The history of large-scale Greek immigration to the United States goes all the way back to the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when millions of Europeans decided to leave the lands of their ancestors and search for a promising life in the New World.
Of course, the decision to emigrate to any foreign land has never been easy, no matter where one comes from.
The links between one’s homeland and his soul are extraordinarily difficult to break, so the Greeks who decided to move to America did indeed have some very serious reasons to make this momentous decision.
As has been the case from 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 1800’s.
The beginnings of Greek immigration to America
The Greeks living on the Peloponnesian Peninsula suffered a huge blow in the late 1800s due to the sudden and complete collapse of the currant crop there, on which many were entirely dependent. This had been a thriving industry for decades, which had even helped the newly-established Greek state to flourish through its huge exports to Great Britain.
However, a series of misfortunes led the industry to a complete collapse in the 1890s, which was followed hard on its heels by the bankruptcy of the Greek state in 1893 and ”Black 1897,” the year when Greece and the Ottoman Empire plunged into a thirty-day war, with devastating results for the small and financially-struggling country.
The situation in Greece’s rural areas was crushing, with people not even being able to afford the basics for their families, and southern Greeks, long accustomed to hardship, faced a life-changing dilemma: Either stay and continue to suffer, or emigrate and chase the American Dream.
Hundreds of thousands of Greek nationals made the wrenching decision to leave their country between 1890 and 1930, searching for a better life in the US, the country which was believed to provide endless opportunities.
The vast majority of the new immigrants established themselves on the East Coast of the country, and primarily in the Northeast, from New York northward.
The First Greek in Bangor, Maine
This is how the arrival of the first Greek in Bangor, Maine, the northeasternmost state of the US, took place in the late 1890s.
George N. Brountas was born in the small village of Vamvakou, in the Peloponnesian county of Laconia, the famed land of Sparta.
The economic hardships in the Peloponnese’s Vamvakou area led him to Athens at the young age of 12, where he found a job in his uncle’s shipyard. However, the economic crisis of the time, Greece’s default of 1893 and the growing financial depression led Brountas to the courageous decision to move to America.
Brountas first worked in the textile mills around Boston; however, he soon moved north, to the then small but thriving community of Bangor in Maine.
After years of hard work — and smart business decisions — Brountas opened the first Greek store in Bangor, called the ”Bangor Candy Kitchen.”
Soon, relatives and friends of Brountas’ came from Greece to live in Bangor, along with other Greeks from other parts of the country, such as Epirus.
Only a few decades after Brountas’ arrival in Bangor, scores of Greek families were living, working and prospering in this beautiful city in Maine. People living today remember a time when nearly every other restaurant in the city was owned by a Greek family.
The first Greek Orthodox community of Bangor
Of course, along with their great capacity for work and their remarkable drive to better themselves — for which they became well-known in Bangor — these Greeks brought with them their religious customs and beliefs to New England, a region which had of course been a bastion of English Protestant culture for centuries.
It was in the 1920s when the first Greek Orthodox parish was established in Bangor.
In 1926, members of the parish pledged $1,200 to organize the ”Saint George Eastern Orthodox Community of Bangor.” This sum 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, since he had relatives from Vamvakou and may have known some of the members of the church who had left the village before heading to Maine.
A Niarchos relative is pictured above with a group of immigrants and descendants when they returned to Vamvakou after World War II to visit their family members still living there.
The Floros family, another prominent clan in Bangor’s Greek community, sold a portion of their property on Sanford Street for the building of St. George’s, the first Orthodox church in the city and still the only one there of its denomination.
Construction of the wood-framed, white clapboard building was completed by 1930. Perhaps designed not to stand out among all the other houses along the street, it looked identical to thousands of New England’s typical white clapboard Protestant churches, with its Gothic windows and modest scale.
And it stands there to this day, serving as the meeting place for all the Orthodox Christians of Bangor.
Saint George’s has since become the center of the Greek and the Orthodox community not only of Bangor, but of the communities beyond, including a large number of Greek professors at the nearby University of Maine at Orono.
Greeks, Americans, Russians, Ukrainians, Egyptians and others from all backgrounds in the area who share the same religious beliefs come together to worship at St. George’s every week, making it the Orthodox Christian epicenter of the entire region.
However, the descendants of the original members of the Greek Orthodox community of Bangor, although present in America for over a century now, have never forgotten the birthplace of the founders of their church.
Even today, descendants of the families who emigrated from Vamvakou try to keep their connection with Greece alive. They have even established connections with the ”Vamvakou Revival” organization back in Greece, which is supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
This grass-roots group, comprised of young people who have returned to their ancestors’ village, aims to revitalize the beautiful mountain village of Vamvakou, which had become nearly deserted after almost all its population left it throughout the 20th century in an attempt to find better lives in large cities or abroad.
Along with their strong links back to their ancestral homeland, the members of the Greek Orthodox community of Bangor also keep alive the ancient traditions of the Orthodox Church.
The video below shows Thessaloniki native Dr. Lambros Karris, who is the head chanter, or protopsaltis, of the church, performing the beloved hymn ”Troparion of Kassiani” as he does each Holy Week before Easter. Dr. Karris, a priest’s son, sings the hymn with his own son Alexander Karris and Dr. Miltiades Zacas, who is originally from Lesbos.
Although many of the original parish members’ families have moved away from Bangor since the church was first established, some remain, and with many new American converts, together they keep this small treasure of a church alive and thriving.
Their unconditional love for their parish has inspired the members of the Orthodox community of Bangor to maintain a stunningly beautiful church which offers a spiritual shelter and home to all those who share the Orthodox faith.
This reminds us of a fundamental truth regarding religious and ethnic groups in America: It is not the sheer numbers of any community that makes a difference; it is the strength of their desire to maintain and preserve their priceless ancient customs, traditions and beliefs.