Thursday, May 07, 2015

Soliloquy for St Sophia

St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral has always been a part of my life. It's the church my family didn't go to. At least, not very often. My grandparents- they were in it from the get go and rarely missed a Sunday, but my parents may have dodged that bullet partly because my mother was not Greek and partly because  they worked in a bar and grill until 2 a.m. However my dad paid his dues, and we did go there for all those important rituals like christenings, funerals and bazaars. A lot of bazaars. My dad always bought raffle tickets for the Cadillac even though in over fifty years he never won and had to buy his own.

Driving down Wisconsin Avenue it's easy to miss Saint Sophia sitting quietly in the shadow of the National Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue. The bigger cathedral has held many a state affair, but St Sophia has waved over her share of presidents starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower who laid the cornerstone in 1956 including a time capsule to be opened in 2056. ( I'm probably going to miss that event just like I missed this one.)

She has seen the likes of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Clinton- even  a few football players.

(That's Father John- the one without a football or plaid pants)

St Sophia began humbly enough back in the early 1900s when a few hundred Greek immigrants scraped together enough coinage to rent a room downtown and to hire an itinerant priest. A Washington Star article in 1904 reported "In the heart of the Nation's Capital dwells a community of nearly 500 souls whose lives, customs, religion...are utterly alien to our institutions. It is the Greek colony. They are among us, but not of us."

Wonder where they got that idea?

By 1908 the parish was organized enough to have its own priest and to rent the upstairs of the former Adas Israel Synagogue at 6th and G NW where it remained for 13 years awaiting the construction of their own digs at 8th and L NW.

Though the congregation was small, differences of opinion soon brought on strife courtesy of the Balkan Wars. Father Alexopoulos asked the congregation to take a stand by separating- the Loyalists  had to sit on one side of the church and the Royalists on the other. (talk about division in the aisles) This is why even before St Sophia had its own building, another church, St Helen and Constantine came into being in at 6th and C Street SW.

St Sophia finally did land at 8th and L in 1921 and stayed put for 34 years. The convention center has swallowed those blocks now- including part of 8th Street.  A commemorative marker stands nearby on 7th Street and was blessed by Father Steve last fall in a ceremony held in room 140A exactly where the original nave of the old St Sophia's was.

Even the sign got baptized.

photo by Bill Petros
This weekend St Sophia will celebrate its 60th year on Massachusetts Avenue and will be consecrated with as much hoopla as only Greeks can muster complete with saint's bones, incense and a whole lot of chanting. (if you have ever been to a Greek ceremony you know this will take all weekend.) It truly is a beautiful place built with a lot of contributions, hard work and dreams.

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