The Way We Were: Mary Georgia Roman

The Way We Were: Mary Georgia Roman
Mary, mother Soultana, father Gus, sister Ethel

Mary Georgia Roman, 90, delights in describing her life in St. Nicholas, growing up as a first-generation American child born to Greek immigrants who proudly became U.S. citizens. Her joyful recall of her South Shores neighborhood, events within the Greek families and their close ties to St. John The Divine Greek Orthodox Church is astonishing. She reminisces with a sense of purpose and of urgency.

“I never thought I would live to see everything that has happened,” Roman said in reference to the third and newest St. John The Divine Church to be constructed on Beach Boulevard in 2017. She was thrilled to be able to celebrate the church’s centennial anniversary in September 2016.

Roman moves and walks with difficulty and the aid of a cane, but that doesn’t stop the church historian from frequently doublechecking facts in her monumental work: a four-inch-thick book that meticulously details the history of the Greek Americans and her church at 3850 Atlantic Blvd.

Constantine “Gus” and Soultana Valsamindes Roman

Constantine “Gus” and Soultana Valsamindes Roman

A church committee was formed in 1948 to gather the church’s history but it was not pursued in earnest until 2012 in preparation for the Centennial. Roman gratefully credits notes and research from two others: the late Judge John Marees and Dr. Theodore Panos. When Dr. Panos died, his wife, Mary, kindly gave his notes to Roman.

The book documents the arrival of the first Greeks here in 1905 and the first church service and priest visit in 1907. It includes copied photographs with captions and pages listing family and church records, dates, events and positions from 1905 to the present. Roman’s dearest wish is to see it published and that new historians will continue her work.

Her parents, Constantine “Gus” (1895-1970) and Soultana (Valsamindes) Roman, (1900-1980), were both born in the Greek Islands, then met, married and immigrated to New York. They moved to Brevard, North Carolina, had two daughters, Mary and Ethel, and operated three restaurants. In 1929, when banks closed at the start of the Great Depression, they relocated to Jacksonville.

The Romans settled on Eighth Street in Springfield to live near downtown and St. John The Divine Greek Orthodox Church, then located at Laura and Union Streets. Gus Roman served as president of the Parish Council in 1935 and as cantor for the next 35 years.

The Roman sisters walked to school at Jacksonville Elementary at Ninth and Perry Streets and home afterwards. They ate snacks of bread, butter and sugar sandwiches while they walked to Greek school at St. John The Divine Church every day immediately after “American school.” “For about ten years we studied at Greek school from 4 to 7 p.m. We learned Greek, history, spelling, religion, recitation and reading, with all ages and grades in one room,” Roman said.

Their father went to work as a restaurant employee in Jacksonville, until he was able to open his own Cozy Restaurant in 1935. It was located near the Beaver Street Farmers Market and was a successful family business for 20 years. The building is still standing. In the early 1940s the Romans bought their brick home on Old Hickory Road in St. Nicholas. In 1968, when the church relocated to Atlantic Boulevard, it became their neighbor and an anchor of the St. Nicholas community.

“There was a naval shipyard on the river at the end of our street, and it was constantly lit up like a Christmas tree,” Roman said. “We knew they were watching for enemy submarines.”

Roman describes a smaller, more rural St. Nicholas in the 1940s and 1950s, with only half the homes and families which live there now. Her family had established routines. On Saturdays they cleaned house together and on Sundays they attended church.

The neighbors knew each other by name, helped each other and gathered for births, birthdays, illness, accidents or funerals. The children had their favorite routines too. “We loved to walk down to the dead end of the street and fish together. As we walked down with our fishing poles more and more children would join us. It was so much fun. We didn’t care if we caught anything, and I don’t think we ever did. I still have my fishing pole somewhere. There were thick woods and huge pine trees that always got struck by lightning,” she said.

Ethel, 2, and Mary Roman, 3

Ethel, 2, and Mary Roman, 3

The Roman family often drove out San Jose Boulevard to the duPont family home, which is now the Epping Forest Yacht and Country Club.

“The duPonts would open their grounds every spring to let the public see the azaleas in bloom, and it was the most beautiful sight. We went every year,” she said.

Roman said music and art are her first loves. Her mother saved 25 cents each week from the family’s grocery money to buy an upright Wurlitzer piano. Roman received weekly lessons from Jenny Castrounis, choir director at St. John The Divine. Castrounis taught Roman American piano standards and Greek songs. Roman also studied classical piano and organ music with Mrs. Milton Bacon of San Marco. A piano lesson cost one dollar, Roman recalled. She went on to lead the choir for 25 years and started the junior choir at St. John The Divine.

The Roman sisters graduated from Andrew Jackson High School, and Mary attended Jacksonville University. She planned to become a nurse so that she could care for their parents. Greek families often live together and care for elderly relatives at home. However, Roman’s math and accounting abilities led to a 36-year career with the IRS. She retired in 1991. Roman never married, but her sister, Ethel, married Dino Mastrogianakis and they have two children. Roman dotes on her niece, Deanna Mastrogianakis, and nephew, Dr. Lazarus “Larry” Mastrogianakis, a pediatrician in private practice and a Memorial Hospital Emergency Room physician.

Mary and sister Ethel

Mary and sister Ethel

During the ensuing years Roman has watched neighborhood children grow up and have their own families. Some of the homes have passed from generation to generation in the same family, as the Romans’ home has done. Roman kept the family home and intends to live on her street as long as she possibly can, with the help of her sister and brother-in-law who live in Arlington.

Roman says she has been blessed to live her life freely as an American and Greek Orthodox Christian. She recalls the words of her late mother, upon seeing Lady Liberty and Ellis Island for the first time. He mother told her they were finally safe and free in America. Roman said her family was given the freedom and privilege to become citizens and achieve whatever they wished through hard work and determination. She is profoundly moved whenever she speaks of America and overcome with gratitude.

She has tried throughout her life to do one good thing each day and firmly believes that angels watch protectively over all. She credits her faith in God for bringing her family through hardships and life challenges. Quotes from Mother Teresa and the Bible can be found throughout her home and in her history of the local Greek Orthodox church. She is a devoted member of Philoptochos (friend of the poor), the women’s’ philanthropic organization of the Greek Orthodox Church. She has been a supporter of the Cummer Museum and through Philoptochos has supported many charities including City Rescue Mission and Wolfson Children’s Hospital.

Roman’s greatest wish for the future is that she will be able to attend the dedication and first service in the new church on Beach Boulevard when it is completed. Although she does not say it, she will certainly record that momentous event in words and photos in her book, preserved forever for future generations.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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