Our Saint Nicholas Parish
In the late 1890s, the first Greek Orthodox settlers arrived in Ann Arbor, and while a few became permanent residents, most worked temporarily with the railroads or in the factories, the overwhelming majority being single men. After World War I, however, the number of Greek Orthodox families in Ann Arbor began to grow, and it became evident that their spiritual and sacramental needs were not being adequately fulfilled. Visiting priests, usually from Detroit, traveled to Ann Arbor to perform the sacraments of baptism and marriage, but there was no regular Divine Liturgy. The services took place in homes or halls since no Orthodox church was available.
In 1927, the Pappas family brought their father, Reverend Nicholas Agathangelos, to Ann Arbor from Asia Minor. Although he spoke only Turkish, he could read Greek, and thus could celebrate the Divine Liturgy and perform other religious services in the Greek language. One of his sons owned a garage at the northeast corner of Pauline Boulevard and Seventh Street, which was converted into a Church. It was there that Father Agathangelos became the first priest to serve the spiritual and religious needs of our early Parishioners on a regular basis. The only compensation he received for his services came from the collection trays.
The Orthodox faithful of Ann Arbor, however, faced a major obstacle in establishing a Church. The local Greek community in the 1920s was split into two factions, as the politics of Greece spilled over into the United States. Many Greek communities in this country were divided between Vasilikoi (royalists) and Venezelikoi (anti-royalists). In Ann Arbor, one group belonged to the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (A.H.E.P.A.) and the other to the Greek American Progressive Association (G.A.P.A.). The two groups did not interact regarding Church services, Hellenic culture and Greek language education for their children, and participation in social events and activities. Many people, however, participated in both groups.
In the early 1930s, Church services were often conducted in a hall in the Cornwell Building on the corner of Huron and Fourth. On December 6, 1930 (Saint Nicholas Day), Archbishop Athenagoras made a pastoral visit to the Ann Arbor community. Permission to use St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor was obtained, as the importance of the Archbishop's visit warranted more than just a hall. Following the service, the Archbishop was taken to meet Angelo Poulos, owner of the Allenel Hotel. The meeting between Mr. Poulos and the Archbishop was instrumental in helping to bring the two factions together. In 1931, the two groups were finally united through the efforts of Chris Bilakos, and Charles Preketes, as well as Angelo Poulos. These men were convincing in their argument that Ann Arbor needed only one Greek Orthodox community, and only one place of worship.
At the height of the Great Depression, the Parishioners, spurred on by their newly found unity, went to work to raise funds to build a house of worship. Mr. Poulos pledged $1000 toward building a Church and asked for other pledges, either in money or work. Families went around town and to neighboring communities asking for donations and pledges to build the Church, and A.H.E.P.A. donated the land on which the Church was built. Subsequently, Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was officially incorporated by the State of Michigan on August 26, 1931. Parishioners who signed the articles of incorporation were Charles Preketes, Chris Bilakos, George Stratos, James Colovos, Nick Theros, George Bilakos, Angelo Poulos, Frank Preketes, and John Kapeleris.
The final bond of unity for the two groups came in November 7, 1933. On that day a meeting of 33 Parishioners was held at the Allenel Hotel. His Eminence Archbishop Athenagoras was present and chaired the meeting, at which unanimous decisions were reached. It was agreed that the name of the Ann Arbor Greek Orthodox community would be Saint Nicholas and Holy Trinity. A Parish Council was chosen by lot on that day. Twenty-nine of the Parishioners who were present wrote their name on a piece of paper and became candidates for the Parish Council. The names drawn included Andrew Colinos, Frank Manikas, Frank Preketes, Nick Maheras, Stephen Kurtis, and Theodore Dames. They became the first group to administer the newly united parish. Also drawn by chance as alternates were the names of John Kapeleris, Constantine Sekaros and Frank Kokenakes. There is no record as to which of the above-named six Parishioners were elected as officers, if at all. At a later meeting of Parishioners, the decision to include the Parish name of Holy Trinity was dropped, and it was agreed that the name of the Parish would be Saint Nicholas. The first official Parish Council President was Paul Preketes, who was elected in 1934.
In the spring of 1935, ground was broken and construction of Saint Nicholas Church was underway.
A 1935 Ann Arbor News article also featured an artist's sketch of the new Church building: " ... a small part of the material, beams and joists ... is to come from the Presbyterian Church being razed to make way for the new headquarters of the Ann Arbor News…a contributing factor toward construction of the Church was the successful effort in uniting two factions within the Greek community. For the first time ... they will worship together in a Church of their own. Within a space of a few weeks, representatives of the two factions have raised $4000 in cash to permit construction to go forward. A larger amount was pledged to pay for the new building. Local skilled labor will be used, but those in the Greek community who are idle have volunteered their services. They hope to have the Church debt erased from the books in a few years. Its cost is estimated at from $15,000 to $18,000."
The cornerstone of the new Church was laid in special ceremonies in August of that same year. The founding fathers' dream was realized when the first Divine Liturgy was held in the almost-completed new Church on Sunday, December 15, 1935. The Parish's first assigned priest, the Very Reverend Archimandrite Michael Konteleon, officiated. The Parishioners overflowed the Church, as their efforts and hard work for the glory of God had been rewarded.
On Sunday, October 22, 1939, the Church building was dedicated to the glory of God and Consecrated in honor of Saint Nicholas. The exterior of the Church was decorated with flags and banners. Dignitaries from near and far gathered to participate. The Parishioners again overflowed the Church. His Eminence Archbishop Athenagoras, assisted by Father Kontoleon as well as visiting Greek Orthodox clergymen, conducted the Service of Consecration and celebrated the Divine Liturgy. According to a newspaper article published the following day, the services began at 8:00 a.m. and concluded at 3:30 p.m. During the afternoon, it was announced that those attending the ceremonies had pledged $3000 to the Church, an amount sufficient to clear the congregation of debt. Later that evening a banquet was held at the Michigan Union, honoring His Eminence Athenagoras and celebrating the joyous occasion, with three hundred persons in attendance. Mr. Theodore Dames was President of the Parish Council at this time.
In the early years of the Parish, members struggled and met obstacles in maintaining and operating the Church because of the Great Depression. Much, if not most of, the work -- repairs and cleaning - was done by Parishioners. Businesses and homes were visited regularly to collect funds to pay the Church's bills and obligations; Greek plays, apokreatika glendia, socials, and picnics were held to raise funds.
The Saint Nicholas chapter of the Ladies Philoptochos Society also was organized during this time. The purpose of this national society, founded by His Eminence Archbishop Athenagoras, was to assist the less fortunate Greek Orthodox faithful during the Depression. The ladies immediately began their work of charity. Mrs. Paraskeve Landas was elected first President of the Good Samaritan Philoptochos Sisterhood, as it was named.
As World War II dawned, a number of young men of the Parish left to serve in the U.S. armed forces. The Philoptochos Society, A.H.E.P.A., G.A.P.A., and their auxiliaries worked hard for the benefit of the Greek War Relief. Among the priests serving the Parish were Father Chrysostomos Kaplanes (1941) and Father Samuel Vlahousis (1943), with Father Sophocles arriving in 1944. Father Sophocles was the Parish's first English-speaking priest. A Parish home for the priest was purchased in 1945 at 1616 Brooklyn.
After the war, activities around the Church increased. Parishioners donated much of the furniture and the stained glass windows during this period. In 1948, the lot and house immediately south of our church -- 408 N. Main Street -- was purchased. Plans were made to build a Greek community center on this land, but they never materialized. Among the priest serving the Parish throughout the 1950s were Father Lambros Vakalakis (1951), Father Eusebius Stephanou (1953), and Father Andrew Missiras (1955).
The 1960s were a time of growth and change for Saint Nicholas Church. In 1960, realizing the needs of their growing Parish were evolving, the community started a building fund for future expansion and improvement. 1963 saw the arrival of Rev. Father John Kamelakis in Ann Arbor, and the house next door to the Church was remodeled to provide much-needed classroom space. In 1965, the house and lot south of 408 N. Main Street were purchased, and plans were made to build an educational building adjoining the church. Instrumental in seeing the new project through were parishioners John Mirageas and Ted Apostoleris. The $210,000 addition was completed adjacent to the Church in 1967, the educational building housing 12 classrooms and offices. The project also included remodeling the social hall, creating a new kitchen, remodeling the choir balcony, and adding a new church entrance. The house and lot on Fourth Avenue immediately behind our Main Street parking lot was also purchased in order to provide more parking.
Father Athenagoras Aneste, now His Eminence Metropolitan Athenagoras of Panama and Central America, was assigned to Saint Nicholas in 1970. In 1971, a public Greek pastry sale led to the birth of the well-known and well-received Ann Arbor Ya'ssoo Greek Festival, a full cultural extravaganza held annually through 1984.
In September 1973 Rev. Father John Paul arrived in Ann Arbor. In 1974 the Parish relinquished the old membership dues system and successfully instituted the fair share system of stewardship, one of the first Parishes to do so within the Archdiocese. A future planning committee was also initiated at this time. The following year the mortgage on the back parking lot was retired. In 1976, an 11-acre parcel of land was purchased on South Main Street near Briarwood Mall for the purpose of future expansion. (This land was sold in 1998 for approximately $500,000.) In March of that same year, a pastoral visit by His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos was celebrated. Along with a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, a banquet in honor of His Eminence was held in the ballroom of the Ann Arbor Inn with approximately 450 people in attendance. In May 1976 His Eminence again visited, celebrating the American Bicentennial with a special observance at the statue of Demetrios Ypsilanti. His Excellency Bishop Timothy of Detroit officiated at a special mortgage-burning ceremony on Sunday, December 9, 1979, retiring the debt on the educational facility.
The 1980s saw an increase in Church membership, as well as in the number of spiritual, educational, and social activities. In 1982, a barrier-free access fund was started. The Parish celebrated its 50th anniversary beginning in the fall of 1985 with special events held each month for a year. And, at the end of the decade, Rev. Father John Paul began publishing a monthly newsletter containing information and pictures pertaining to the parish's many activities. Along with the Church's weekly bulletins, the monthly newsletters were very well received, becoming a source of history for the Parish. The fellowship hall was remodeled in 1992, and at the same time a new elevator was installed, giving Parishioners barrier-free access to the entire Saint Nicholas facility.
As the Saint Nicholas Parish continued to grow in the 1990s, the community began to seriously consider the possibility of expanding its facilities. At the Parish General Assembly of April 9, 1989, the creation of the Future Goals Committee was approved. An open forum took place in November of 1990 and parishioners voiced their views about the future development of the church. A Future Goals Committee was organized. The mission of the Future Goals Committee was to "Identify, Develop and Establish Future Needs/Goals Which Will Better Fulfill the Mission of the Church and Parish." In order to help identify the best way to fulfill the needs of the parish a questionnaire was sent to all the parishioners. The members of the parish responded overwhelmingly that they wanted a new Byzantine style church.
At a special parish assembly meeting on January 29, 1995, a decision to sell our property of 10.85 acres on South Main Street was taken. Later when the sale was completed, the proceeds were placed in the new church building fund account.
In early 1995, the strong possibility of relocating to Scio Church Road on a property owned by the Lagos Family became obvious from communications between Bill Lagos and Rev. Father John Paul, when Mr. Lagos graciously offered to donate that parcel of land. The Parish Council, in a meeting on October 12, 1995, approved an internal feasibility study on building a new church and Hellenic Center on the Scio Church property.
The New Church and Hellenic Center Feasibility Study Committee carefully studied the feasibility of expanding the church at the site on Main Street. It concluded that the facility at 414 North Main Street could no longer meet the parish's needs and expanding the facility would not be financially or architecturally feasible. It recommended that a new church be built on the Scio Church property.
A special parish assembly took place on May 19, 1997, and authorized funds for the selection of an architect to present a vision study and master plan for a specific site (the Scio Church Road parcel).
On June 4, 2001, the second special parish assembly for the purpose of deciding the future of the Saint Nicholas parish overwhelmingly authorized the building of a new church facility for $5.6 million. The sale of the 414 North Main Street property was also approved. Architect, Constantine Gus Pappas, FAIA, was hired to design the sanctuary and other facilities. The Agiasmos ceremony was held at the new site on June 30, 2001. It was an emotional day for all as several generations of parishioners came to the site to dream and imagine what our future facility would be like.
The official ground breaking took place on September 30, 2001. It was a beautiful and bright day and His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit, was the chief celebrant. Spirits were high and our collective vision for our new church was becoming reality. Parishioners took turns placing the ceremonial shovel into the ground at the very spot where our altar table in now placed. This day marked a significant milestone in the history of our church that would eventually lead to today.
When the church property at 414 North Main Street was sold, we had to vacate the old church. The last service at 414 North Main was held just after Christmas of 2002. Many parishioners came to help in packing our belongings for the move to the new site. The sanctuary and auxiliary buildings were not yet complete and this necessitated storing our ecclesiastical artifacts and other items in the fellowship hall as well as at the business property of a generous parishioner. Greek School classes were also held at an office generously offered by a parishioner.
Sunday liturgy was held in the "Little Theater" at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School. Each Sunday, our parishioners would transport key liturgical items from our fellowship hall to the theater, transforming it into an Orthodox space. By late February, 2003 we received approval to hold liturgy in our newly completed fellowship hall until the new sanctuary would be completed.
On March 2, 2003 we held our first Divine Liturgy at our new location in our new fellowship hall. His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit generously loaned our parish the iconastasion from the Chapel of St. Spyridion in the Metropolis home. The iconastasion was modified to include our namesake, St. Nicholas. Many icons were hung on the walls of the hall and it evolved into a solemn Orthodox space where the liturgy and sacraments could reverently be celebrated. The fellowship hall became a special place and it was filled with parishioners almost every Sunday. While we were celebrating the liturgy in the hall, the sanctuary was nearing completion with each service. We could view the progress of the sanctuary through the plexiglass window of the cry room.
Throughout the summer of 2003, a landscaping program was implemented and many parishioners came each Saturday to help. This saved our church expensive landscaping fees and created a sense of community with those who participated. A tree sponsorship program was created and covered the cost of materials and supplies for the landscaping.
September 14, 2003, the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross, was a memorable and moving day for us. His Eminence, Metropolitan Nicholas, celebrated this feast day with us as we elevated the three large Byzantine crosses that permanently adorn our church's exterior . The Metropolitan was very much involved in the activities as he went into the basket of the crane and was elevated above the church and helped place one cross on the bell tower. A reception was held in the narthex of the new church and parishioners were able to view the interior for the first time. It was a moving experience to see the church taking shape. The church was more beautiful than we imagined as we stood underneath the expansive dome.
In the months that followed the interior was completed and the drywall went up. The church was painted and the marble and double-headed eagle medallion were installed on the solea. The three chandeliers from the old church were polished and installed. They look spectacular in our new sanctuary and provide continuity to our past. A temporary, yet impressive, iconastasion was built by parishioners and the temporary icons were donated and installed.
The parish council decided to have new pews installed before the Thyranoixia and so a pew sponsorship program was implemented at Christmas of 2003. The response from the parishioners was enthusiastic. The carpet installation began on January 26, 2004, and the pew installation followed. The altar table was reconstructed and other liturgical fixtures were placed in the church in anticipation of our first liturgy.
Today, February 22, 2004, marks the beginning of a new era for our parish. We are experiencing the realization of the dream to build a Byzantine church in Ann Arbor that began many years ago. We are grateful for the many sacrifices that have been made by many generous people on this sacred journey to building our new sanctuary. What began in 1933 is culminating in today's Thryanoixia or Door Opening. The parish of Saint Nicholas thanks everyone present today for sharing this glorious day with us. We, of the Saint Nicholas parish, share great enthusiasm and joy for the blessing of our new sanctuary and take pride in having accomplished it together. This church is our new spiritual home. Our labors and love we offer to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ so that His grace can be made manifest in each one of us and in those who come after us in the faith of our fathers--the one pure faith--Orthodox Christianity.