By Tiffany Rider - Senior Writer
August 28, 2012 - The many facets of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Long Beach continue to shine through its 75th diamond anniversary.
September 8, 1937, marks the anniversary of the first recorded meeting in Long Beach of the Greek Orthodox community, establishing an executive board and “philanthropicos” with the goal of creating a place of worship in the International City.
As far back as 1933, Long Beach residents of Greek heritage wanted to create a Hellenic organization to continue the ideals and traditions of their Greek Orthodox faith. At the time, these residents traveled to the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on San Julian Street in Los Angeles. Within five years, enough Hellenic families had established themselves in Long Beach to begin forming a bona fide Greek Orthodox community.
With the formation of the executive board, the community continued to organize and formed the first parish council. By then, the total membership was 87 – enough, they determined, to carry out the objectives of erecting a church of the Greek Orthodox faith. After more than a year of fundraising, the first parcel of land to build the church was purchased in 1939 at 17th Street and Pacific Avenue.
Five years later, a building committee was formed to develop a site plan and put their dreams in motion. The community purchased another parcel adjoining the original property in 1946, but costly construction of the church put the project on hold. During this period, the Archdiocese established The Hellenic Community of Long Beach-San Pedro. Bringing San Pedro into the community helped increase fundraising opportunities for the construction of a church.
The groundbreaking ceremony finally took place in 1947, and the church, located north of the downtown area, was completed in 1949. The official opening ceremonies were held August 15 of that year to commemorate The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the namesake of the church.
The first priest, Father Nicholars Billiris, began his service to the Greek Orthodox community on August 4, 1949 and continued for 35 years. He brought the tradition of diving for the cross on Epiphany to the West Coast, with the first such event held in 1952.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, church members had already begun exploring the idea of moving from Pacific Avenue to a site that could accommodate a larger church complex that catered to the growing number of Greek Orthodox worshippers in the community. By 1986, it was decided to find a new home for the church.
Mr. and Mrs. John Apostle, owners of the Golden Sails Restaurant and Hotel and members of the Greek Orthodox community, started a fund drive to purchase land. They made a donation of $20,000. Within two years, property on Colorado Street in East Long Beach, fronting Pacific Coast Highway, was purchased and the Pacific Avenue parcels were sold. Services were temporarily conducted at the vacated Miller’s Outpost Store in the Marina Pacifica Shopping Center for about three years.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in 1991 for the completion of the first two phases of the project – the new Assumption Church and a cultural center. Several fundraising events ensued to help meet the financial commitments of the project, including festivals and dinner dances. In 1995, an unexpected $1 million donation came from the estate of Long Beach resident Betty Rekas. The Assumption Church named the cultural center in her honor.
By the end of the 1990s, the church had received enough donations to pay off its mortgage debt. In the spring of 2006, Father John Adams came out of retirement for interim service to the Assumption Church until he brought in Father John Roll, Presvytera Fotini and their two sons, Yianni and Nicolas. Six years later, Father John Roll continues his service to the Greek Orthodox community and celebrates 75 years of the church in Long Beach.
“Even though there’s a Russian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, the original church started in Byzantium, and that’s why the Greek Orthodox is the original church dating back to Christ,” Father Roll told the Business Journal.
“From the day we got here, I had the benefit of being the beneficiary of the labor and many hard times. What it has meant to me is that I was humbled that I was even invited by our bishop to serve this parish.” During his tenure, Father Roll has seen the church grow and include more converts through interfaith marriages. Today, the church has about 325 stewards who contribute talent, time and treasury. Adding those who link themselves to the parish, there are 469 families associated with the Assumption Church.
“Being a part of the 75th anniversary, in terms of time, reminds me of a great quote I [often] think about,” Father Roll said. “St. John Chrysostom, who is the author of our liturgy, says that our time here, when you compare it to eternity, is like a drop of water in the ocean. Why I’m saying that is, in 75 years to my six years, I feel not unworthy but very blessed to step in this little portion of this church’s history and inheriting so many blessings, like the beautiful edifice.”
The Assumption Church’s fundraising chair, George Stavros, has been heavily involved in the final phase of construction. A Huntington Beach resident, he and his family have been a part of the Greek Orthodox community in Long Beach for generations.
“I’ve been with the church since I was a kid,” Stavros said. “I was baptized at the old church on Pacific Avenue. I have kids here too, and my dad used to be a parish councilmember at the old church. He was a part of that, and now I’m doing the fundraising on this to finish it up. It’s a great community.”
While the final phase of the church’s construction project, the building of the Assumption Center, was supposed to be finished when the church was built, financial difficulties left the project sitting for a while, Stavros said. “Ten years ago we started the process of getting it going, and it finally took off about five years ago,” he said. We got the money about three years ago.”
Father Roll said a Greek Orthodox woman had gifted $500,000 to the church in her estate. With those funds, and fundraising dollars earned, the church is now debt free. The Assumption Center construction is now coming to a close, with a ceremony expected this fall.
“The facility will include a gymnasium, the priest’s offices, the secretary’s office, classrooms, a few meeting rooms, a stage and more,” Father Roll said. “We will have Sunday school, Greek language school, Greek dance, our youth basketball league, a volleyball tournament – this is going to open up all sorts of doors. We have an excellent choir director, and she mentioned what a lot of churches do to create revenue is to offer lots of classes on violin and music, since the public school programs are dwindling or no longer there.”
In addition, Stavros said the church reaches out to other youth groups and underprivileged children to provide a space for education and fun. “It’s not so much to induce revenue, but to reach out,” he said. “We will have some days available that we can do that.”
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