History of the Greek Community in Wilmington, Delaware
The first known Greek Immigrants arrived in Wilmington in 1890. They were the Tsagares brothers, Panagiotes and James. Within a few years, John and Nick Govatos arrived and started the first “big” Greek business in Wilmington which exists to this day: Govatos Candies.
In 1913, Charles Tarabicos arrived and opened a restaurant. The first indication of “community” came about in 1920 as the Greek Language school was established on the second floor of his Presto restaurant at 8th and Market Streets. A study of early 20th Century businesses found many Greek confectioners and restaurateurs up and down Market Street, King Street, and elsewhere downtown.
In their desire to organize, the Greeks of Wilmington formed associations. The “Victory” Society in 1910. The “Panhellenic Union” in 1912. But it was the men’s organization, “Homer Society,” formed around 1920 that evolved into the driving force that cultivated the early seeds into what is now the Greek Community of Wilmington.
In 1922, in Atlanta, Georgia, a fraternal organization was formed. Its
goal was to Americanize the Greek immigrant by helping them learn the language and become citizens. Another goal was to protect the new American from the bigotry of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, which, at the time, was a major force in American politics. But its lasting influence was that it spearheaded the construction of Greek Orthodox churches while organizing Greek communities throughout the United States. That organization is the Order of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association). In 1926, under the leadership of John Govatos, Charles Tarabicos, and others, the Homer Club in Wilmington was transformed into Wilmington Chapter #95 of the
Order of AHEPA.
Greeks enjoy a special bond with their religion. Even though there was no church building, throughout the early years services were conducted by traveling priests who would come from Philadelphia. Some services were conducted at St. Andrews Episcopal Church at 8th and Shipley Streets. Others at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral at Concord Avenue and Market Street. But from 1927 to 1939, regular services were conducted on the third floor of the old “Law Building” at 9th and Market Streets.
In 1934, the community was formally incorporated and the campaign
to raise funds for the purchase of land began shortly thereafter. In July 1939, the community purchased the estate of the home of the late U.S. Senator T. Coleman DuPont for $35,000 as the site of their church.
The stables to the rear of the estate were converted into our first “permanent” church edifice. On November 30, 1939, Archbishop Athenagoras blessed the opening of the campaign to raise $150,000
at a fundraiser in the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel DuPont with dignitaries like Delaware Governor Richard McMillan, Wilmington Mayor Walter Bacon, and Greek Minister to the United States Demetrios Sicilianos
World War II delayed the construction of the church, but the Greeks
of Wilmington did their patriotic duty by selling U.S. War Bonds and helping their relatives in Nazi-occupied Greece and later during the
Greek Civil War.
But by 1948, enough funds were raised and the cornerstone for
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church was laid. After a slight delay,
ground was broken in March, 1950 and construction of the church began. On November 11, 1951, Archbishop Michael officiated in the Thyranixia (Door Opening) ceremony with over 1,000 people in attendance.
Throughout the 1950s, the emphasis was to finish the interior decoration of the church and the iconography was completed. In 1955, Governor J. Caleb Boggs signed a Joint Proclamation recognizing Eastern Orthodoxy as one of the major faiths of Delaware. With the completion of the church edifice, the old church, located in the converted duPont stables, was converted into a “Community Hall.” On September 24, 1961, Archbishop Iakovos officiated at the Consecration and procession of
relics of Holy Trinity.
As the community grew, various church-affiliated organizations were created. Under the auspices of the church, the Ladies Philoptochos Society was organized. This is a national Greek women’s organization —
a right hand of the church—whose primary purpose is to “help the poor.” The AHEPA organized local auxiliaries: The Daughters of Penelope for women, Sons of Pericles for young men, and Maids of Athena for young women. As the second generation of Greek-Americans became more educated, the Hellenic University Club was organized for members of the Greek community who were college graduates.
In the 1960s, the community became more “suburban” with
Greek-Americans moving to the northern suburbs of Wilmington, then towards Newark and New Castle. The church initiated its first “Summer Camp” in Cape Henlopen State Park. At its peak, over 100 children participated in the camp. The seeds for the Greek Festival were planted
in 1966 as the Philoptochos Society sponsored a “Christmas Bazaar” which was the first time that the Greek Community opened its doors to the general public.
As the community continued to grow, there was a need for more classrooms and a full service community center. In the mid-1970s, the recently completed Padua Academy permitted our use of their facilities for Sunday School and Greek School classrooms as well as use of their gym until our facility was completed.
In 1977, because of the popular response to Greek specialty food at a Bicentennial Food Festival downtown, the first Greek Festival was established. In October, the Hellenic Community Center opened with a special event featuring musical artist Bobby Rydell. On February 5, 1978, the new Center was dedicated. Later that year, with over 20,000 square feet of new usable space, the Greek Festival reached new heights. The following year, the community brought George Savalas (brother of TV’s “Kojak” Telly) to headline musical entertainment for the festival and a new chapter of our community was started.
Through the 1980s and 90s, The Greek Festival continued to grow and at one point was a seven day event. But the community’s limited space and personnel resources required that the festival be made more efficient. The grounds were expanded to utilize both sides of the church and the hours of operation extended to include lunch. This became an instant hit with downtown workers. But what eventually set the Greek Festival apart from other ethnic festivals in Wilmington was its emphasis on being exclusively Greek. The late Mayor, Dan Frawley said it best: “These Greeks get it. They only feature Greek music and Greek food.”
With the dawn of the new millennium, the community made an
earnest effort to correct decades of engineering errors. After years of leaks in the Byzantine dome, it was encased in a copper like barrier that finally stopped the leaking. Unfortunately, over the years, the leaks destroyed the iconography in the dome and along the columns supporting the dome. In 2003, that iconography was completely
updated using true Byzantine style.
Most recently, the Greek community continues to have an impact on
the local community in community service and education. The St. Elpida (Hope) organization sponsors a day each month of cooking a luncheon
for the less fortunate at the Emmanuel Dining Room.
The pioneers who came to Wilmington in the late 19th century
would be amazed at what their descendents have accomplished in 120 years. But without their bold initial steps, the impact of Greeks on the community of Wilmington, Delaware would not have gotten to where
it is today.
Please visit our Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church website at www.holytrinitywilmington.org