BALTIMORE – Bill Koutrelakos met his wife at a church dance that celebrated Greek Independence Day, and he can’t help but think that it is a little ironic.
“You see, I’m Greek and that’s the day I lost my independence,” he joked.
But Koutrelakos’ expression softened when he remembered that chance meeting and how it lead to his wedding a year later in the same church, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, 24 W. Preston St.
This year, both the couple and the church are celebrating anniversaries: It is the Koutrelakoses 50th and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation’s 100th.
To commemorate the day in 1906 when 150 Greek immigrants held the first regular orthodox services in Maryland the church will have vespers Saturday, March 18, and will host a banquet the following day.
For many members of the congregation, like Kourtelakos, thinking about the church’s past has brought back memories of the major events in their own lives.
Gary Padussis is amazed when he thinks about how much of his family’s history has unfolded in the cathedral.
“My parents and my wife’s parents were married at the same altar. My wife and I were married at that same altar. Heck, my wife and I were both baptized in the same baptismal font,” Padussis said.
From the dark wooden pews of the church, he has watched funeral services for his father, celebrated holidays and watched as his family grew and evolved.
Even on less-eventful Sundays, the church is a place for informal family reunions — a chance for him to reconnect with uncles, aunts, cousins and friends.
“It’s where all my memories are,” Padussis explained.
For Carolyn Tsakalas, whose grandfather was one of the church’s earliest members, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation holds the memories of five generations of her family.
What strikes her is how difficult it must have been for him to arrive in this country without any relatives supporting him. It is something she cannot imagine because, as a girl growing up in the relatively young parish, she would look around the cathedral and feel so close to everyone else.
“Back then we were just one huge family. You saw someone and you knew her, and she wasn’t your aunt but you still called her aunt,” Tsakalas said.
The early immigrants made a family from the church, relying on friends as though they were cousins or siblings, she said.
Tsakalas explained that the church has grown since then, as there are now an estimated 1,300 families at Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. Even though she does not know every person who walks through the doors of the church as she once did, that feeling of family is still there.
She credits the church for keeping the Greek Orthodox community together because it keeps traditions and the Greek language alive.
“The Greek that my grandchildren hear is in church and that is important to me. I still want their ears to be tuned into the language,” Tsakalas said. “To know the language of your ancestors is very important. You cannot lose sight of who you are and where you came from.”
While Tsakalas sees her family as fully American, she takes pride in knowing that the traditions of her grandparents are still a part of her children’s and grandchildren’s lives. She is reminded of that history every Sunday.
“When I see my little grandson on that altar, it all but brings tears to my eyes because I think of everyone who has gone before him,” she said.
As some members look back, others cannot help but look forward to imagine what the future will hold for the church that has survived for 100 years.
Mary Kariotis noticed the little children getting ready for Sunday school and knows that some will be the parents of the next generation of Greek Orthodox families in Baltimore.
It comforts her to know that she will still have a place with them, just as events like the centennial have kept her in touch with those ancestors she has never met.
“That’s part of our religion to remember the dead,” Kariotis said. “We say ‘May their memory to be eternal’ and, for their memory to be eternal, the next generation has to remember the past generation and all those who went before us.”