Your Eminence, Metropolitan Isaiah, my dear father, my family, my aunt and cousins, and my fellow parishioners, it is a great honor and pleasure to be speaking to you on this occasion of the centennial of our church, St. John the Baptist.
Until today, all my public speaking engagements have been in the capacity of my profession as a professor of early Church History. Today I find myself in a somewhat different position; I am coming as a lifelong member of this parish. My grandparents, Vasilios and Sophia Limberopoulos, were instrumental in establishing this Church. My father, James Limberis, and my mother, Photini Georgekas Limberis, were married in 1952 in Oakland, California, and thereafter returned to live in Salida, Colorado, where I was born in 1954. Part of my talk today will focus on how vitally important this dear church, St. John's, was to me, my two brothers, Paul and Chris, and my dear cousin Kerrie, as we grew up high in the mountains of Salida in the 1960's and 1970's. In addition to this, my talk is both personal and professional for me. Because I am trained as an academic church historian, I decided to approach the talk today as I would on, let's say, an ecclesiastical issue of 4th century Thessaloniki! So I will divide the talk into three sections:
I do not know how many of you have been to Salida, but that is where I grew up, with perhaps eighty other Greeks, mostly distantly related by marriages both in Greece and in the USA. It is very beautiful, surrounded by high mountains, 7,000 feet high. There are only 5,000 people there, and as I would later discover on my first of four trips to Greece, it is very much like any village, or χωριό, in the mountains surrounding Tripolis in Arcadia, Greece. My earliest memories of the Church are completely tied together with my father's family in Pueblo, my Papou Vasilios who lived until I was 13, my dearest Aunt Helen Kochiovelos, who was like a grandmother to me, her husband, wonderful Uncle Frank, and their daughters, my cousins, Becky, Marian, and Barbara. My father's youngest sister, my dear Aunt JoAnn, figured very significantly in my life and in every wonderful occasion in Pueblo. Because we lived so far away, one hundred miles up the Canon on those twisty roads next to the Arkansas River, our trips to Pueblo coincided with all the major holidays of the liturgical year. For example, January 1st was my Papou's Name Day, St. Basil. So only a week after having been in Pueblo for Christmas, I remember many a blindingly bright Colorado winter day — blinding with blue and white, sub-zero sunshine — as we wound down the canon to make it to Liturgy, in our stiff, uncomfortable church clothes. When we would arrive, inevitably late, we would feel so happy to see Papou and all our relatives quietly, turn around, smile, and welcome us. After Liturgy, at the family dinner at Aunt Helen's house, Papou would give us all a huge, real silver dollar in honor of St. Basil, who in the 4th century, was the founder of hospitals, and orphanages, giving all his money to the poor and needy throughout his lifetime. Before St. Basil's initiative, there was no such thing as hospitals in Greco-Roman antiquity.
Next in the yearly cycle, there would be a visit during Lent of the priest to Salida, and the eighty or so Greeks would come to the Liturgy, held usually in the parish hall of the local Episcopal church. By Holy Week we would all be anticipating the most exciting holiday of the year, Easter. In preparation, along with the fasting especially during Holy Week, we would have all new clothes, and in our youngest years, our parents would bring us to Pueblo on Holy Saturday. As we grew older, we would come on Holy Thursday and Holy Friday, either on the bus or one or another Salida relative would drive some of us kids down. The rest of our families would join us on Saturday.
When I was around eleven or twelve Aunt Joann, who was the choir director, welcomed me to sing in the choir every time we came to Pueblo. This was a huge event for me, because not only did I enjoy singing, I was truly able to learn the hymns of the liturgy. She even gave me a hymn book to take home, and I could read and practice on my own on the piano at home.
Every Orthodox Christian around the world seems to have very similar, magnificent memories about the celebrations of Easters in their lives, and for us Easters in Pueblo were larger-than-life, the most significant day in each year for us. The Church was packed every year, and we would see fellow parishioners whom we only saw then. Without a doubt the Easter holiday and holy week would call forth the best efforts of everyone — the Epitaphio would be covered with lush flowers, roses, carnations, orchids, green ferns that contrasted so starkly with the cold, frozen Colorado springtime outside. Everyone wore their best clothes, everyone made a strong effort to fast properly, and on Easter Sunday, especially if the weather was warm and sweet, we feasted and sang and even danced some years, so that now, all the memories of the Easters of my youth are collapsed into one great holiday, celebrating Christ's victory over death. Reality would hit on Sunday evening, when we would reluctantly climb into the car, heavily laden with bags of feta cheese, spanakopeta, lamb, olives, pastichio, domathes, koulourakia, kourambiethes, and other goodies to eat, and we would go back up the mountains to return to school the next day.
Each August cousin Kerrie, my brothers, and I spent a week at Aunt Helen's and Uncle Frank's for the Colorado State Fair, and this occasion usually overlapped in part with the Dormition of the Theotokos, the holy Mother of God, August 15th. Even though the week was ostensibly for fun, if it was still a fasting day, we fasted! And now the memories of August for me inextricably bind the service of the Dormition, usually the Paraklesis, with family and fair week together.
As we got into high school, adolescence and peer groups brought new challenges and opportunities, and our identities were forming. There was a high school group in Salida called "Ecumenical Youth of Salida", which had participants from every religious denomination. One year they decided to visit services in each other's churches. How happy and honored I was when Father Vagias, then the priest in Pueblo in the early 1970's, agreed to come to Salida one snowy March Sunday and help me and my mother host the group. Afterwards we served a dinner and listened to Father Vagias answer questions about Greek Orthodoxy.
By necessity in the late 60's and early 70's our extended family went to Pueblo to St. John's much more often, since Papou, an aunt, and an uncle died in those years. My brothers, cousin Kerrie, and I learned the mnymoseno service fairly quickly, what to expect at the funerals, the intervals of months mnymoseno services were held, and how some of us liked the taste of kollyva, and others didn't. I remember Father Bardouniotis' beautiful eulogy for Papou, and learning through experience how the services of the Church give courage, comfort, and hope to the mourners who remain.
St. John's community served a major social function for all of us who participated. For families living one hundred — plus miles away from each other, the church was the social center of the far-flung community. My brothers were especially friends with Dean Rougas, and their participation in basketball events was special. I loved seeing Mrs. Vasiliki Rougas in church on our Name Day. She would always give me a big hug and chat so warmly with me. Mr. Paul George, the Zavichas's, the Lepetsos', the Kostos', the Manolises, Mr. Zangaris, The Rougases, Mrs. Thliveris, the Koustas' were all families I remember visiting at certain times, attending their baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
Besides giving us a social context with other Greek-American, Greek Orthodox families, St. John's provided two other sociological functions for us: one was civilization and education, and the other is identity formation. Without a doubt, the Greek Orthodox Church in America has been the vehicle for preservations and dissemination of Greek language, history, religion, and cultural heritage. And St. John's in Pueblo is no exception. For those members who chose to participate, familial language, culture, and religion could suddenly take on a wider historical framework through Greek school, Sunday school, Greek Independence Day celebrations, plays, and even festivals. Through church events and social gatherings, we, who were born far away from Greece, could learn where Arcadia was in relation to Achaea, and why the Peloponnesian accents of our families sound so different from those Greeks of Asia Minor and Macedonia! Having spent the last thirty-three years of my life in large Greek communities of San Francisco, Boston, and now Philadelphia for 20 years, I know that St. John's suffers nothing in comparison to them in its institutional role as disseminator of education, civilization and ethical values that benefit the wider community as a whole.
Moreover, the Church provides the institutional context for preservation of Greek-American identity. It began as a focal point for people in dispersion, and it continues to do this in new ways in succeeding generations. It is a widely observable phenomenon that those without strong ties to the Church often lose the Greek cultural identity often in less than a generation, getting absorbed into the larger dominant American culture. The Church provides a local community that is actually much more beneficial to the larger American context. In short, the groups of the Church, Ahepa, Philoptochos, Goya, and the choir associations not only act to provide for the Church but do good works that benefit the wider community they live in. We have only to look in the past few weeks to see how much each church and the Archdiocese have sent for Katrina and Rita relief funds. With the help of the Church, along with our families, we are able to preserve our Greek heritage and blend it in ever new ways with our American identities, no matter the decade or the challenge.
Finally I come to the theological role that the Church has played in our lives. I remember two anecdotes about my Papou that illustrate the piety and respect for the faith he had and that he instilled in us. The first one my father told me, and it happened when he was still a young boy. One wintry Saturday night it snowed over three feet in Pueblo. Papou, as was his custom, got up early Sunday morning and walked over to the Church for the Liturgy. When he arrived, he found the church dark, cold, and empty. So he trudged over to the priest's house, knocked on the door, and roused the priest, reminding him it was time for the liturgy to begin. The priest was ready in a flash!
The next anecdote I remember about Papou. When we children were quite young, I was maybe eight, Kerrie, my brothers and I had a hard time sitting still in church, fidgeting, punching each other, squirming and gesticulating during the long service. Papou was sitting in back of us, and suddenly we felt a tap of his cane on our hands, which some of us had folded in back of us or were sitting upon. "No hands behind one's back during the Liturgy," we knew right then! These stories illustrate a piety and proper reverence for the presence of the Divine: God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Theotokos Holy Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints, as they are all present during the Liturgy.
It is in church, through the reading of the Gospels, that we learn the Sermon on the Mount. This is Jesus' teaching on how to live an ethical life. It is here, specifically in the reading of Matthew chapter 5, that we learn that the poor are blessed, that we should turn the other cheek when a person hits us, that those who are persecuted and reviled are blessed in the eyes of God. This is in direct contrast to what Jesus says about the rich, the powerful, and the arrogant. In fact, Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke that they are cursed. We also hear that we are not simply to love our families and friends, but we are to love our enemies too. Most of all we are not to judge others, unless we too want to be judged. The difficult ethics of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount are always challenging each Orthodox Christian, and sometimes we fall short, and sometimes we make it, but whether we do or not it is in the context of the community of St. John's.
During the liturgical year each person is called at different times to fast, to look inwardly, to pray, and to do good works. Each year offers the occasion for a spiritual transformation manifested in a more peaceful life, more patience towards others, and a deeper understanding of God. During each Liturgy, theologically speaking, time collapses and eternity is present. All those who have gone before us along with the entire community of saints are present with us. This liturgical transformation, all the spiritual gifts, along with the call to the sacramental life and communion with God through Christ are bestowed on us at St. John's. Simply speaking through the Church, St. John's, we speak to Heaven and Heaven speaks to us. Yes, as I think of it now, such an eternal, tremendous, recurring reality truly required the awe, piety, and respect my Papou taught us by example.
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Limberis, Vasiliki, "Reflections on the Centennial Celebration of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Pueblo, Colorado, October 8, 2005": Paper presented at the Centennial of the Formation of the Hellenic Orthodox Community Association of Pueblo, Colorado (PAHH Memoirs and Histories, 2006), available at http://www.pahh.com/pco/limberis.html.
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