Greek Orthodox congregation celebrates 50 years

You won’t see it, not even if you look really hard, but St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church is a church built on a foundation of souvlaki, moussaka and baklava.

This month, members of St. John — the church most Southern Nevadans probably know because of its annual Greek Food Festival fundraisers — will celebrate the parish’s 50th anniversary.

And, as they do, it will be an occasion for members to observe it not just with liturgies, but with food, drink, dancing and celebration of the community they’ve created.

In a way, St. John’s beginnings can be traced to the small, then steadily growing, number of Greek immigrants who settled in the Las Vegas Valley beginning in the early 1900s.

Susan Stamis, who has compiled the church’s history, notes that, in 1929, John Pappas and two partners opened the city’s first Greek-owned restaurant, the White Spot Cafe. But Pappas’ introduction to Las Vegas actually came earlier: In 1909 when, as a water boy with the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, he first passed through town.

Pappas would, Stamis says, come to be regarded as the “godfather” of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church.

Also among the valley’s early Greek settlers and St. John founders were George Sackas and his wife, Lea, who came here from Los Angeles after their marriage in 1931. Because they were Las Vegas’ only married Greek couple, their home became the city’s gathering place for Greeks to celebrate and socialize, Stamis says.

As the Greek population of Southern Nevada grew, Greek Orthodox residents began to hold informal religious observances in their homes, she continues, although baptisms required traveling to parishes in Salt Lake City or Los Angeles.

In 1954, after a Greek Orthodox baptism that took place in a borrowed Christian church here, Bishop Athenagoras Kokinakis, who had traveled here to perform the baptism, asked to meet with the women in attendance.

Kokinakis suggested that the women form a local chapter of Philoptochos, a church women’s philanthropic group, because “that’s the only way you are going to be able to get a church started here,” Stamis says.

Kokinakis, Stamis adds, even kicked things off with a donation of $10.

On April 9, 1959, the Eastern-Greek Orthodox Community of Las Vegas was formally incorporated, and fundraising efforts for a church began in September of that year with a dinner dance. John Pappas, Stamis says, won the right to name the church in an auction, and chose to dedicate it to St. John the Baptist, his son’s patron saint.

For two years, the congregation celebrated Masses at Christ Episcopal Church while searching for a facility of its own. In 1961, members purchased a former synagogue at Maryland Parkway and Carson Avenue and converted it into a church.

While the congregation’s new church was simple, at least by Greek Orthodox standards, it did have its charms.

It wasn’t “a grand church like most Greek Orthodox churches are,” Stamis explains. “But it was so warm. When you walked in, it felt like (you were) in a little country church somewhere, because it was all white, which is unusual for a Greek Orthodox church, and it had stained-glass windows, which also are not common in Greek Orthodox churches.”

That building served as St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church until the congregation’s move into its current sanctuary, built upon purchased land at 5300 S. El Camino Road and completed in 1992. As a fundraiser for the church’s construction — then as a fundraiser to pay the church’s mortgage and, now, for other parish activities — the Ladies Philoptochos Society in 1973 instituted the Greek Food Festival.

Parishioner Rena Kalkas came to the United States from Crete in 1973 and attended the first festival as a tourist. Watching the food, the music and the dancing, she recalls, “I was like, where are these people coming from? It was like they all came from the villages (in Greece). Wow.”

And, Kalkas notes, “soon, I became one of them.”

During the annual festivals, the Rev. John Hondros, St. John’s current pastor, leads visitors on tours of the church. Some of those visitors, Hondros says, have converted to the faith because of those tours.

“Our physical food brings them in,” he explains, “but they are attracted to the spiritual stuff eventually.”

Today, Hondros calls St. John’s “an inclusive parish” that cherishes both its own ethnic traditions and its outreach into the community. In addition to its own Greek Orthodox members, the church serves members of Russian, Bulgarian, Ethiopian, Serbian and Romanian Orthodox communities across the valley.

Above all, the 450 or so families of St. John’s share a strong sense of community, both in worship and as fellow parishioners. According to Hondros, visitors — there are many, Hondros notes, including out-of-towners who visit St. John to be married — invariably are impressed not only by St. John’s Byzantine architecture but by the sense of community they feel.

“When people come here to worship from other parishes on Sunday, they tell me, ‘This parish is really alive,’ ” he says.

In fact, Stamis adds, smiling, “when we come into church, somewhere during the service — forgive me, Father — we turn to our neighbor and say, ‘Are you going to coffee hour?’ “

Hondros laughs. “You do?” he responds in mock surprise. “I thought it was, ‘Wow, that was a great sermon.’ “

But Hondros is OK with that. While liturgy is the most crucial aspect of church life, he says, a strong sense of community is almost as important.

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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