Manchester’s Greek community is undergoing the most comprehensive historical preservation effort in a century

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Meleti Pouliopoulos
Meleti Pouliopoulos at the St. George Orthodox Cathedral Library. Photo/Ryan Lessard

MANCHESTER, NH – The St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Manchester is spearheading an initiative to preserve, archive, digitize and collect treasured relics and stories, documents and articles that will chronicle the lives of Greek community members and chart the lasting impacts of one of the Queen City’s most prominent ethnic groups over the years. 

Most of all, the St. George Memory Project will teach the next generation about the history of the church and the greater Greek communities in Manchester, as well as other parts of the state, according to archivist and historian Meletios “Meleti” Pouliopoulos.

“It’s our history,” Pouliopoulos said. “There’s just a lot of great history. Now’s the time to really capture all that.”

Pouliopoulos, currently of Stratham, Mass., is a former Manchester native and attended services at St. George in his youth. Today, he is the president of the nonprofit organization Greek Cultural Resources. Its mission is to “obtain, document, preserve, archive, promote and provide access to recordings” of Greek music, traditions, publications, images and interviews.

After visiting St. George as a guest speaker a few years ago, the church community was inspired to undergo a thorough accounting of its records, the many works of art, Greek newspapers and books stored in its library and other relevant documents. It raised an initial goal of over $10,000 to fund the project, but Pouliopoulos, who has been hired as a consultant on the project, said they’re just getting started and hope to raise much more in the coming months. 

In addition to cataloging the holdings of the church library, and eventually redesigning the library itself, Pouliopoulos said they are also engaged in an oral history project, which will collect interviews starting with senior members 75 years of age or older, then from younger community members.

They are seeking voices from Greek community members across the state, recognizing that many former Manchester residents have moved out of town over the years.

“This undertaking is not just a project for our cathedral, but it is a project that encompasses our journey, our Greek community’s journey, over the last 117 years,” said George Skaperdas, president of the St. George board of directors. “The history that we share is all-inclusive. Every family in our community share comparable stories of their family’s journey to America.”

St. George was founded in Manchester in 1905. The original charter members met at a coffeehouse on Spruce Street. Later, they built their first cathedral at 95 Pine St. The building was completed and their first services were held on May 5, 1907.

Skaperdas said the church has long been a common denominator for many Greek-Americans.

“The church became ‘ground zero’ for our families to be together to worship, educate, socialize, celebrate, grieve, comfort, and support each other,” Skaperdas said.

The church evolved and grew over the years. As political pressures emerged to either assimilate as Americans or preserve their Greek culture, a second church was erected in the center of the Greek community, The Church of the Evangelismos (Annunciation.) Evangelismos was merged back with St. George in 1936. In 1937 another split in the community occurred and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church was established and still exists today. 

In 1966, worshippers built the spectacular landmark that is the current cathedral on Hanover Street and marched together from their Pine Street church to the Hanover Street church to mark the migration to their new spiritual home, Pouliopoulos said.

That move was significant to Pouliopoulos for a number of reasons. For his purposes, the new church not only represented a great deal of new works of art, such as the stunning, Italian-crafted chandelier and the Byzantine-style religious icons. It also meant the removal and, sadly, the loss, of many older icons and stained glass artwork.

Many of the icons that survived now live in the St. George library, located on the ground floor beneath the cathedral. Pouliopoulos explained that most of them were illustrated in a different style more akin to Catholic Renaissance-era iconography. 

“A lot of them have stories (written) underneath, of the families who dedicated the pictures,” Pouliopoulos said.

Much of what survived the demolition of the old church did so because church members stepped in to claim discarded items that were destined for the scrap heap. Pouliopoulos said there is a section of the old stained glass windows installed at a dentist’s office in town. And a painted icon was recently discovered in one of the church’s closets.

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St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Hanover Street.

More treasures may still exist out in the homes of community members and while Pouliopoulos is not holding out too much hope of finding them, any additional finds would be invaluable to the church’s collection.

Unfortunately, Pouliopoulos said St. George has fallen behind on a lot of the historical record-keeping it once did, as interested generations grow older. Church history books were published every few decades since the founding of St. George, but the last one was in 1980. Since then, the closest thing they’ve published is a 2005 documentary film for the church’s centennial. 

Pouliopoulos hopes the culmination of some of this work will be the creation of a more up-to-date history book. And he’s already finding some new bits of information that were possibly unavailable to past historians. 

One such discovery was a history of the Manchester Greek community published as a small academic book in 1928 in the Greek language. The book was located at the Manchester Historic Association archives, and Pouliopoulos said he is working with native speakers to help translate the work.

Another exciting find was an old film reel that recorded the historic march from the old church on Pine Street to the current one on Hanover.

While some regional Greek newspapers have been lost to time, Pouliopoulos’ research has uncovered the surviving issues of some papers, like the Hellenic Chronicle and The Acropolis, and digitized them. The very first Greek newspaper in the area, Ergatis, published in 1910, has been lost to time.

The library’s holdings have also been able to fill gaps in other archives of Greek history elsewhere in the country. Pouliopoulos has digitized various documents of interest and book-bound national newspaper collections, such as The National Herald, and made its contents searchable on a computer using optical character recognition software.

So far, Pouliopoulos has cataloged over 1,000 library items, digitized 1,600 pages of documents, and tens of thousands of pages of newspapers.

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“There’s just a lot of great history. Now’s the time to really capture all that,” said Meleti Pouliopoulos, who is curating relics that will help chronicle Manchester’s Greek community. Photo/Ryan Lessard

Any history of the Greek community and the church would be incomplete, according to Pouliopoulos, without an accounting of a number of fraternal organizations which had chapters in the city, such as the erstwhile NOA Club (which stands for Nea Orthodoxia tis Amerikis or New Orthodoxy in America), the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA), its youth branch, which started in Manchester in 1926, called the Sons of Pericles, and the Greek American Progressive Association (GAPA).

Pouliopoulos said the Order of the AHEPA was the pro-assimilation faction, while the GAPA countered that effort with an interest in cultural preservation.

“We have old journals here going back over 100 years,” Pouliopoulos said.

In the first half-century of putting down roots in New Hampshire, many Greeks were discriminated against by White Americans and viewed as second class citizens. English newspaper articles at the time barely acknowledged the founding of the St. George congregation, and any mention of Greek individuals was often in a negative light. 

Pouliopoulos said the way Greek-Americans were viewed turned a corner after World War II when many Greek men returned from war as heroes or made the ultimate sacrifice. 

Christos Kalivas, the first Greek-American from the state to give his life during the war, has since had his name memorialized in a city park, monument and senior living apartment building.

These days, Pouliopoulos fears the culture might be slipping away as some of the younger members engage with it less and less.

“Now, we’re a couple generations removed from the time when we grew up,” Pouliopoulos said. “You don’t hear the language spoke as much, and people are further away from their traditions.”

Phil Liakos, the St. George Education Chair, said the church, Greek culture and heritage all served to unite them as a community over the past century. Now, he hopes the St. George Memory Project will do the same.

“I believe that the Memory and Library projects currently in progress are also serving as a uniting factor in the community,” Liakos said.

On April 2, the church is planning a bus tour to a regional point of interest for Greek Americans: Brookline, Mass. The tour will stop at the Holy Cross Chapel, the Maliotis Cultural Center and the Archbishop Iakovos Library.

“We’ve opened it up to all the churches, all the orthodox churches in Manchester,” Pouliopoulos said.

Ultimately, Pouliopoulos said the church group redesigning the library hopes to have the space ready for a grand reopening sometime in the fall.


 

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About this Author

Ryan Lessard

Ryan Lessard is a freelance reporter.