A Greek festival continues 3 years after loss of a church

By ALLIE GOODMAN

Arizona Sonora News

The Greeks of Tucson celebrated the 40th year of the annual Greek Festival last month, despite the loss of the St. Demetrios Orthodox Church three years ago.

A young man prepares Saganaki at Tucson's 40th annual Greek festival. This dish is a traditional pan-seared cheese dish, a popular appetizer in Greece. (Photo by Allie Goodman / Arizona Sonora News)
A young man prepares Saganaki at Tucson’s 40th annual Greek festival. This dish is a traditional pan-seared cheese dish, a popular appetizer in Greece. (Photo by Allie Goodman / Arizona Sonora News)

Although gyros, pita, loud folk songs and traditional dances are very much present, there is also a sense of togetherness. The event bustled with men, women and children listening to the live music and debating which items on the menu they will purchase next.

Vasiliki Kyriaka, who works the festival’s vintage gem stand, has been volunteering for 10 years. She noted that after a massive fire destroyed the St. Demetrios Church in 2013, it has been challenging to not only rebuild the structure, but also restore the faith of the Greek community.

“The inside of the church reached 1,000 degrees and [fire] completely deteriorated the inside, so now we assemble in this building,” Kyriaka said. “We’re trying to raise funds for a new church, but it costs more than you’d think to demolish the remainder of the old building—the fund raising is difficult but we’re just trying to keep going.”

Kathy Richards, creator of Beyond Bella jewelry, also noted the love of prayer and faith and said that the most popular items she sells at the festival are evil-eye bracelets and necklaces.

“It’s a cultural symbol,” she said.“Depending on where you are in Eastern Europe it is referred to as different names, but they’ve been around for centuries.”

Richards has been selling jewelry at large church events for almost 15 years and believes the Tucson Greek community is able to maintain its relevance through such of gatherings.

“Our Greek community is treated like a village so we don’t go outside and solicit,” said Richards. “If someone wants to be involved, we’re always here.”

Festival volunteer Angela Zerdavis mentioned that of the past 40 festivals, this year was the most successful.

“Every year the Greek festival gets better and better, with this year being the largest yet—over 15,000 people have come through,” Zerdavis said. 

Zerdavis said that her mother, from Patras, and her father, from Sparta, came to America at the young age of 19 and decided to settle in Tucson.

“Tucson is very much like parts of Greece,” said Zerdavis. “Not only is it beautiful and warm, but it’s surrounded by mountains and has a consistently arid temperature.”

Zerdavis added that community service is important. “We do a lot of philanthropy that we probably don’t talk enough,” she said.  “Not only do we host large events like a Thanksgiving dinner in conjunction with Salvation Army where we feed thousands of people, but we also purchase pastries and baked goods from Costco every morning and distribute them to five shelters around the city.”

The Rev. Earl Cantos, who has been St. Demetrios’s priest for the last eight years, agreed that these kinds of events not only permit members of the Greek community to congregate, but also allows individuals to reestablish belief in the church.

“What unites us is that our culture and our faith perpetuate one another,” Cantos said. “I love what I do because it’s varied—I’m with people at their happiest and saddest moments so I’m able to build an instant intimacy.”

Cantos added, “Fom my point of view we’re all warriors and we’re all fighting in a spiritual realm, so it’s a constant battle filled with both victories and losses.” 

Meanwhile, volunteer Helena Repony said the festival rekindles memories of her father, who was born in Greece.

“I lost my dad when I was 14 so I just feel at home here,” Repony said.

Repony said that after attending a woman’s memorial service and speaking with the priest and other attendees, she felt compelled to serve an active role in the Greek community.

“This is my first year volunteering and I’m so glad I did,” said Repony. “People seem to love my spanakopita (spinach pie) and pastitsio (Greek lasagna).”

headshotAllie Goodman is senior at the University of Arizona majoring in Journalism. She hopes to graduate with a job in the music or entertainment industry. 

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