Orthodoxy in Texas
The Orthodox Church has a long and rich history in the state of Texas. The following article appeared in the July-August 2015 issue of the Orthodox Observer.
The Establishment of the Greek Orthodox Church in Texas
William H. Samonides, Ph.D.
In 1910, there were 46 states in this country and almost that number of Greek Orthodox parishes. They were concentrated primarily in Northeastern cities, with not a single parish between Los Angeles and New Orleans. Several thousand Greek Orthodox lived in Texas, but they were scattered over a quarter million square miles.
Fr. Christos Angelopoulos, the priest at Holy Trinity in New Orleans, visited Houston in January 1910. He was there to establish a parish, and it was announced in the press that a church would open by the end of the year.
Father Angelopoulos had served as founding priest of the Annunciation parish in Atlanta, so he knew what it would take.
Although a Greek Orthodox church was established that year in Texas, it was not in Houston. By October, Fr. Angelopoulos had left New Orleans, which was having difficulties keeping its church open, for Fort Worth, where work in the stockyards had attracted a considerable number of Greek immigrants.
The St. Demetrios parish of Fort Worth was chartered in November. While money was being raised to build a church, services were held on the second floor of a building across from the county courthouse.
Fr. Angelopoulos did not remain long in Forth Worth, moving on to serve the community in Tarpon Springs.
He was replaced the following year by Fr. Leonidas Adamakos, another experienced, senior priest. Fr. Adamakos had served in the New York metropolitan area since 1902 and was the first priest at St. Nicholas in Newark and at Annunciation in Stamford, Conn.
He traveled around the state with parish leaders, collecting money to begin construction. Property was purchased, but the effort to build a church was brought to a stop in October 1912 by the outbreak of the First Balkan War. The parish lost many members, as able-bodied men returned to fight for their homeland.
By summer 1913, the fighting in the Balkans had ended, and the population of the Texas communities was recovering. At the end of 1914, Greeks in Fort Worth launched a campaign to raise $25,000. According to B.G. Booth, a businessman who headed the drive:
“There are more than 2,000 Greeks in Texas, yet we haven’t a church in the state. In Fort Worth and Dallas alone there are at least 800 Greeks, and if possible we will establish a church at one of the two cities. We have a piece of property here dedicated to church purposes, but if an agreement is reached to establish the church in Dallas, we are willing to turn that property [with an estimated worth of about $1,500] over for any use best. If we had a church somewhere in the state, the priest could visit all the cities occasionally.”
The efforts continued for several years, but the idea of having only one parish serve the entire state proved impractical. In 1917, there was an abrupt change in strategy, and in rapid succession three cities built churches. They were rather modest wood frame buildings that were to serve temporarily until more elaborate buildings could be financed.
In Dallas, a charter for the Holy Trinity parish was obtained in November 1915. Three days later Fr. Paisios Ferentinos came from New Orleans to celebrate the first Greek Orthodox Liturgy. In 1917, a wood frame church was built for approximately $10,000. A Methodist minister who owned a lumberyard provided a five-year loan for $6,000, sold the lumber for the building, and secured a contractor. The loan was repaid in just three years, and no interest was charged.
On Feb. 18, 1917, Fr. Damianos Ermogenis celebrated his first Liturgy in the St. Demetrios parish in Fort Worth. The cornerstone for a new church was laid eight days later. The cost of construction was estimated at $10,000. Fr. Ermogenis, who had served in South Africa and South America before arriving in America in 1912, remained in Fort Worth until 1922, returning to Greece in 1925.
In Houston, a lot was purchased in February 1917. An existing structure was demolished, and the cornerstone for a new church was laid in August. It would soon become clear, however, that three churches were not enough.
In April 1920, the Church hierarchy recognized the achievements of the Greek Orthodox faithful in Texas. Then-Bishop Alexander of Rodostolou, synodical representative in America of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, traveled to Texas from his headquarters in New York. From Holy Friday through Easter Sunday, he celebrated services in Dallas. He visited Houston during Bright Week, and celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Fort Worth on the Sunday of St. Thomas.
The number of parishes continued to grow. In San Antonio, in 1924, George and Vaso Dounson had to wait a full week before a priest could arrive and bury their daughter.
The community was relying on priests from other cities, but this poignantly demonstrated the importance of having a priest nearby. Tragedy provided the impetus, and later that year a church was established in San Antonio.
A century ago there were no Greek Orthodox parishes in Texas. Today there are 17 parishes, established with vision and persistent effort, to serve the needs of the faithful throughout this vast state.
The author thanks John Faxon of Dallas and Fr. Nicholas Hadzellis of St. Demetrios Church in Fort Worth for their assistance. The stories of Frs. Adamakos and Angelopoulos are featured in “Pioneering Priests: Establishing the Greek Orthodox faith in America,” an exhibition funded by Leadership 100 and now on display at the St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine in St. Augustine, Fla.