2015-07-15 / Front Page

Sunday Story Conversation: The Greek Americans of Mattituck, Long Island

Power point slide presentation by speakers. 
Power point slide presentation by speakers. “The Libraries of the Town of Southold are excited to present a series of community conversations in honor of the Town’s 375th Anniversary. One Sunday each month from April to November, Sunday Story conversations will shine the spotlight on individuals and families who have made a significant impact on our community,” said Jeff Walden, Director of the Mattituck – Laurel Library.

On Sunday, June 28th, at 2 p.m., at the Mattituck-Laurel Library meeting room a Sunday Iconography.Iconography.Story Hour on the Transfiguration of Christ Greek Orthodox church was held. Very Rev. Constantine Makrinos and Catherine Tsounis Siolas were interviewed in analytic, sharp questions of who, what, when, where, and why. The participation of members of the Transfiguration of Christ church in a Southold Anniversary event has not taken place since the 1976 Southold Town Bicentennial of the United States. Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell attended and told his memories from the 1970’s. Mrs. Stavroula Nicolas Raia, of the Kimisis tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church of Southampton, donated her photography and public relations services.

 “I came out of retirement, where I have been a hermit putting fifty years of newspaper articles in books,” explained Catherine Tsounis Siolas. “This Sunday Story Hour is taking place because of the energetic drive of two persons. Our priest on July 15th will have his six year anniversary at the Transfiguration Church. He inspired me by saying ‘we will do it together.’ For three months. He announced at Sunday services The Sunday story Hour, inspiring nieces and nephews of deceased members to come. He will be completing thirty years of his ministry in august 4th 2015. Very Rev. Constantine Makrinos is to be congratulated in making this event happen.”

Audience.Audience.“The second person responsible is the low key Director of Mattituck – Laurel Library,” continued Ms. Tsounis-Siolas. “The director said ‘the idea germinated from monthly meetings of the East End library who wanted to celebrate the town’s past in a unique way.” He told me that l istening to one another’s stories can help the past come alive — and helps us to ask questions and solve problems together in the future. Story telling is a positive change that can change our present and future history.  The Director changed the date several times to accommodate my schedule. How could I refuse to help Southold in their 375th Anniversary? Our director grew up in Greenport, L.I. during the growth of the Greek community and their church. Jerry Matovcik, his Administrative Assistant, created an excellent power point slide presentation of our church from the time period 1969-2014. Jeff Walden, Director of the Mattituck – Laurel Library, is responsible for creating this moment in history on June 28th.”

“We have a unique person with us today who grew up with members of our community in the 1970’s and has been a friend to all to this day,” said Ms. Tsounis Siolas. “He attended youth dances at the church in the late 1970’s with his friend Michael Tsontakis. The Epidy twins were his friends. He grew up with Greeks, understanding their culture. He has been in the shadows helping all as an Assessor and Southold Town Supervisor for ten years. He does not have a Greek name. This political leader understands and supports us more than anyone with our surname. We are honored to have with us Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell.”
Persons who attended were library attendees and Greek and Cypriot-Americans whose families were founders and rebuilders of the Transfiguration of Christ Church. They included: Katerina Mihaltsis, representing the Jimmy Mihaltsis family whose uncle Theofan Kyvernitis built the  church; Helen Mahares, a founder from the 1960’s who remembered church services on the beach; Helen Lignos, whose parents Marika and James Maoury were founders of the church, Manny Constantine, whose grandfather Harry Constantine was one of the founders and three generations of his family have been in Mattituck from 1950 to 2015; Mrs. Stavroula Nicolas Raia, Southampton photographer who has donated her photography and public relations services for over seven years to the Transfiguration Church; Mr. Peter and Popi Pappas, former Parish Council President and chanter who has donated his services for thirty years; Mr. Andreas Markakis, former President and a major force in rebuilding the church from 1984 to the late 1990’s; Mr. Tony Coutsouras, former president who inspired regrowth in-2013; Mrs. Virginia Tripolitis, church secretary/administrator and editor of the Church Dance Journal; Mr. Amaras, the husband of the late parish council member Tula Samaras, with his family Effie Lemodetis-Galanis, Tom Galanis and their sons; Dr. John G. Siolas, Pam and Vince Conlon and members of the Mattituck community.

“In the 1960’s, Greek- American middle class families from Riverhead to East Marion had a dream of establishing a Greek Orthodox Church on the tip of Long Island” explained Rev. Makrinos in his presentation. “The first President was Theofan Kyvernitis. Steve Tsontakis was the architect and Peter Demetriou, the church lawyer, donated their services. William Smith of Yennecott Realties of Southold was the builder. They formed an organization called the North Fork Greek C Association. Funds were gathered through cake sales held every Saturday by the association ladies and donations to the building fund. Services were held in the backyards of members until they secured the premises on Saturday at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Mattituck. . How was the name chosen and why? Catherine Siolas was there. The families had a luncheon in the Church of the Redeemer in Mattituck. They began giving donations for saints’ names. The highest amount of donations was for the Transfiguration of Christ Church name.

The church was built in Potato fields now replaced by vegetable fields. On October 11, 1969, under the leadership of Theofan Kyvernitis, a Cypriot immigrant/businessman, the groundbreaking ceremonies took place on Breakwater Road with the late Very Rev. Dr. john Poulos of St. Demetrios Church in Astoria, New York. Mr. Theofan Kyvernitis donated the property from the land of former farmer/real estate broker Stanley Sledjeski. The late Harry Stavrides paid for the foundation. The late Mr. James Moraitis donated the kambana (bell). The first liturgy was held on august 6, 1970. The first annual dance hosted by the North for Greek community was held on September 5, 1970 at the American legion Hall, Greenport. More than six hundred persons attended under the chairmanship of the late Angelo Panagopoulos.”

“A youth organization was established in July’1970 and a Sunday school in June 1973 by Catherine Tsounis. The first Philoptohos president was Mrs. Esther Demetriou. A Hellenic culture School was organized in September 1975 under Gabriel Kousouris, parish council president and co-ordinator Catherine Tsounis. Playground facilities were completed in September 1975 with Chairman John Epidy. The church had an outdoor playground of two basketball fields and a tennis court. Today we have a covered picnic area with a shed for cooking.

Rev. Makrinos explained “the church was consecrated on Sunday august 8th, 1976 by His Eminence archbishop Iakovos, with pastor Rev. Timotheos Tenedios, Very
Rev. Anthimos Draconakis and Archdeacon Methodios.  The relics of Sts. Theona, Iakovos the monk and Anastasia were sealed in the Holy Altar table. Mr. Elias Kulukundis donated one thousand dollars to become Godfather of the church and pledged seventy-five thousand for a community center.

“In November 1984, the church burnt due to candle left lit in the altar. There was total destruction. Church was held in the basement. Donations by middle class families built the church. Their Building Fund motto was “Together We Will Grow.” The architect was Gordon K. Ahlers of Jamesport, Long island. The builder was John O’Neill of O’Neill Builders, Inc., Bayport, N.Y. The reopening took place on May 1, 1988.”
A power point presentation of the groundbreaking in 1969 inspired the lecture audience to get up and point to persons they knew. The rich iconography was described by Rev. Makrinos.

The altar was hand carved by Konstantinos Pilarinos and donated by the Late Peter Phillips.
The platytera (ceiling icons) in the altar sanctuary were drawn by the late Rev. Spilios of Brooklyn. Theodore Fillipakis created the iconography in the Cretan style. Icons were donated by parishioners from different Greek monasteries. The original contract of the altar from the papers of the late Cleo P. Tsounis, parish council president from 1986-87 and church secretary who donated her services indicates:  September 2, 1988, a woodcarver iconostasis in the Byzantine style will be hand carved; size 45’x9’ with a height of 13” for $58,500. At that time, one could buy two houses in Mattituck for that price.

Documents from the papers of the late Cleo P. Tsounis, added more facts.
On May 16, 1987, Mrs. Tsounis asked Lilco Chairman William J. Catacosinos for three phase service to cool church. Paul J. Walsh, of commercial & Industrial Services Department replied “I regret to advise you that we will be unable to provide the donation you seek. However, I have asked Mr. H.A. Hagemeyer, Eastern Suffolk division Manager to review your requirements concerning the three phase line and determine what costs if any are involved in providing service for the additional air conditioning capacity (Lilco letter, June 22, 1987). Mr. Hagemeryer replied in September 4, 1987 “We are pleased to advise that based on such a three phase load addition, our tariff provisions would permit extension of our facilities to provide three phase, 120/240 volt service at your existing service pole with no contribution required from your church.”

In the Southold archives, dated Feb. 21, 1991, Architect Ahlers uncovered the column replacement work was not followed by subcontractor. He asked the town of Southold to let the church celebrate Easter. His vigilance, even in the overcharging of a well, helped the church save money. Mr. Andreas Markakis, who was vice-president in 1988, has his signature on numerous Southold rebuilding archives. Stanley Sledjeski, the real estate broker who sold the church their building lot, son-in-law Gerard P. Goehringer, Chairman of the Southold Town Board of Appeals, worked to help the church get complete documentation.

The Dance journal books shed additional information on the 1984 Fire rebuilding project. In an August 4, 1986 Journal letter, Archbishop Iakovos said “Each day is a test of our faith, our courage and our determination to proceed with what needs to be done…..It is time to give first consideration to the spiritual life of the family—as a parish and as individual families so that present and future generations may have a sacred house, a church, and all necessary community facilities to enable the church to reach out to young and old alike.’  

The 1987 Dance Journal highlights interesting facts about the rebuilding project. “Last year, we started our Building Fund Drive, said Parish Council President Cleo P. Tsounis. “We started with $80,000 insurance money. We now have over $150,000 in the building fund. We have worked hard to collect this money, from people all over the country. Very few of our own people from the North Fork have donated toward the building fund. This is your church and it needs your help.   Our church survives because of this volunteer work.”  Later donations started coming in, with the late Peter Phillips donating the costs for altar and Platytera. The accounting documents show the following information: 1984 a cash balance of 96,814; 1985 an $189,097 balance and $232,082 of 1986.

Director Walden introduced the second speaker. “Since 1961, Catherine Tsounis Siolas has been coming to Mattituck where her parents were among the original founders of the Transfiguration of Christ Greek Orthodox church, which celebrated its first liturgy in 1970,” explained Director Walden. “ In the 1970’s, Catherine established a Youth Organization and Sunday school at the church, and was a teacher and coordinator at the church’s Hellenic culture School. Catherine has written a book on the history of the church and numerous articles on Greek culture. She will speak about her rich Greek Orthodox heritage and its ties to the Mattituck community.”

“I grew up in Astoria by St. Demetrios Church,” she explained. “My parents were looking for a summer cottage without cliff stairs so we could walk to the beach. They loved the Mattituck jetty. It reminded them of where they came from, Chios and Tseme on the coast of Western Anatolia. In 1961 we moved to Breakwater Road. It was a summer community of mostly unheated cottages or bungalows with loads of American youth at the beaches, whose parents were Americans who fought in WWII. We all hung on, all nationalities united by our American culture. The beach was the focus of our socializing. I learned how to swim that has saved my health till the present time. We had backyard church services. I remember my Mother taking me with Mrs. Anastasia Kyvernitis to see Mr. Stanley Sledjeski who was going to sell his farmland to the church below market value because of the influence of his very religious wife Mrs. Helen Sledjeski.

Ms. Tsounis Siolas said “the majority of the Greek families in the late sixties were from St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. Very Rev. John Poulos performed the groundbreaking. Very Rev. John Antonopoulos in his history of St. Demetrios Church chronicles the close relationship of the Transfiguration Church in Mattituck with St. Demetrios Church in Astoria. The first Greeks were mostly of Cypriot background. My family buying a cottage in Mattituck altered my life. I took Red Cross Swimming lessons with Former Mattituck Principal Bruno Brauner. My swimming instructor gave me a positive image of myself and shaped me into a long-distance swimmer. I have weathered illness and tragedy, with the swimming I learned with Principal Brauner made me a stronger person.”

“My parents and their Cypriots immigrant friends encouraged me to write articles about their church building efforts,” she said. “My first break was with the Long Island Traveler Watchman, then Suffolk Times and Suffolk Life. They published everything I wrote from the age of 16 years old, as a High School sophomore. This inspired me to continue writing and build a career in Greek-American newspapers. My writing helped me find a husband. Dr. John G. Siolas was a Ph.D. student who read everything I wrote for years. When he relocated to New York, he asked me out. We were married shortly after. Marrying Dr. John Siolas was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Teaching Greek in Mattituck led me to secure a Greek Teacher’s License from the Archdiocese of North and South America and a Bilingual Greek ancillary license from the City of New York. It led to a career as a Greek translator. Later, I became an adjunct instructor of Modern Greek in St. John’s University for thirteen years. Communicating in Greek helped me sell and invest in Mattituck real estate. Through the help of Val, Andrew and Erica Stype of Andrew Stype Real-Estate, I have been an associate broker from the mid 1980’s.Finally, I raised my only child, Despina Cleopatra Konstantina Siolas, in Mattituck. She took the same Red Cross swimming lessons, becoming a competent swimmer. The Mattituck-Laurel library inspired a love of reading in her.”

Director Walden asked her “What prompted your parents and other members of the Greek community on the North Fork to build the first Greek Orthodox Church on Eastern Long Island?” Mr. Tsounis Siolas explained that “Greeks are builders of civilization for 2,500 years. Wherever Greeks go, they build institutions that perpetuate their civilization. A business community built a church that created a Greek neighborhood. The Transfiguration of Mattituck church, Mattituck, is the only community in walking distance, after Astoria’s churches. For many of us who have no Greek village, because we come from Western Anatolia refugee families, it is our Greek village. I owe my life to the Transfiguration of Christ and the Town of Southold. They encouraged me. The Greek community has and is flourishing because of the Southold government and merchants who are our friends. Today we are showing our appreciation to the town of Southold on the 375th Anniversary with this historic lecture.”
Link: https://picasaweb.google.com/113119187466714282240/June282015

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