Pioneering Priests Draws Record Numbers

Saint Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine

The special exhibition, Pioneering Priests: Establishing the Greek Orthodox Faith in America, funded with a Leadership 100 grant of $8,100, officially opened on Friday, February 6, 2015 at the Saint Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine in Saint Augustine, Florida as part of the Shrine's annual Pilgrimage Weekend festivities. At the opening, the exhibition was blessed by His Grace Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos. The exhibit has drawn more visitors to the Shrine than any other special exhibit.

The exhibition introduces the early history of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and Greek-Americans to tens of thousands of people of other faiths and ethnicities, as well as educate the faithful about previously unknown aspects of the rich history of the Church.

The exhibition,  originally intended to be on display at the Shrine for calendar year 2015, will now be divided into two sections and  will  run  from  February  2015  to  the National  Shrine Pilgrimage Weekend in February 2016 because of the overwhelming response to the call for materials. The first half continued until September 2015, when the Shrine celebrated Greek Landing Day. The combined two halves of the exhibition will provide stories of over 100 of the pioneering priests of the Greek Orthodox faith in America and over 200 photographs. A DVD combining the material from both halves of the exhibition will be produced later this year after the second half of the exhibition is on display.

The exhibition is divided into the nine jurisdictions of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America with an introduction by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios. The stories of 61 priests representing 49 of the earliest parishes in the Archdiocese, are illustrated with over  100  photographs  gathered  from  sources  across America. Longer stories are told in 18 handouts, which visitors may take with them.

The exhibition is groundbreaking in several respects. It looks at the history of the Greek Orthodox Church in America from the ground level across parish and chronological lines through the lives and careers of priests, most of whom were immigrants. Except for a few books that focus on the history of the Hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, writing about the growth of the Greek Orthodox faith in America has been in large part decentralized, with much of the work done by individual parishes. This exhibition brings together the photographic and documentary resources of the Archives of the Archdiocese with material obtained from parishes, relatives of the early priests, public libraries, and newspaper archives across the country. The research underpinning the exhibition has uncovered information that illuminates previously obscure corners of the history of our faith in America.

Even before the exhibition opened, a number of venues across the country had already expressed interest in hosting the exhibition after it closes in Florida. These sites include the Hellenic­ American Cultural Center and Museum of Oregon and SW Washington in Portland, Oregon; Hellenic College/Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts; the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia; the St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Ocean, New Jersey; the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona; and the Hellenic Museum of Michigan in Detroit, Michigan. It is expected that the exhibition, with additions for amplifying local content, will continue to be displayed at sites throughout the Archdiocese for years to come. There have also been suggestions that the material be developed into a book for wider distribution.

The spiritual leaders featured in the exhibition came from a wide range of backgrounds. Some came from Greece and Asia Minor and other Orthodox lands overseas; others were born and trained in the United States. Some spent their life serving in parishes while others became Hierarchs who helped to establish ecclesiastical standards in America. Many of  these  priests helped establish and develop parishes across this country over the past 150 years.

The Saint Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine has been described as "Our Plymouth Rock," dedicated to the first colony of Greek people who came to America in 1768. The Shrine also honors all Greek immigrants, so it is appropriate that the Shrine should host an exhibition about the pioneering immigrant priests. The lives of the priests who served the needs of the faithful are moving stories of sacrifice and devotion that will appeal to people of all faiths, according to Polexeni Maouris Hillier, Director of the Shrine since 2005.

The Pioneering Priests exhibition will utilize the rich documentary and photographic resources of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Archives, under the direction of Nikie Calles, Director of Archives. It will also include information from local histories compiled by parishes throughout the Archdiocese, which is particularly timely since many of these parishes have been re-focusing on their history as part of centennial celebrations. There will be photographs and accounts from the families of pioneering priests.  Dr. William H. Samonides, who with his wife,  Dr. Regine Johnson Samonides, are producing the exhibition, will also incorporate the results of a decade of his research into the contributions made by priests.. The purpose of this exhibition is to raise awareness of the manifold achievements of the pioneers of our faith as they worked to establish the churches that became part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America.

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