The fascinating history of the Greek Orthodox community of Bangor, Maine


Members of the Greek community in Bangor, Maine, visiting their ancestral village of Vamvakou, Greece, in 1949, including Nikos Niarchos, a member of the Niarchos shipowner family, left. Credit: public domain

The small but prosperous Greek community of Bangor, Maine has a rich history dating back to the 1890s.

The history of large-scale Greek immigration to the United States dates back to the second half of the 19th century, a time when millions of Europeans decided to leave the lands of their ancestors and seek a promising life in the New World. .

Of course, the decision to emigrate to any foreign land has never been easy, no matter where you come from.

The ties between his homeland and his soul are extraordinarily difficult to sever, so that the Greeks who decided to settle in America indeed had very serious reasons for making this momentous decision.

As has been the case since the very beginning of human history, one of the main reasons for immigration is economic and financial hardship, and this was true for most Greeks in the 1800s.

The beginnings of Greek immigration to America

The Greeks living in the Peloponnese Peninsula suffered a severe blow in the late 1800s due to the sudden and complete collapse of the gooseberry harvest, on which many depended entirely. It had been a thriving industry for decades, which had even helped the new Greek state prosper through its huge exports to Britain.

However, a series of woes led the industry to a complete collapse in the 1890s, which was closely followed by the bankruptcy of the Greek state in 1893 and “Black 1897”, the year Greece and the Ottoman Empire plunged into a thirty-day war, with devastating results for the small, financially troubled country.

The situation in rural Greece was overwhelming, with people not even having the means to provide for their families, and the southern Greeks, long accustomed to hardship, faced a dilemma that has changed. their life: either stay and continue to suffer, or emigrate and chase the American dream.

Hundreds of thousands of Greek nationals made the heartbreaking decision to leave their country between 1890 and 1930, in search of a better life in the United States, the country that was supposed to offer endless opportunities.

The vast majority of new immigrants settled on the east coast of the country, and mainly in the northeast, from New York to the north.

The first Greek in Bangor, Maine

This is how the arrival of the first Greeks in Bangor, Maine, the most northeastern state in the United States, was in the late 1890s.

George N. Brountas was born in the small village of Vamvakou, in the Peloponnese county of Laconia, the famous land of Sparta.

The economic hardships of the Vamvakou region in the Peloponnese led him to Athens at the age of 12, where he found a job in his uncle’s shipyard. However, the economic crisis of the time, Greece’s default in 1893, and the growing financial depression led Brountas to the courageous decision to settle in America.

Brountas first worked in textile factories around Boston; However, he quickly moved north, to the small but prosperous community of Bangor in Maine.

After years of hard work and smart business decisions, Brountas opened the first Greek store in Bangor called “Bangor Candy Kitchen”.

Soon Brountas’ relatives and friends came from Greece to live in Bangor, along with other Greeks from other parts of the country, such as Epirus.

Just decades after Brountas arrived in Bangor, dozens of Greek families lived, worked and prospered in this beautiful city in Maine. People living today remember a time when almost every other restaurant in town was owned by a Greek family.

The first Greek Orthodox community of Bangor

Of course, with their great capacity for work and their remarkable drive to improve themselves – for which they became well known in Bangor – these Greeks brought with them their customs and religious beliefs to New England, a region that of course had been a stronghold of English Protestant culture for centuries.

It was in the 1920s that the first Greek Orthodox parish was established in Bangor.

In 1926, members of the parish pledged $ 1,200 to organize the “Saint George Orthodox Community of East Bangor”. This amount represents approximately $ 20,000 in today’s currency.

Stavros Niarchos, one of the most prominent Greek shipowners of all time, also helped make the construction of the church possible by donating funds, as he had relatives from Vamvakou and may have known some of the members. from the church that had left the village before. direction Maine.

The Floros family, another important clan in the Greek community of Bangor, sold part of their property on Sanford Street for the construction of St. George’s, the city’s first Orthodox church and still the only one in its denomination.

Construction of the white wood plank building was completed in 1930. Perhaps designed not to stand out from all the other houses along the street, it looked like thousands of typical New England Protestant churches. in wooden planks, with its Gothic windows and its modest climbing stairs.

And it stands there to this day, serving as a meeting place for all Orthodox Christians in Bangor.

Saint George’s has since become the center of the Greek and Orthodox community not only of Bangor, but communities beyond, including a large number of Greek professors from nearby Maine University at Orono.

Greeks, Americans, Russians, Ukrainians, Egyptians and others from all walks of the region who share the same religious beliefs come together weekly to worship in St. George’s, making it the Orthodox Christian epicenter. from all over the region.

However, the descendants of the original members of the Greek Orthodox community in Bangor, although present in America for over a century now, have never forgotten the birthplace of their church’s founders.

Even today, the descendants of families who emigrated from Vamvakou are trying to keep their connection to Greece alive. They even established links with the organization “Vamvakou Revival” in Greece, which is supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

This grassroots group, made up of young people who returned to the village of their ancestors, aims to revitalize the beautiful mountain village of Vamvakou, which had become almost deserted after almost all of its population left it during the 20th century in an attempt to find better living in big cities or abroad.

Along with their close ties to their ancestral homeland, members of the Greek Orthodox community in Bangor also keep the ancient traditions of the Orthodox Church alive.

The video below shows Dr Lambros Karris, originally from Thessaloniki, who is the chief cantor, or protopsaltis, of the church, performing the beloved hymn “Troparion of Kassiani” as he does every Holy Week before. Easter. Dr Karris, son of a priest, sings the hymn with his own son Alexander Karris and Dr Miltiades Zacas, originally from Lesbos.

Although many families of the original ward members have moved away from Bangor since the church was established, some remain, and with many new American converts, together they keep this little church treasure alive and thriving. .

Their unconditional love for their parish has inspired members of the Bangor Orthodox community to maintain an incredibly beautiful church that provides spiritual shelter and a home to all who share the Orthodox faith.

It reminds us of a basic truth about religious and ethnic groups in America: it is not the sheer number of a community that makes the difference; it is the strength of their desire to maintain and preserve their ancient customs, traditions and invaluable beliefs.

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