Our Parish History
By Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas
The story of the Parish of St. John the Baptist Hellenic Orthodox Church of Boston goes back to the beginnings of the 20th century but officially begins in 1922, when the first Constitutional Charter of the Parish was published. Chapter One of this Charter states:
“We, the Greek Orthodox of Boston of the State of Massachusetts, United States of America, having gathered on the first Sunday of February of the year one thousand nine hundred and twenty two (1922), at the hall, situated at No. 10 of Warrenton and called Bernard Memorial, resolved to establish a Greek Orthodox Community bearing the name: Greek Orthodox Church of Boston, St. John the Baptist.”
The Charter also states the purpose of establishing this church community:
“That this Community may sustain, firstly, a Greek Orthodox Church and, secondly, a Greek School, offering to the children of the people of Greek descent who live here an education which is Greek as much as possible.”
Article Fifty-One states that this church community has an independent status until a canonical ecclesiastical authority is clearly established in America.
The Parish of St. John the Baptist came under the Archdiocese of North and South America, and particularly the Diocese of Boston, from the time of Archbishop Athenagoras (later Ecumenical Patriarch). This took place gradually, through a very interesting process. The first decisive event is recorded in the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Members of the Parish of St. John the Baptist of July 31, 1936:
“Mr. B. Charmouzakos makes a motion that our Community recognizes the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America as its Spiritual Authority. This motion was seconded, discussed and was accepted by a large majority.”
The Minutes of December 19, 1937, relate that the Parish was granted the status of “Metropolitan (Cathedral).
The Minutes of January 2, 1938, announce the Consecration of the Church on October 9, 1938.
The Minutes of 24 March 1940 relate that the Archdiocese authorizes the election of the new Church Council on the basis of its Constitutional Charter, and that Bishop Athenagoras of Boston will celebrate Vespers with the choir of the seminarians from Pomfret.
Finally, the Minutes of the Extraordinary General Assembly of 5 December 1943 record:
“The recognition of the Charter of the Archdiocese is accepted unanimously by the plenary with the exception of 5 votes… It is resolved that the Archbishop of America and the Bishop of Boston are invited to celebrate at our holy temple.”
The Minutes of the Church Council of 5 December 1943 also relate that, “a Hierarchical Liturgy will be celebrated by the Archbishop next Sunday, the 12th of December… and a Committee is formed to welcome the Archbishop [Athenagoras] and to receive him at the Back-Bay Station of Boston.”
From that point on St. John grew and achieved great things within the context of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
The Church Building
The Parish of St. John acquired its magnificent and exquisite church building in 1924.
This historic edifice was constructed in 1862 by a Protestant community (1862-1887) and it later became a Jewish Synagogue, the Temple Ohabei Shalom (1887-1921), to be finally sold when the Synagogue moved to Beacon Street (in Brookline).
It was bought by the Greek Orthodox community of St. John the Baptist in 1924 for $65,000, with a down payment of $6,000 (Minutes of the Church Council Meeting of 12 February 1937).
In 1943, according to the Minutes of the Joint Meeting of the Church Council and the Board of Trustees of 11 November 1943, “the church building was auctioned by the Franklin Savings Bank because the Greek Orthodox Community could not pay its debt.
It was bought again for $16,000 on 3 December 1943!” The price for the building’s payment to the Franklin Savings Bank had been collected in record time. The Deed was registered with the new name “Hellenic Orthodox Church of Saint John the Baptist the Second,” because the loan was paid off and was bought anew under the form of a new Trust.
The Minutes of the Church Council Meetings of the Parish abound in information regarding the struggles for the preservation of the church building and the configuration of the interior space. These struggles, together with the many others that were undertaken in the cause of various objectives and activities, social, ethnic and purely religious, constitute a true epic.
The Minutes of the General Assembly of 10 January 1932 refer to “the works that had been accomplished thus far and especially for the iconostasis of St. John, which was constructed by Mr. Afentakis and is the best in New England.” It is also recorded that the Holy Table (Altar) was a gift of Mrs. Tsachlis. The proskynetari (Icon-stand of St. John) in the Narthex was offered by Mr. Zarokanellis. The manoualia (candelabras) in front of the Solea were donated by the Association of the Ladies Philoptochos, which was called “Proodos” (Progress) and had been registered as a recognized charitable agency in the city of Boston along with the “Association of the Daughters of New Greece.” The Community Hall was created by the Church Council.
In 1948, according to the Church Minutes, the pangari (candle counter) was installed and extensive work of rearrangement, painting and decoration of the church building, was carried out.
In 1949 the ambon (pulpit) was constructed by Mr. Lelekas and the greater part of the cost was paid by the Philoptochos ($1,700).
Also, in 1949, the pews were repaired. The old ones with the cushions were replaced by new wooden ones. At that time, too, the narthex and the baptistery were overlaid with asphalt tiles from the Art Floor Co.
The Minutes of 18 January 1950 mention the installation of 134 new units of pews at St. John’s by the Cabinet Main Works which was represented by Mr. Lelekas. It also mentions the gilding of the ambon.
In the same year, it was decided to reconstruct the lower hall of the church and this was entrusted to the McLean Co. The cost was $44,000, payable within 10 years, and the Church Council issued Bonds of $100 and $50, up to $40,000 with 2.5% yearly interest in order to cover the expense.
In the meantime other expenses had to be covered. The icon of the Baptism of Christ in the narthex (4X5 feet) was the gift of Mr. G. Karachalios (Minutes of 13 December 1950).
The Minutes of 10 September 1951 mention the donation of 10 acres for a cemetery which was accepted by the Church of St. John, because the Church of the Annunciation had declined the offer!
In 1951 St. John’s celebrated the 25th Anniversary of its establishment in the present location and the Church printed 3,000 tickets for that occasion.
The Minutes of 19 March 1953 record the construction of the kouvouklion (canopy) of the Epitaphios and of the new despotikon (bishop’s throne).
In the same year the family of Mr. G. Karachalios offered the manoualia and the grand polyeleos (great chandelier) which was connected with electricity.
This was also the time, according to the Minutes, that the episkopeion of Boston (Bishop’s Residence) of “St. Andrew” was bought, and the Parish of St. John readily and generously contributed to this cause as it also did with the construction of the Holy Cross Chapel at the School of Theology in Brookline.
In 1957 the Parish opened a box with the United Trust Co, in Court Street, for the safe keeping of official documents (Minutes of 3 April 1957).
In 1958 Mr. Panagiotis Kontakis donated $3,500 and was acclaimed Great Benefactor of the Church (Minutes of 5 November 1958).
In the same year colorful windows were placed in the facade of the church building in honor of Mr. Constantine Protosyngelos (deceased, long-standing Secretary of St. John’s), depicting St. John the Baptist and Gospel pericopae (same Minutes).
In 1959 the Sarantopoulos family donated the baptismal font (kolymbethra) from Everett, Mass (Minutes of 28 January 1959).
In 1974 the Chapel of St. Nektarios was established as the first shrine in America of this 20th century Orthodox Saint and relics from the holy Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Aigina were installed in it.
In 1975 the church celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the acquisition of its church building.
The donations of the faithful laity, church members and friends continued during the decades which followed, from the 1980s to the present day. They are too many to be recorded and the records are not complete.
In the 1990’s the interior ceiling of the Church underwent a complete reconstruction following a collapse. The iconography was restored by the Bulgarian iconographer Georgi Alykov. The main cost was covered by the insurance company.
In the beginning of 2004, the Church Hall was completely renovated and donors covered the entire expense. It was dedicated to George and Katerina Handis, the oldest surviving members of the St. John Community.
In 2007 the Sanctuary and the open area before the Sanctuary and the Solea were completely renewed, thanks to a donation from the family of Demetrios and Ioanna Pesirides. The panel icons on the gallery in the nave were cleaned and restored by Georgi Alykov thanks to a donation from the family of Andreas Bounas.
In 2008 the construction of the central isle, a long awaited prospect since the acquisition of the church, was achieved thanks to the great donation of John and Effie Lagadinos. The installation work of the central isle was offered by Demetrios and Ioanna Pesirides. At this time the repair of the magnificent old icon stand of the baptism of our Lord was carried out and an additional icon stand for the Mother of God was added thanks to Mrs. Katerina Kontos and family.
These major works, and innumerable lesser ones, are most eloquent proofs of the dedication and love of the members of the Parish of Saint John the Baptist and constitute a guarantee for future progress.
The Distinguished Parish Priests
The decade of the 1940s is characterized by a progressive march forward which demonstrates St. John’s Parish to be a prominent and popular community producing an excellent record of social and ethnic achievements. A great factor in this was the charismatic priest of the community, Fr. Demetrios Frangos. Fr. Frangos was from the island of Imbros (born in 1912) and a graduate of the Patriarchal Theological School of Chalke. He was ordained in Imbros in 1939 and was sent to America in 1940. Prior to coming to St. John’s he served first at Holy Trinity in Norwich CN, at St. George’s in Southbridge and at the Transfiguration in Lowell. Subsequently, he went to New York, where he served and prospered for many years before his tragic death in a car accident in the year 1994.
The decade of the 1950s was also crowned with many blessings despite the appearance of special difficulties due to the shifting of the Greek Orthodox population from the center of Boston to the suburbs which began to increase at that time. The endurance of the community was boosted by the inspiring ministry of another important clergyman, the V. Rev. Archimandrite Silas Koskinas, a professor at the Theological School of Holy Cross in Brookline, who was appointed through the intervention of the friend of the community, His Grace Bishop Ezekiel of Nazianzos. Fr. Silas was from Corfu (born in 1919) and a graduate of the Theological School of the University of Athens (1943). He had been ordained to the priesthood in Greece (1945) and had come to America at the invitation of Archbishop Athenagoras. He served at St. John’s from 1952 to 1957 and then moved to Pittsburgh. In 1960 he was elevated to the Episcopacy and since then he served the Church in America in many and distinguished positions as Bishop and Metropolitan until his falling asleep in the Lord (in December 2000).
In 1953 St. John’s Parish faced for the first time the prospect of moving from its location in the South End of Boston, but this was averted by the admonitions of its Pastor. Nevertheless, it continued to be a prominent and well organized Parish in whose exquisite and impressive edifice of worship several distinguished hierarchs celebrated the Divine Liturgy: The Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain Athenagoras Kabbadas; The Hierarchical Vicar, Archimandrite Iakovos Koukouzis (later Archbishop of America); Bishop Athenagoras Kokkinakis of Elaia (later Archbishop of Thyateira); His Grace Mark Lippa of the Albanian Church; His Grace Bishop Demetrios of Vresthena (now Archbishop of America), and many other distinguished clergymen.
With the departure of Archimandrite Silas, St. John’s acquired yet another very distinguished and charismatic clergyman as its Pastor, the Rev. Dr. George Tsoumas, who was a professor of Church History at the Theological School of Holy Cross (1938-1977). Fr. Tsoumas was a Greek-American (of Spartan origins) from Lowell (born in 1912) and a graduate of the Patriarchal School of Chalke (1938). He married in 1948, whereupon he was ordained to the priesthood and served as the priest in various parishes in the Boston area, while teaching as professor. He was a fellow-student with the ever-memorable Patriarchs Demetrios of Constantinople, Patriarch Nikolaos of Alexandria and Patriarch Elias of Antioch. Fr. Tsoumas served at St. John’s for five crucial years and helped the community to overcome the crises which began to accelerate with the shifting of populations and the creation of new parishes in the suburbs of Boston.
In 1959 a new parish (St. Demetrios) was planned for Newton-Wellesley and the Minutes record a protest by the Parish of St. John. In 1965 a new church emerged in Arlington (St. Athanasius) and the Minutes of the Church Council Meeting of 31 January 1965 record that the Parish of St. John requested that the new parish should not bear the same name as it was planned. In 1964 the Minutes record a discussion of the Church Council about possible transfer of the Parish to West Roxbury (present location of St. Nektarios in Roslindale). These parishes are to a large extent ‘daughter churches’ of St. John’s Parish.
The vacillations which appear at this time, i.e. in the decade of the 1960s, are counterbalanced by the presence of a new and distinguished clergyman, who would play a significant and dynamic role in the history of St. John’s, inasmuch as his ministry lasted 24 years. During these years Fr. Charalambos Hatzopoulos was able to secure this God-protected Parish, and to help in the growth of new generations which continue today with dedication and sacrifices its historic course and witness. Fr. Hatzopoulos, who fell asleep recently at the age of 92 (11 October 2005), was born in Constantinople, but grew up in the province of Dobroudja of Romania. He studied theology at the University of Bucharest from where he graduated in 1938. In 1945 he earned another degree in Law from the same University. Later, in 1969, he received a Doctorate from the Theological School of Athens University, having written an interesting thesis on canon law, bearing the title: “The Problem of Suicide.” He was, of course, an excellent author and wrote other books, of pastoral and liturgical nature, the best of which is, perhaps, his “Explanation of the Divine Liturgy” (Athens, 1973). For these reasons he taught at the Theological Scholl of Holy Cross. Fr. Hatzopoulos was married (1935) and was ordained to the diaconate in 1935 and to the presbyterate in 1947. He served as Pastor first in Costanza (Romania) and subsequently in Atlanta, Georgia, and finally at St. John’s in Boston (1964-1987).
Fr. Charalambos came to St. John’s Church at a very difficult juncture, in 1964, but he managed to transform the Parish into a stable and fruitful base of operations. He produced several liturgical publications and undertook works of reconstruction in the church building. In the community, he reconstituted a Consultative Body of the Community consisting of honorary members (1968), and strengthened the youth work of the church, even creating a soccer team.
In 1973, however, the Parish lost the opportunity to obtain a neighboring site that was offered to it by the BRA, which would have been a great asset for its future. In 1973/4 the Parish of St. John, and also the Cathedral of the Annunciation, suffered a great blow as many of her members joined a newly established Parish in Roslindale (St. Nektarios). This is clearly acknowledged in the common letter of protest (dated 3 September 1973) addressed to H.E. Archbishop Iakovos of the Americas by the two Parish Priests, Fr. Hatzopoulos and Fr. Zanetos. Fr. Charalambos responded to this new challenge with a movement of renewal. He established the side chapel of St. Nektarios (the first in America) inside St. John’s, furnishing it with sacred and miraculous relics of the Saint, which were brought here from Aigina.
The following year (1975) the Parish celebrated the 50th anniversary of its establishment at the present location on Union Park Street. This event was marked by the publication of a lavish commemorative volume in which several official and very important persons make their photographic appearance and provide appropriate messages. These include: The Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, Archbishop Iakovos of America, Bishop Iakovos of Apameia (now Metropolitan of Chicago), the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston Humberto Medeiros, the President and Mrs. Gerard Ford of the USA, the Ambassador of Greece to the USA and many other political agents. This tome constitutes an unshakeable proof of the dynamism and importance of the Parish of St. John at that time.
The work of spiritual training and growth at St. John’s continued with consistency and sacrifices throughout the entire period of the ministry of Fr. Hatzopoulos until his retirement (1987). Then St. John acquired another worthy and educated clergyman as its Pastor, Fr. Soterios Kalavritinos, who was ordained by the new and dynamic Bishop Methodios of Boston (elevated to the Episcopal throne of Boston in March 1984) as deacon in Lowell in April 1987 and as Priest at St. John’s in May 1987. Fr. Soterios, who was a graduate of the University of Athens and trained as a lawyer, continued the work of his distinguished predecessors with the same success and consistency throughout the decade of 1990s. The Parish loved him and appreciated his ethos and his dedication to the sacred ministry. On his part, he helped the Parish to overcome a catastrophic crisis that was caused by the collapse of a large section of the ceiling of the church building, which occurred in 1995, but, thanks to divine providence, without victims. When he retired from the ministry at St. John’s in 1999, the work of restoration had been accomplished and the morale of the faithful had been revived.
The work of witness and ministry was continued during the first decade of the 21st century temporarily by a young Archimandrite from Greece, Fr. Anastasios Tasopoulos, a post-graduate student of Theology in Boston and subsequently Chancellor of the Metropolis of Kaisariane in Attica, Greece. Fr. Anastasios’ contribution was one of renewal and up-building.
The sacred ministry at St. John’s Parish is continued today on a more permanent basis by the author of the present article Fr. George Dion Dragas. Fr. Dragas was born in Athens, Greece in 1944. After his early studies in Greece, he studied Theology at Edinburgh, Scotland, at Princeton, New Jersey and at Durham, England, where he became professor of Patristic Theology. He was ordained in England with the blessing of Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople by Archbishop Methodios of Thyateira and Great Britain and served as priest in several Greek Orthodox parishes along with his service as University Professor. He came to Boston in 1995 as Dean and Professor of Patrology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He has been serving at St. John’s since 2003, while teaching at Holy Cross.
The current period in the history of St. John’s Parish is a critical one, as most of its members have been scattered to various places in the Boston suburbs. Nevertheless, there are at least two factors that inspire confidence and hope, a) the love for St. John’s parish that its established members (older families) continue to display, and b) the fact that Boston’s South End is upgraded again by an influx of population and renovation in living conditions. The Parish of St. John’s continues to enjoy the sincere care and protection of its dynamic and wise Hierarch, Metropolitan Methodios of Boston, who, like his predecessors, embraces with paternal love this historic community which played, and continues to play, an important and central role in the history of the Greek Orthodox Church of New England.
The work of the 20 clergymen who served the Parish of St. John during the 80 years that have intervened from its establishment in the present location would have been impossible without the love, dedication and numerous sacrifices of its Greek Orthodox laity. The Minutes of the Meetings of the Parish Church Councils, the General Assemblies, the “Philoptochos” Association of Greek Orthodox Ladies, etc., literally strike their reader with amazement, because they reveal the true Greek Orthodox ethos of its laity, which does not waver in the face of problems and challenges, but rather presses on to glory. The many activities, social and ecclesiastical, which were promoted during the historic course of this Parish, constitute a true praise of the compassionate Divine Grace, which makes us worthy collaborators in every good work; work which is useful to us and our fellow-human beings and well-pleasing to God.
The life of the Church of St. John, then, proceeds today with both old (inalienable – to quote from its first charter) and new perspectives. It consistently maintains respect for the work of its pioneers, yet with innovation in response to current challenges and needs. I should mention that at St. John’s we cultivate a responsible bilingualism (Greek and English). I will also mention that there are several young couples, who, following in the footsteps of their parents, who are present at the forefront of the parish and supply a sense of stability and continuity. There are also new, dedicated members, who are professionally successful and open new horizons of hope and renewal through serving as church officers. They offer “freely and inviolately” (quoting again from the first charter of the Community of St. John) their invaluable services. They serve as Parish Council Members and are imbued with the same spirit and are characterized by distinctive charismas, overflowing zeal and love for our Hellenic Orthodox Tradition and legacy.
In addition I want to acknowledge the amazing group of the Ladies of the Philoptochos, who continue the invaluable and substantial work of their distinguished predecessors; the dedicated members of St. John’s who offer generously and anonymously; and especially our exquisite cantors who lift us to heaven with their pure Byzantine hymnody and their unprecedented terirem (see the article of Mr. Menios Karanos which is published below).
I am certain that, with the paternal care and guidance of our charismatic Metropolitan Methodios, the Parish of St. John the Baptist of Boston will continue its dynamic march forward, which the Church and Nation entrusted to us in the multi-cultural and progressive context of the American Society. In concluding this first account of the history of St. John’s Parish, I offer below the names of the Priests, the Parish Council Presidents and the Philoptochos Ladies Association of the Parish of St. John which I gleaned from the Minutes of the Parish Church Meetings and from other documents in the Parish Archives. They are published here for the first time: