By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
This year, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Somerville’s Greek Orthodox Church, celebrates its 95th anniversary. Throughout its history as a place of worship, it has also been the center of an engaged, cohesive, and vibrant community.
The first wave of Greek immigrants to Somerville came from Alatsata, a town that was settled a millennium before Christ. Others came from Filiatra, on the Mediterranean.
The Ottoman Empire had conquered Greece in the mid 15th Century. But in 1821 Greeks declared their independence. Many Europeans and Americans saw Greece as the birthplace of democracy. Some, such as the poet Lord Byron, joined the revolution. After eight years the revolutionaries liberated the southern Greek mainland and most of the islands.
Alatsata is located in the western Asia Minor state of Ionia. It was one of six states that remained under Ottoman domination. But its Greek residents continued to speak their language, practice their culture, and sustain their community.
Those who initially came to Somerville were mostly men, driven here by a devastating agricultural depression and escaping conscription into the Ottoman army. They settled primarily in the Brickbottom neighborhood, but also in West Somerville. They found work in Somerville’s four meatpacking houses. Most intended to earn some money, send it back home, and return.
The Balkan wars of 1912 and the resulting persecution and expulsion of Greeks discouraged most from returning, while encouraging young Alatsatan men and women to immigrate here. In 1916 they rented a Union-Square hall over what was then a Woolworth’s store and is now Goodyear Tire. This was Somerville’s first Greek Orthodox Church. Its parishioners supported it with 50-cent-per-month dues.
During that year, a 20-year-old Somervillian from Alasata was serving with the U.S. Army, after a stint as a freedom fighter in Greece. He returned to Somerville following his dischrge, but months later rejoined the army to fight in World War I. In Belleau Wood, he single-handedly attacked a German machine gun emplacement. With his right leg nearly severed, he forced the surviving crew machine-gun to retreat, and he became the first Greek American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Warfare between Greeks and Turks in 1922 and its associated ethnic cleansing spelled the end of many immigrant dreams of returning home. Instead, they made Brickbottom what the sociologist Herbert Gans called an “urban village.”
When the meatpacking plants closed, workers’ barracks became low-cost housing, kept spotless and well-repaired by their Greek American residents. Pushcart vendors and horse-drawn teams hawked fish, bread, vegetables, fruit, house wares, and clothing. Children playing, neighbors chatting, and festival celebrations filled the streets.
In 1923 the community built its first freestanding Church at 217 Somerville Avenue. The structure is now an American Legion post.
The Church was the center of community life, organizing dances, musical bands, sewing classes, picnics, trips to the beach, games, July 4th bonfires, a Greek-language school and citizenship classes. Wedding celebrations lasted for days. Baptisms were cause for a neighborhood party.
When the Italian fascists invaded Greece in 1940, the community turned its focus to war-relief efforts, while sending 260 of its young men to fight. The War ended, and in 1947 the Church bought what was then the Elks Hall at 29 Central Street. The property had originally been owned by Columbus Tyler, who had built a home there for his bride, the Mary of “Mary had a little lamb.”
The community worked and saved for years to accumulate $200,000 to finance construction costs for a new church. With an additional $150, 000 in loan proceeds, they razed the old Elks Hall, and in 1965 dedicated a beautiful new church. Of course it included an education and community center.
From 1950 to 1970 Somerville’s population declined by 36,000. The lure of the suburbs pushed many residents away. Factory closures pushed others. A new influx of Greek immigrants replaced some. They came primarily from the mainland, and particularly after the 1967 military junta.
Departing parishioners often became church leaders in Woburn, Arlington, Lexington, Andover, and other communities. The deep commitment and rich sense of community that they brought with them proved to be inspiring and infectious. Many of the faithful throughout New England consider Somerville to be their mother church.
And many of those are returning to participate in this year’s commemorative events. After months of rehearsals, they reconvened as a choir on February 13th and performed compositions that have not been heard in decades. Attendees were deeply moved. One was Boston’s senior-most Church official, the Metropolitan Methodias.
In many ways, these events continue a commitment that parishioners made in 1991. The Church was consecrated in that year, meaning that it will remain in Somerville until Jesus returns.
On Sunday, May 22, the Church will inaugurate a visionary five-year beautification plan. A picnic with music and dancing will follow the groundbreaking.
On Saturday, October 29th, parishioners will participate in the New England premier of the Aphrodite Exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. Classes and activities will entertain children in the afternoon. A cocktail party with music and a silent auction will entertain adults in the evening.
For up to date information regarding ongoing events, visit the church’s website, www.DormitionChurch.org.