Our North Ave location.
It all started when...
An abridge History of the St. Demetrios Church of Libertyville and its Greek Community.
First, no one of our predecessors of this community came on the Mayflower to America. However, that does not mean Greeks did not come to the American continent before the Pilgrims, or even before Columbus. To understand our immigrant for-fathers, we must go back in time; otherwise, we lose our sense of direction. The history of Greek people is one of migration. They dispersed throughout the world as far back as 500 BC, establishing colonies throughout the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and as far as England to the west and China to the East, most always for economic origins, except during the 15th and 16th centuries, when Byzantine Empire/Greece succumbed to the Ottoman invaders. Dispersion then was to escape Turkish rule and oppression. This is the reason so many Greek seafarers, well known for their navigational adeptness from ancient times, were in the services of other nations. It is no surprise then, we find so many Greek adventurers in the services of Spanish explorers and conquistadors, and even in the service of Christopher Columbus in the late 14 hundreds and early 15 hundreds. Actually, the first Greek to jump ship to stay in America in 1535 in Pensacola, Florida, was Theodoros Dorotheos from the Island of Hios. The explorer who discovered the straits which separates Vancouver Island, British Columbia in 1500, was Apostolos Valerianos, also known as Ioannis Phocas of Cephalonia, better known with his Spanish name, Juan De Fuca, serving King Phillip II of Spain. There were few others but with Spanish names.
But, as far as in large numbers, the Greeks were one of the last of the Europeans to come to America according to the US Immigration, and that was because of a near total economic collapse in Greece at the end of the nineteenth century. Immigrating to America to find new hope and promise of better tomorrow, with riches and opportunities in their vision, seemed to be the solution to their problems. The new immigrants faced new threats when they arrived to the Promised Land. They embarked for America most likely from the seaport of Piraeus, crowded with men, women, and children, crying and waving handkerchiefs and shouting farewell to their loved ones aboard the ship, not knowing whether they will ever see each other again.
So, who were those immigrants who left their beautiful villages, their small white-washed homes and their families to find riches in a country of Cowboys and Indians? Poverty and lack of opportunity made America seem like the answer to their economic and personal prayer. Some came with the intention of returning back as soon as they garnished enough money to start business back home, others to gather for sister’s dowry. Many others, especially from the northern regions of Greece still under the occupation of Ottoman Turks, came to America to escape Turkish oppression, and to avoid conscription into the Turkish army. Each immigrant in his own way and talent, searched for a better life, knowing well that they may never return home, again.
Most of the Greek men immigrated to midwest towards the turn of the century, settled in the industrial cities like Chicago, Gary, and Hammond where work was plentiful at any entry level. They worked hard no matter the long hours or low pay, because, unlike most of the other ethnic groups, they did not intent to make it a lifetime work at the same chore. A weekly salary was not enough to live on and send money back home to their families. They were imaginative, they opened their own businesses and they did well for themselves in a short time. Many Greek people living and working in those cities eventually made their new homes in Waukegan. More and more families moved as time went by, establishing a newly colonized region of Greek immigrants.
Like every major city in the United States, Waukegan was a melting pot of cultures, even among the Greeks dwelling in it, it was melting pot of cultures. The community was composed of immigrants from different parts of Greece and neighboring countries. Some came from northern Greece, Greeks from Albania, Greeks from Asia Minor, Greeks from the islands, and in a larger numbers from Peloponnesus. The community was
made up of adverse groups of immigrants with different levels of education and means. However, they all shared pride for their Greek heritage, their faith, their customs and their traditions. Their pride was widespread here in Waukegan, celebrating feast days together like one big family, visiting one home after the other, with folk dances and singing old Greek patriotic folk songs. Little by little, their living conditions improved from living in flop houses to owning their own houses in good neighborhoods.
As the Greek men became well established, with their own business and bank accounts, they realized they weren’t getting any younger, and the problem they faced was the availability of a Greek women to marry. So matchmakers here and in Greece prearranged many of the marriages and brides were arriving to Greek bachelors in Waukegan. One such instance, where three sisters arrived from Greece and married three bachelors took place in 1917, and the weddings took place at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. Two of those men that married two sisters were the officers of the first Parish Council of the St. Demetrios Church in 1929.
As the Greek population in Waukegan increased due to eased quota restrictions to people of Eastern Europe in 1917, the need for community facilities became a necessity. By 1925, about sixty Greek families comprised the Greek community, and still no place to worship. Some of the well-established settlers took turns hosting religious services in their homes whenever a priest from Chicago or Milwaukee was available, which was about twice a year. Then in 1929, at a time when Waukegan was hit with severe depression and unemployment, like the rest of the country, the Greek community still managed to pull themselves together and plan for their spiritual needs and facilities for the welfare of their children. The depression dampened their dream of building a new church at one corner lot the community had already purchased.
The depression affected many Greek families during that year. Stock market crashed, unemployment rose, and Banks closed. Those Greek families who set aside every penny they earned in bank accounts, lost it all when the banks shut their doors. However, even at such harsh economic times, the Greeks, as good citizens of the city, managed to do their civic and philanthropic duties to their Waukegan community. There are newspaper articles about a restaurant owner, Sam Damos, owner of W Shop, treasurer of the first parish council at that time, who provided food for many needy students from the high school across the street from his business, and there were others serving free meals during Thanksgiving day.
The first Parish Council members elected in 1929 were; as I call the names it would be interesting to see who the descendents of those early pioneers are. As I read a name and you are a descended of that pioneer, please stand up. Chris Conteas, President, Gust Koulentis, Vice-president, L. Constantanakis, Secretary, Sam Damos, Treasurer, Peter Canelakes, Gust Constantinidis, Peter Dracos, Peter Helis, John Kontoyannis, James Kyritsis, Peter Lambiris, James Nakis, John Pilafas, Charles Rafil.
In 1931 James Nakis, then, the President of the Parish Council, with the parishioners’ approval, rented The German Ebenezer Congregational Church for $20 per month. However, to complete the lease agreement, an emergency General Assembly meeting was called to order, to decide a name for the church. It was then, that “St. Demetrius Greek Orthodox Church of Waukegan and North Chicago,” was chosen; and on the 25th of September 1931, Archbishop Athenagoras, who later became the Ecumenical Patriarch, appointed Archimandrite Kallistos Glavas to serve as a full time priest to St. Demetrios community.
On March 3, 1931, the Philoptochos Society was hosting their their first Apocreatic Glendi. A handwritten invitation was mailed to all the parishioners, promising good food with music and dancing, goodtime for all, and the entrance fee was 10 cents per person.
Prior to 1942 , St. Demetrios Church moved from one location to another, no permanent house of worship up to that date. Then in June of 1942 a downtown Waukegan building was purchased with the money they
received from the sale of a previously bought lot. This building was originally an old army armory. With the talent and hard work of some hardy carpenters and anxious parishioners, they met weekends to convert this massive army-training hall into a sanctuary, a proper setting for St. Demetrios, since he was a military officer.
In 1943, Athenagoras, the Archbishop of North and South America, visited the community and officiated the Consecration and Dedication ceremonies, with Rev. George Evrotas and other visiting priests assisting in the beautiful services.
In the mid fifties, there was influx of New Greek immigrants arriving to Waukegan. The community grew and the existing facilities became inadequate. Then, on April 29, 1959 a Ground Breaking Ceremony took place at the corner of Glen Flora and North Ave, and on July 4, 1960, Archbishop Iakovos officiated the Opening of the Door ceremony, assisted by Fr. George Nicozisin and Fr. Emmanuel Leonakis. On Oct 4, 1970, Bishop Timotheos and Metropolitan Paul of Ierissou from Greece, officially consecrated the church at which time the holy relics of St. George and St. Theodore were sealed in the Holy Table. Assisting with the consecration was Fr. Sarantos Serviou, the parish priest. Gus Gorgan was the parish council president.
In 1975 Architectural Plans were drawn to expand the existing facilities under the parking lot; when it was determined unfeasible, and seeing that the growth of the community was westward, the community searched for a more central location to build. In June of 1975, the St.Demetrios community hosted a three-day District Clergy-Laity Conference in Waukegan. Fr. Sarantos Serviou was the parish priest, Evange Bozinis, parish council president and chairman, and Maria Bozinis, Philoptochos president and co-chairman.
In 1979, the community celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Fr. Chris Kerhulas was the parish priest and Nick Camacaris parish council president. Many dignitaries were present, including author Harry Mark Petrakis, who was also the guest speaker.
In 1983 a parcel of 25 acres of land was purchased on O’Plaine Road, of which 10 acres were later sold. Fr. John Sardis was the parish priest at that time and Bill Camacaris the parish council president and Peter Anest adviser in transacting the purchase. Under Fr. John’s leadership, the years following the purchase of the land were spend on clearing the grounds, which was a herculean task. Cutting and digging out old petrified thick posts and fences, and installing needed basic facilities for the community’s annual festivals. During the first few festivals, the food was being prepared in the kitchen of the old church and delivered to the new festival site. I would be negligent if I did not say few words about the conscientious and consistent support of men and women whom we should acknowledge and give thanks for preparing the groundwork for a future church and setting a solid foundation. Let us not forget that for twenty some years, they gave of themselves, financially and physically, no less than their predecessors, for the perpetuation of their faith to future generations. Some of those men and women are no longer with us, Nick Loukas, Jim Merelos, Sophie Merelos, Bill Zirkle, Nick Pann, Peggy Traynoff, James Bozinis. May their memory be eternal. And there are those of us, who also labored and contributed generously for many years, and with the grace of God we are still here. We hope that someday, future generations will remember us and honor us as well for our good deeds to the community.
In May of 2005, a special General Assembly met and voted almost unanimously to build a new church and Fellowship Hall at O’ Plaine Road, with a budget not to exceed 5.6 mil, and authorized the Parish Council to negotiate the sale of the old church. Forty- seven years later, from 1959 to 2006 another ground Breaking ceremony took place. Metropolitan Iakovos of Chicago officiated at the ceremony on O’Plaine Rd. with Fr. Cosmas Halekakis assisting his eminence. John Iskalis was the parish council president, and Demetri Fardellos was the President of the Building Committee. After the clergy and community leaders took their turn with the ground breaking with the ceremonial golden shovels, our beautiful children took their turn.
The celebration continued that evening at the Country Squire Restaurant with dinner and dancing, and on Sept 2007, the large golden Dome was raised up to its final resting place, and will remain up, praying to God, as long as there is Orthodoxy. St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church stands tall today, shining like a beacon, a scintillating jewel in view of all travelers passing it by.
Writen by Evange Bozinis.