Greek Orthodox Church to celebrate 100 years in Jacksonville

Greek Orthodox Church to celebrate 100 years in Jacksonville
Altar at St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church on Atlantic Boulevard

As the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Louh contemplates the upcoming 100th anniversary of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, two words come to mind: legacy and honor.

“We are honoring our past, the way God worked and Christ worked in our church over the last 100 years through the hands and feet of countless priests and family members,” said the senior pastor of St. John the Divine. “We honor them and our past by living a legacy in the present.”

Reverend Dr. Nicholas Louh of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church

Reverend Dr. Nicholas Louh of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church

St. John the Divine on Atlantic Boulevard in St. Nicholas is the only Greek Orthodox church in Jacksonville and the third oldest of its denomination in Florida. It will hold its centennial celebration Saturday through Monday, September 24-26.

The festivities will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday with a memorial service to honor parish ancestors at Evergreen Cemetery on Main Street in Jacksonville. Soon after, at 11:30 a.m., a groundbreaking ceremony will be held at 12890 Beach Boulevard, where the parish plans to build a new larger church edifice on 20 acres of land it purchased in 2000. Capping Saturday’s events will be a grand banquet beginning at 5 p.m. at the Prime Osborn Center. The keynote speaker at the banquet will be 2016 Miss America Betty Cantrell, a member of the Greek Orthodox faith.

The balance of the festivities are primarily religious. On Sunday an Orthros Morning Service will be held at 9 a.m. followed by a 10 a.m. Hierarchical Divine Liturgy and church-sponsored luncheon. At 6 p.m. a Hierarchical Great Vespers Service will be held, followed by a reception. The final act of the celebration will take place Monday at 9 a.m. with a Hierarchical Liturgy for the Feast Day of St. John the Divine.

In addition to Louh, who is senior pastor, several other religious figures will take part in the centennial festivities including His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Geron of America, His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, Georgia, as well the Reverend Dr. Milton Magos, co-pastor of the Jacksonville parish.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, the Most Reverend Felipe J. Estevez, Catholic Bishop of St. Augustine, and several other local political figures are also expected to join the celebration, said Louh.

“It’s all coming beautifully together. How many churches in the city of Jacksonville are 100 years old? Since its birth in 1916, this church has been making a difference in Jacksonville from feeding the hungry in the Great Depression to providing funds for Greek relief during the Greek struggles in World War II. Now 10 percent of our budget goes to outreach,” he said adding that money raised by the church’s annual Greek festivals has provided for a pediatric incubator at Wolfson Children’s Hospital as well as a room for the homeless at the City Rescue Mission.

Greek Plymouth Rock

Greek settlers first came to Northeast Florida in the 1700s and their “Plymouth Rock” is the St. Photios Shrine in St. Augustine, said Louh. Just steps from St. Augustine’s historic city gates on St. George Street, the shrine is an institution of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and is dedicated to the first colony of Greek people who came to America in 1768.

According to St. John the Divine Historian Mary Roman of St. Nicholas, the forefathers of St. John the Divine parish settled in the Jacksonville area around 1905. In the written church history, the first mention of a church service and priest is in 1907 when Father Arsenios was said to officiate a service to young immigrant arrivals.

“A church is not just a building, it’s a way to live,” Roman said, noting many of the Greeks who first came to Jacksonville left to escape persecution by Mustafa Kemel Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, and believed they would eventually return.

“When they came here, they had no language, they had no friends. They had no money. They had nothing but the belief that God was with them. This was their religion and whatever they did, they did to honor whoever they were because they thought they were going to have to go back to Greece and meet their families,” she said.

Louh agreed. “In the early 1900s there was an influx of Greeks that settled in Jacksonville and for them the church and their faith were significant. One way to hold onto their culture was through their faith,” he said.

Before the parish acquired its own church, intermittent services were conducted by traveling priests in the chapel of St. John Episcopal Cathedral downtown. As the congregation grew, it sought to purchase a building, establish a proper parish and perform regular Sunday services. The Oriental Greek Orthodox Church – The Revelation of St. John Theologos was chartered under the laws of the State of Florida on Nov. 2, 1916, and a two-story house was acquired at 1623 Boulevard Street in 1917 to provide a place to hold services. The charter was later amended to read “Greek Community of Jacksonville” and later the name was changed to “St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church.”

Two years after moving into the Boulevard Street house, the parish bought an architecturally significant building at 723 Laura Street for $20,000 from the First Church of Christ, Scientist. In 1918, prior to the purchase, the 1902 building had been renovated by renowned Jacksonville Architect Henry John Klutho, according to a 1980 article in the Florida Times-Union. It was the first house of worship to be rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1901.

The Laura Street building first served as a synagogue for the Society Ahavath Chesed, the oldest Jewish congregation in Jacksonville. Ahavath Chesed’s original synagogue was built on the site in 1882 and destroyed by fire in 1901. The Jewish congregation rebuilt their synagogue and sold it to the Christian Scientists in 1908, according to the Florida Times-Union.

After holding services on Laura Street for more than 50 years, St. John the Divine Parish outgrew the its sanctuary. It built a new church, designed by Architect Ted Pappas of Avondale, at 3850 Atlantic Boulevard in St. Nicholas, and moved to the new location 1968. The Greek Orthodox Church continued to retain ownership of the Laura Street church property for many years eventually selling its historic building to its next door neighbor, First Baptist Church, which had it demolished for parking in 1980, according to the Florida Times-Union article.

Over the past 48 years the church in St. Nicholas has been the place of innumerable weddings, baptisms, funerals and the center of liturgical life for Greek Orthodox faithful in greater Jacksonville.

During its 100 years, the Greek Orthodox parish has grown to accommodate more than 350 families and seeks to reach newcomers through social media, said Louh. The Jacksonville church also helped establish parishes in St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Daytona, Gainesville and Savannah, Georgia, and has assisted in planting the area’s Antiochian and Russian Orthodox churches. “Our community is made up of many different cultures. Our church is open to all people. We embrace all with open hearts and open doors. It’s not just a Greek thing to be Orthodox,” Louh said. 

A rendering of the future edifice of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, which is slated to be built on Beach Boulevard this fall.

A rendering of the future edifice of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, which is slated to be built on Beach Boulevard this fall.

New building for new century

In April 2000, the parish purchased approximately 20 acres on Beach Boulevard between Kernan and Hodges Boulevards to build a new Byzantine Crucifix-form church, which will include a large sanctuary, a Family Life Center, administrative space, a kitchen, classrooms, a museum, and social area for luncheons and banquets. Also included in plans for the property are areas for athletic fields, accommodations for the Easter picnic and Greek Festival as well as long-range plans for senior housing and a gymnasium.

“The new church home will continue to build upon the firm foundations previously built and will allow the church to create new ministries, new programs, and new opportunities that aim to bring people closer to Christ and to each other,” said Nicholas Furris, chairman of the Building Committee and Athena Mann, co-chairman of the Capital Campaign Committee in a letter, included in the written church history.

Louh said construction on the new facility will begin in 2017. No decision has yet been made as to whether the parish will keep or sell the Atlantic Boulevard property, he said.

“We love St. Nicholas,” said Louh, noting, in the past, church members have sponsored a “get-to-know your neighbor program” and have “adopted” the two-mile stretch of Atlantic Boulevard in front of the church, picking up litter three or four times a year. “Having the church here has been really beneficial to our impact on the city,” he said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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