Our Saint Nicholas Parish
In the late 1890s Ann Arbor welcomed the arrival of its first Greek Orthodox settlers, and although some became permanent residents, most were single men who worked temporarily with the railroads or in the factories. After World War I however, the number of Greek Orthodox families in Ann Arbor began to increase 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. Periodic services took place in homes or halls since there was no church building available.
This all changed in 1927 when the Pappas family brought their father, the Rev. Fr. Nicholas Agathangelos, from Asia Minor to Ann Arbor. Although he spoke only Turkish, he could read Greek and was thus able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and perform other religious services in the Greek language. A garage owned by one of his sons at the northeast corner of Pauline Boulevard and Seventh Street was converted into a church, and it was there that Father Agathangelos became the first priest to serve the spiritual and religious needs of Ann Arbor’s Greek immigrants on a regular basis. The only compensation he received for his services came from the collection trays. By early 1930, church services were being conducted at the Cornwell Building on the corner of Huron and Fourth.
As the community continued to grow, it became evident that the establishment of a permanent parish was needed; however there was a major obstacle. The politics of Greece had spilled over into the United States and the local Greek community was split into two factions, Royalists and Venizelists, one group affiliated with the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and the other with the Greek American Progressive Association (GAPA). The two groups (although some were members of both groups) refused to interact with one another with regard to church services, Greek language education for their children, and Hellenic cultural events and activities. It was obvious that a permanent parish could not be supported in Ann Arbor without a united Greek Orthodox community. It was in this setting that Archbishop Athenagoras made a pastoral visit to the Ann Arbor community on December 6, 1930. Permission was obtained to conduct services at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, as the importance of the Archbishop's visit warranted a more formal venue. Following the Divine Liturgy, a meeting took place between Archbishop Athenagoras and Allenel Hotel owner Angelo Poulos, which was instrumental in helping bring the two opposing political factions together. Further efforts of Angelo Poulos, along with Chris Bilakos and Charles Preketes, allowed the two groups to put aside their differences permanently. Spurred on by their newly found unity, the Ann Arbor Greek community went to work raising funds to build a house of worship despite being in the midst of the Great Depression. Angelo Poulos pledged $1,000 and asked for other pledges, either in money or labor. Families solicited donations and pledges throughout the city and surrounding communities and the AHEPA donated the land on which the church was to be built.
On August 26, 1931, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was officially incorporated in the State of Michigan. The articles of incorporation were signed by Angelo Poulos, Chris Bilakos, Charles Preketes, George Stratos, James Colovos, Nick Theros, George Bilakos, Frank Preketes, and John Kapeleris. On November 7, 1933, 33 parishioners gathered at the Allenel Hotel along with Archbishop Athenagoras to decide upon the name of the parish and to elect a parish council. Saint Nicholas & Holy Trinity was the name selected, and the parish council was chosen by lot, the candidates coming from among those who were present. The names drawn included Andrew Colinos, Frank Manikas, Frank Preketes, Nick Maheras, Stephen Kurtis, and Theodore Dames, with John Kapeleris, Constantine Sekaros, and Frank Kokenakes chosen as alternates, and they became the first group to administer the newly-formed parish. There are no records as to which of the six new council members were elected as officers, if at all. At a subsequent general assembly, a decision was made to drop the name of Holy Trinity, retaining only the name St. Nicholas. The first official parish council president was Paul Preketes, who was elected in 1934.
Soon after election of the parish council, a building committee was formed. On the recommendation of parishioner Constantine Avon, architect Ralph Gerganoff (a Bulgarian raised in the Greek Orthodox faith) was hired to design the new edifice. In the spring of 1935, ground was broken at 414 N. Main Street and construction of St. Nicholas Church was underway. An Ann Arbor News article featured an artist's sketch of the new church building, as well as the following: " ... 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 $4,000 in cash to permit construction to go forward. A larger amount was pledged to pay (the remainder of costs) 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 during a special ceremony in August 1935, and on Sunday, December 15, 1935, the first Divine Liturgy was held in the almost-completed new church, which overflowed with proud parishioners. Officiating was the parish's first assigned priest, the Very Reverend Archimandrite Michael Konteleon.
On Sunday, October 22, 1939 the church was consecrated in honor of St. Nicholas. The exterior of the church was decorated with flags and banners. Dignitaries from near and far gathered to participate, and parishioners again overflowed the church. His Eminence Archbishop Athenagoras, assisted by Father Konteleon as well as visiting Greek Orthodox clergy, 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 an additional $3,000 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 Archbishop Athenagoras and celebrating the joyous occasion, with over 300 in attendance. Mr. Theodore Dames was president of the parish council at this time.
In the early years of the parish, members struggled to overcome financial obstacles in maintaining and operating the church due to the ongoing Great Depression. Most of the work was performed by parishioners. Businesses and homes were visited regularly to solicit funds to pay the church's bills and obligations; Greek plays, dances, socials, and picnics were also held to raise funds.
During this period, the St. Nicholas chapter of the Ladies Philoptochos Society was organized. 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 for charity, and Mrs. Paraskeve Landas was elected first President of the Good Samaritan Philoptochos Sisterhood, as it was then known.
As World War II dawned, a number of young parishioners left to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Throughout the conflict, the Philoptochos, AHEPA, GAPA, and their auxiliaries worked hard for the benefit of the Greek War Relief. Among the priests serving the parish during the war were Father Chrysostomos Kaplanes (1941-43) Father Samuel Vlahousis (1943-44), and Father Sophocles Sophocles (1944-51). Father Sophocles was the parish's first English-speaking priest. A parish home for the priest was purchased in 1945 at 1616 Brooklyn. Following the war, activity within the parish increased, and parishioners donated much of the furniture and the stained glass windows during this period. In 1948, the lot and house immediately south of the church (408 N. Main Street) was purchased with plans to build a Greek community center on the land, however these plans never materialized. Among the priests serving the parish throughout the 1950s were Father Lambros Vakalakis (1951-53), Father Eusebius Stephanou (1953-55), and Father Andrew Missiras (1955-63).
The 1960s were a time of growth and change for St. Nicholas Church. In 1960, realizing the needs of their growing parish were evolving, the community started a building fund for future expansion and improvement. Following the arrival of Father John Kamelakis to Ann Arbor in 1963, 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 the administration of the new project were parish council presidents John Mirageas and Ted Apostoleris, Sr. The $210,000 addition was completed in 1967, and housed 12 classrooms and two offices. The project also included the remodeling of the social hall, creation of a new kitchen, renovation of the choir loft, and the addition of a new main entry and foyer. In order to provide more parking, the house and lot on Fourth Avenue directly behind the Main Street parking lot were also purchased.
In 1970, Father Athenagoras Aneste (currently His Eminence Metropolitan Athenagoras of Panama and Central America) was assigned to St. Nicholas. In 1971, a public Greek pastry sale led to the birth of the popular and successful Ya’ssoo Greek Festival, which was held annually until 1984. September 1973 saw the arrival of Father John Paul, who was to become the longest-serving priest in the history of St. Nicholas. 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. 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 U.S. Bicentennial with a special observance at the statue of Demetrios Ypsilanti. On Sunday, December 9, 1979, His Grace Bishop Timothy of Detroit officiated at a special mortgage-burning ceremony, 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. Beginning in the fall of 1985, the parish celebrated its 50th anniversary, with special events held each month throughout the year. At the end of the decade, Father John began publishing a monthly newsletter, which contained information and pictures pertaining to the parish's many activities and became an ongoing source of history for the parish. The social hall was remodeled in 1992, and at the same time a new elevator was installed, giving parishioners barrier-free access to the entire St. Nicholas facility. In 1999 a parish website was created, and it later became one of the first websites in the Archdiocese to feature a live webcam, making the sounds and images of the church’s sanctuary accessible online.
As the parish continued to grow in the 1990s, the community began to seriously consider the need to expand 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 1990, and a subsequent questionnaire sent to all the parishioners resulted in overwhelming support for a new Byzantine-style church. In early 1995, the strong possibility of relocating to Scio Church Road on a 10-acre parcel owned by the Lagos family arose when Mr. Lagos graciously offered to donate that parcel. Also, at a special parish assembly meeting on January 29, 1995, a decision was made to put the 11-acre parcel of land on South Main Street purchased in 1976 up for sale. On October 12, 1995, the Parish Council approved an internal feasibility study on building a new church and social hall on the Scio Church property, which 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 Mr. Lagos’ donation be accepted and that a new church be built on the Scio Church property. A special parish assembly took place on May 19, 1997, authorizing funds for the selection of an architect to present a vision study and master plan for the Scio Church Road parcel. In 1998, the South Main Street parcel was sold for approximately $500,000. Over the next two years, various master plans were prepared and studied, and decisions were made regarding which direction to take in terms of the architecture and site layout. In January 2001, Pericles Chiatalas was elected parish council president, and his leadership over the next five years would be instrumental in bringing the dream of a new church to fruition. On June 4, 2001, the second special parish assembly for the purpose of deciding the future of the St. 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. Parishioner Chris Patselas was chosen to lead the building committee, which selected architect Constantine Gus Pappas to design the sanctuary and related facilities. On June 30, 2001, the Agiasmos ceremony was held at the new site.
The official ground breaking for the new church took place on September 30, 2001, with His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit in attendance. Father John, parish council members, and building committee members took turns placing the ceremonial shovel into the ground at the exact spot where the altar table would eventually be located.
The final service at 414 North Main was held on December 29, 2002. By that time, the pews had been removed from the building, and following the liturgy a large group photo was taken of all the parishioners in attendance that day. The move of the church’s furnishings to the new site was accomplished entirely by the parishioners themselves. The sanctuary and auxiliary buildings were not yet complete, which necessitated storing ecclesiastical articles and other items in the newly-completed fellowship hall, as well as at the warehouse of the Michos family’s Cottage Inn commissary. For the next couple of months, Sunday liturgy was held in the "Little Theater" at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School. Each Sunday, parishioners would transport key liturgical items from the fellowship hall to the theater stage, transforming it into an Orthodox altar. Greek school classes continued without interruption in an office space provided by a parishioner.
On March 2, 2003, Father John Paul presided at the first-ever Divine Liturgy at 3109 Scio Church Road, which took place in the new fellowship hall. The iconostasis from the Chapel of St. Spyridon was loaned to the parish by His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas, modified to include the parish’s namesake, St. Nicholas. The walls of the fellowship hall were subsequently adorned with icons, and services were conducted there for the next twelve months. Throughout the year, parishioners were able to witness the continuing work on the sanctuary through the window of the new cry room.
In the summer of 2003, a tree sponsorship program was created, covering the costs of materials and supplies for landscaping. The landscaping and installation of sod was performed by volunteer parishioners, eliminating the cost of labor and fostering community spirit among those who participated.
On September 14, 2003, the parish, along with His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas, celebrated the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross, as three large Byzantine crosses that would permanently adorn the church's exterior were raised and placed above the main entrance, the bell tower dome, and the sanctuary dome. Riding up in the basket of the crane, Metropolitan Nicholas himself helped place the cross above the bell tower. A reception followed in the narthex, allowing parishioners to view the church’s interior for the first time.
In the months that followed the sanctuary’s interior was completed, and the marble was installed on the solea, along with a mosaic of the two-headed Byzantine Eagle. The three chandeliers, bishop’s throne, and pulpit from the old church were also installed, providing some continuity with the past. A temporary iconostasis was built by parishioners and temporary icons were donated and installed. The parish council decided that new pews should be installed prior to the Thyranoixia, so a pew sponsorship program was begun at the end of 2003, which provided the funding. The carpet installation began on January 26, 2004, and the pew installation followed. Finally, the altar table was reassembled and placed on the altar with the other liturgical fixtures.
On February 22, 2004, the Thryanoixia was held, with His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas presiding, along with Father John Paul, and Deacon Teodor Petrutiu. Several government dignitaries were also present, including Ann Arbor Mayor Ingrid Sheldon, Ypsilanti Mayor Cheryl Farmer, State Senator Liz Brater, and State Representative Gene DeRossett. Parishioners once again overflowed the church as they had almost 70 years prior, when the church on Main Street had celebrated its first liturgy.
In December 2004, Father John Paul retired after 31 years of service to the parish, although he remained an active presence in the church until his passing in July 2007. He was succeeded in 2005 by Father Nicolaos H. Kotsis, and under his leadership the parish continued to augment outreach activities and programming, while maintaining its existing array of ministries. In June 2007, the Ya’ssoo Greek Festival was revived as a means to pay down the mortgage on the new church, which was subsequently accomplished in 2014. In honor of the parish’s 75th anniversary, special events were held each month throughout 2010, culminating with a grand banquet on November 13 at the Kensington Court Hotel.
The parish has since seen the completion Phase I (2013) and Phase II (2017) of its iconography program, the work of iconographer Themistoklis Petrou of Athens, Greece. It has added a playground and athletic field to the premises, a result of the generous donations of numerous parishioners. And it began and maintains a Food Gatherers vegetable garden to assist the needy.
The past 20 years have seen the parish host the ordinations of Father Mark Sietsema to the priesthood, and of Father Nicolaos Kotsis, Father Peter Bistolarides, and Father Vasilios Pliakas to both the diaconate and the priesthood. And as a testament to its positive growth, the parish voted in 2017 to hire a second full-time priest, soon-to-be-ordained Deacon Alex Radulescu, to assist Father Nicolaos.
A concise history of a community that has spanned three quarters of a century does not permit the listing each of the countless parishioners who have contributed their time, talent, and treasures over the years. However their collective efforts have made the parish strong and vibrant, and provided a legacy for the new millennium and beyond.