios, Father Milton Stamatos, Father Constantine Sitaras, Father Anastasios Tassopoulos, Father James Tsigonis, Archdeacon Gerasimos Michaleas, and Deacon Mark Sietsema, both of the Archdiocese.
After the Consecration Service, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated for the first time in the church, after it was dedicated to the glory of God. Following the Divine Liturgy, a banquet, chaired by John Drakopoulos, was held in the church hall, and was attended by the Archbishop, the Bishops, all the above-mentioned priests and deacons, and close to three hundred people.
Continuing into the 21st Century
In July of 2006, Father Sideris retired, with our Archdiocese bringing Father Nicholas Samaras, a young priest with a young family, to serve as our parish priest and spiritual leader. During his growing tenure, our parish has implemented further office organization, with the addition of office computers, internet service, and a website presence. Our parish has grown to a level of approximately 250 families of active stewardship. Our Youth Programs have expanded to include our HOPE group (ages 4-8). Our Senior Citizens Group has consolidated to be named the â€œKali Pareaâ€? group, meeting every month and enjoying each otherâ€™s luncheon company. We continue to build upon and grow our whole parish community, serving all age groups, both sacramentally and culturally.
Now, we stand on the crest of our next achievement and service to our holy community: great effort and plans are underway to build a school and Community Center, which will provide much-needed classrooms for our Sunday School, Greek School, and all programs. Further, such a dream center will provide us with much-needed storage space, meeting rooms, professional kitchen facilities (which will greatly help our Festival preparations and service). To achieve this dream, we have instituted a second Greek Festival, our â€œGreek Octoberfest,â€? to be held in the first week of October.
It is a very exciting time for our parish family, both spiritually and emotionally, as we recognize our past and strive for our future, providing for every member of our Holy Church and Faith, young and old alike, and for those who are still to come. Â
We thank from the bottom of our hearts, all the leaders of our parish, past and present, the teachers of our Sunday and Greek Schools, the cantors, choir directors and choir members, our youth and their advisors, acolytes, the Ladies Philoptochos Society, and all our stewards who work tirelessly to assist the Church in her mission. You have earned our deepest admiration and our immense gratitude.
We especially welcome one and all to share in our worship services, to join our growing family of Orthodox souls, and to share in the richness of our divine blessings. Please give us the strength of your presence and prayers, as we turn around to support and strengthen yourselves and your families.