Eighty-five years after its establishment, the Hellenic Orthodox Community of Astoria celebrates its key members and paves the way for its future leaders.
In November 1927, a group of Greek immigrants bought a plot of land on 30th Drive in Astoria for $3,500. With just $306 left over, and a rich heritage in its pocket, the group became an official recognized body within the state of New York and dubbed itself the Hellenic Orthodox Community of Astoria, St. Demetrios Inc.
Eighty-five years later, hundreds of Greek Americans gathered this past Sunday to mark the church’s anniversary, to celebrate its growth into a vibrant congregation and to honor two of its members, Efstathios and Stamatiki Valiotis, for their substantial contribution to the community over the decades.
About 350 people milled around a banqueting hall in Queens, dressed in their finest outfits and carrying plates piled high with olives, feta cheese and hummus. Broad smiles were met with open arms and a kiss on both cheeks, and gurgles of Greek were almost drowned out by the ululating strum of a Mediterranean guitar.
As the throng of excited congregants were asked to take their seats – with the last resort of ordering the buffet table to stop serving food – the event officially commenced with an invocation in Greek from Father Nektarios Papazafiropoulos, dean of St. Demetrios Cathedral.
The day called for two national anthems – America’s first, then the Greek anthem, which got the crowd singing far more passionately.
Harry Kalas, president of the parish council and a member of St. Demetrios for 44 years, introduced the day’s honorees, Efstathios and Stamatiki Valiotis . “[Mr Valiotis] came to this country with a dream to excel in business with hard work and a keen mind for success,” said Kalas. “He has achieved this dream.”
Valiotis, 66, immigrated to the U.S. in 1972. After his first job at Mini Star, the diner on Steinway Street where he worked without a day off for over two years, he opened a newsstand and started his own restaurant before launching a furniture business and then a real estate venture – all before 1980. Valiotis, who remains the owner and chief operating officer of Alma Realty, also founded Marathon National Bank and Alma Bank. Both Marathon National Bank, which has since been acquired by the Bank of Piraeus, and Alma Bank, which has 10 branches in the metropolitan area and assets worth more than $550 million, continue to serve the Greek American population of New York.
In addition to the 1,900 people employed by Valiotis’ businesses, he and his wife have donated several millions of dollars to St. Demetrios, including a $6 million pledge to complete a construction project which was inaugurated last year.
Many guests at the party had also spent their decades in New York building up the church community. Stelios Stroumbakis, 60, who moved from Athens to America in the mid-70s, has been a member of St. Demetrios for 35 years.
“It allows you to keep your heritage – the language and the religion you carry from your parents, and the family values we grew up with even though we now blend with the American community,” said Stroumbakis.
Eighty-year-old Ecaterini Pappas, who has been involved at St. Demetrios since she emigrated from Greece 55 years ago, said the church community has been like a family to her. “It’s my life,” she said.
But it was not just the immigrants from Greece who turned out on Sunday to support the church that has kept them connected to their past.
Paressa Poulikidis, 12, and Georgia Bolas, 13, who both attend the day school attached to St. Demetrios, were among the guests at the event. Born in America, both Poulikidis and Bolas speak Greek at home and at school, and spend their summers in Greece.
Despite the relatively few young people at the luncheon, Poulikidis and Bolas insisted they chose to attend the event of their own accord – rather than the will of their parents.
“I like the Greek music and that everyone is Greek,” Bolas said.
Poulikidis added, “It feels like a family thing. We’re contributing to the community.”