Early Years 1903-1957
When leaving the Greek island of Icaria, the immigrants didn't say they were going to America... they said their destination was Verona!
Many of the Greek families who settled in the Oakmont-Verona area of Pennsylvania in the early 1900s were from the island of Icaria. Several Icarian immigrants worked dangerous jobs in the steel mills. The hours were long, the work was hard, the compensation was low and there was no such thing as insurance. According to the oral history, one of the Icarian immigrants died in an accident at the mill where he worked. There was no insurance and his widow was still in Greece. Without money and family to bury him, the community of Icarian immigrants came together to see to his final needs. Never again did they want this to happen to one of their own and according to the historical record, the Verona community of Icarians formed a mutual aid society in 1903.
In 1905 they were officially chartered as the Icarian Brotherhood of America. The purpose of this organization was to provide medical, disability, and funeral benefits for its members and to provide a vehicle for raising money for charitable contributions for the people of Icaria. Today the organization is known as the Pan-Icarian Brotherhood, with chapters throughout the United States and Canada. Some of their charitable works to date include granting scholarships and building hospitals in Icaria. Since their inception, they have had a positive and powerful impact on Greek and Greek American lives.
This core group of Greek immigrants in the Oakmont and Verona areas had developed a community, but they had no local place of worship. Instead, the families would attend services in the neighboring communities of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary in New Kensington and at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Pittsburgh.
This group of families petitioned the Archdiocese to send a priest. In 1922 the church was officially chartered by the Archdiocese. Once they had their charter, the diocese sent priests. The first visiting priest was Fr. John Antarakis. He constructed a makeshift altar on which to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The parishioners raised money to cover rent at the A&P and payment of the priest by door-to-door canvassing for donations.
They would hold sacraments and worship services two or three times a year in a rented second floor above the A&P Market on Front Street in Verona. The Lutheran church, also on Front Street, was used for funerals.
The congregation rented a house in the alley behind Main Street in Verona for $15 a month. The house served as the parish Greek School. Diamond Lewis, Eva Tsambis Kratsa, Mary Kratsas, and Ethel Karnavas were among the first Greek School teachers
Just before and during World War II the money for the parish was collected in a piggy bank and placed in the church account at Allegheny Valley Trust Bank in Verona.
In 1950 a committee of six met and decided it was time to build their own church. Their efforts to organize led to the present church site on Washington Avenue in Oakmont. On that spot was a house owned by J.T. Anderson, who also owned the Willows Pool and the Willows Nightclub directly across from the church site. Big bands played at the Willows... Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Kay Kaiser, Paul Whitman, Harry James and many more.
The house was eventually sold to the Italian American Club and used as a nightclub and meeting place. They went out of business and lost the property. The mortgage then was held by the Greek Catholic Union of the USA (a predominantly Croatian-American denomination).
Through the efforts of William Kratsas (a.k.a. Billy Kay), the group negotiated the purchase of the property from the Greek Catholic Union of the USA and it was in their possession once again. On June 29, 1950, the committee traveled to Munhall to sign the papers. The price of the property was $14,500. The committee members included William P. Kratsas, Sr., Gus Argyros; George Tratras; Emmanuel Mamatas; Peter Tsudis; and John Viores. Others on the committee included Samuel Plutis and wife Koula, William Ptohides and Kostas Tsambis.
Billy Kay was appointed the first parish council president. During the mid 1950s elections were held and Billy Kay was then voted as the first president. "With the help of God and the efforts of many dedicated hands and hearts, our dream had come true, and the new community was named Kimisis tis Theotokou (affectionately called St. Mary's)," said Billy Kay. The by-laws were drafted and approved at a general assembly meeting in 1957.
The newly organized community of about 60 families grew quickly. The priests who served our parish over the years included Archimandrite Dorotheos Neamonitos, Fathers Timotheos Houndras, Panagiotis Parianos, Spiridon Zois, Archimandrite Greagoras, Fathers Petros Garivaltis, Constantine Mager, Gregory Tsikourakos, John Protopapas, and Theoklitos Mihalas. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis served as the parish priest for several months in 1967 while taking classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Our current priest, Archimandrite Polycarp Rameas, has been serving since October 1975.
The Physical Plant
In 1972 the old building was torn down and the current church and social hall were built in 1973. Parishioners offered their skills and labor in the construction. To raise money, Steve Cratsa and his wife Bessie approached the board about having catering in the church hall. Weekly Bingo was held to raise money for tables and chairs. Stratigos Catering was appointed the first caterer in 1974. Later, Frank Phaturos' A-1 Catering and Nicholas Futules were added as caterers. Since that time, Stratigos was sold to the Kennywood Park group and continues to provide catering services as "Stratwood" catering. In 2005 Nick Futules left to concentrate on his own banquet hall and newcomer Hoffstot's, a local restaurant, is now providing catering. Frank Phaturos continues to provide catering services.
Weddings and other affairs were booked in growing numbers. Steve Cratsa served as the first hall manager. Gus Lewis was appointed hall manager in 1974, and with his wife Carol still manages the expanded hall reservations.
The annual Greek Food Festival was organized in 1974 as a small two-day affair under the guidance of Mike Glaros and his committee. Today the annual three-day (held the last weekend in June) festival attracts people from the entire community who come to savor the Greek delicacies and culture, and are entertained nightly by live Greek music and ethnic dancing by our young people.
Preparations for the festival begin in January. It is a major undertaking that requires parish-wide involvement. It presents the opportunity to foster fellowship and community among the members. Over 10,000 meals are served in 3 days.
In addition to the usual entrees and desserts, the food festival has expanded its offerings to include freshly made gyros, souvlakia, fried potatoes, fried smelts, and loukoumades. The loukoumades, which were formerly shaped by hand, are now expedited using a dough dropper system that suspends, measures, and releases the dough into the hot oil, making uniform balls. The loukoumades are a very popular item with festival goers.
The unique atmosphere of the festival makes good use of the church's space. The Social Hall houses many tables, the hot dinners, and the inside bar. Outside in the main parking lot, a huge tent holds the gyros and fried foods, more seating, and the band.
In 1977 the board voted to extend the hall by adding a large area for a bar and buffet tables, storage rooms, a walk-in cooler, a walk-in freezer, a janitorial closet, bathrooms, five classrooms and a library on a new second floor. Classroom furnishings and supplies were donated by parishioners.
Father Rameas organized the Sunday school in 1976. About 20 students met in the hall, taught by Sally Zourelias, her daughter Linda Zourelias (now Linda Barnes) and Lottie Apostolos. In 1977 Mary Bender was named Sunday School Supervisor. Teachers included John Ioannou, Athanasia Ioannou, Linda Barnes, Sophia Facaros, Mary Worf, Maria Bardos, Mildred Brenlove, Frances Fulton and Rhoda Gemellas Worf. Sophia Facaros took over when Mary Bender retired in 1997, and held the post until 2001, when Theodore Ioannou was named supervisor. Allison Sadlowski is the current Sunday school supervisor.
Teaching of the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, along with the Archdiocesan curricula, are stressed in Sunday school. Each year Father Rameas selects a theme that the classes use throughout the year, along with the regular curricula. In 2005-2006, the theme was studying the saints. Each classroom had a patron saint. The students looked up information on the saint and reported it to the class. The class would celebrate their saint's feast day. They were also taught the 12 major feast days. Memory games were used to help them recognize and understand the meaning of the icons. As an Eagle Scout project, altar server Andrew Barnes (then a 10th grade student, and grandson of Ted and Sally Zourelias) made small wooden "altar tables" for each classroom. The patron saint of each class was placed on the altar table, along with a Bible and censer.
Each year the Sunday school sponsors a drive to provide toys for 50 children through the Salvation Army's angel tree project. They also collect money for food bags for needy Oakmont families. The teachers have access to the Archdiocese Web site, which is helpful in learning and teaching. Current teachers are Linda Barnes, Christina Contes, Barbara Lafferty, Athanasia Ioannou, Dianna Wyrick, Angie (Kouknas) Schaeffer, Christos Ioannou and Kristen Ioannou. Enrollment is about 65 students, grades preschool through 12th grade.
Our Byzantine choir is under the direction of Protopsaltis Peter Papadakos, who was hired in 1979. He has tutored many young students in the art of Byzantine chant. Chrisanthi (Chrissy) Louis and Mary Brahos served as the Choir Directors in the past. Peter Soterin has been serving as sexton since 1995.
In 1994 the church purchases the Hunt Marina and properties fronting the Allegheny River. Under the direction of then president Andrew Gavrilos, parishioners volunteered their time and talents to renovate the marina restaurant into a new social hall. In 1996 it opened as the beautiful Riverside Landing, which can seat 200 people. The new facility soon became a popular place for small affairs and is booked almost every weekend, in addition to bookings in the larger church social hall. The old marina building was demolished to create additional parking for the church campus.
The latest addition to the church, the chapel of Sts. Raphael, Nicholas and Irene (revered martyrs of the island of Mytilene), was built in 2004 under the leadership of then President George Ioannou. Parishioner Michael Kratsas designed the beautiful baptistery chapel adjacent to the main sanctuary. The first donor, Panteli Soterin, donated $1000. Under the leadership of past president Pauline Klein, the Philoptochos raised money for the forthcoming altar table. Monies for the epitaphio were raised under the leadership of the president, Olympia (Kokales) Arthur. The adult baptismal basin and the Six Days of Creation murals were donated by Nicholas Moraitis, the iconostas by Billy Kay, the dome by Aristotle and Christopher Aivaliotis, and iconography in the dome by Spiro Tsudis. Many other furnishings and icons were donated by Philoptochos and our parishioners. Relics of the three martyrs are located in the chapel altar for veneration on special feast days.
The newest renovations were completed with a new dome, narthex and offices. The outside was painted to look like white stucco, reminiscent of the churches in Greece. The remodeling project has made the church one of the most beautiful in the area. William Wyrick was the president at the time.
Mary Tsambis was the first Philoptochos president. During Coulitsa Kuntz's presidency a fund was started to buy pews for the church. Prior to the purchase folding chairs were used. Eunice and Betty Laris donated the first $$000 toward this goal. Remainder of the pews was purchased by individual members. The baptismal font was donated by Jim Futules, Sr. The old Bishop's throne and altar table were donated by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Oakland. Everybody pitched in unselfishly, pouring out countless expenditure of time, talent and labor. Today's church members still give their talents and time for the beautification of the church.
The Philoptochos is constantly raising funds to cover its many philanthropic projects, including preparing sandwiches for the local food bank, helping people in need, providing food coupons for the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas, visiting the sick, donating to the agape fund, etc. In addition, through the years Philoptochos has donated many items to the church, including new kitchen cabinets, a tile floor, carpeting in the sanctuary, chairs in the chapel, and many other artifacts and icons to beautify the church. The current president, Aleka Batis, and the members continue to work for the philanthropic and spiritual needs of the community and the church.
Greek school classes are held weekly for children and adults. Aleka Batis is the current teacher.
Parishioners look forward to the weekly Bible and Orthodox studies conducted by Father Rameas for the past several years.
In 1976, the first GOYA was formed and Lou Pahountis served as President. The first outing with Father Rameas was to the Pittsburgh Zoo.
A very active GOYA (grades 7-12) has undertaken many projects. They made 150 sandwiches and passed them out to the homeless at the Salvation Army. They host spaghetti luncheons, sing Christmas carols to the elderly and home bound parishioners, polish brass fixtures in the church and help wherever needed. Their social activities include fireside chats three times a year with Father Rameas and participation in Metropolis basketball and volleyball tournaments. They attend weekend retreats and summer camp at Camp Nazareth. In June 2004, the GOYAns combined with the GOYAns from St. Mark in Boca Raton, Florida for a 4-day trip, retreat and sightseeing.
The Grecian Stars and Junior Grecian Stars (Greek folk dancing groups) perform at the annual Food Festival, the New Year's Vasilopita celebration, and other church functions throughout the year. Alecia DeNillo and Allison Arthur are the current instructors for the Junior Grecian Stars.
The John T. Ioannou Memorial Library was established in 2000 by the Ioannou family and parish council in his memory. John taught Sunday School over 20 years, was instrumental in starting the adult religious classes, was youth advisor several years, served four terms as Council president, and for 20 years, with his wife Athanasia, scheduled over 300 parishioners and friends (young and old) for the annual food festival. John loved his work as an engineer, but he loved teaching religion to Sunday school students and the youth more. It was more important to him than engineering. If he had to do it over again, he would have been a teacher.
The St. Nectarios Bookstore was established in 1999 by Ella Moravec and Athanasia Ioannou. Parishioners can buy religious books, cards, jewelry, incense and incense burners, and hand painted icons from Russia and Greece. T-shirts from Guatemala (to support the Orthodox Orphanage) and religious and secular CDs and videotapes are also sold.
Nativity of Theotokos Monastery and St. Elias Retreat Center
Elpiniki "Eva" Kratsa Mortsos donated her entire estate to the Oakmont parish which was put under the then Diocese (now Metropolis) of Pittsburgh in 1988. The farm where she and her husband had lived in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania is now the home of the Nativity of the Theotokos Monastery and St. Elias Retreat Center. Currently twelve nuns are in obedience to the monastery. Father Demetrios Carellas serves as chaplain.
The children of the early fathers and mothers are continuing the work begun by them so many years ago. Each year, new members join the church and adding their time, talent and energy to further the aims of our house of worship. Today, under the spiritual leadership of Archimandrite Polycarp Rameas and the hard work of our devoted and loving parishioners, our parish strives to be a united and caring community, witnessing to our Holy Orthodox Christian Faith.
Thank you to Billy Kay for furnishing the early history prior to and up to the purchase of the first church building in 1950. Thanks to Father Rameas and the many parishioners who provided historical church data. And, many thanks go to Constance Wong who helped with the final editing.
Mary Bender — 2006