SACO - Though he lived on Storer Road in Saco, John Anagnostis grew up at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Biddeford. His parents had him baptized at its Emery Street building in 1929, and he remembers clearly what a skeleton of a building it was.
"It had no pews," he said. "The men stood on one side and the women on the other."
The son of Greek immigrants to Maine, he vividly recalls the first day of public school in Saco at age 6, having no idea what his teacher was saying. Like many other local Greek children, he attended Greek school every day after his regular schooling, where he'd continue to learn Greek language, culture and music. It's a tradition he said is crucial for the Greek Orthodox religion to survive.
"The first language is most households was Greek. I had to translate the teacher's words to Greek to understand because my parents always spoke Greek," he said. "But that's a matter of pride for the family, and that's how the Greek heritage continues and thrives. It's your ethnicity. You are Greek first."
St. Demetrios, the focal point of the city's Greek community, was built in 1909. On Sunday, members will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a banquet featuring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.
The church has moved three times in its 100 years. It was first located on lower Emery Street in Biddeford, moved to Adams Street in 1937, and from Adams to its current location in a new church built in 2000 at 187 Bradley St. in Saco. Its priest, the Rev. Basil Arabatzis, is credited by many members of the church with reinvigorating and strengthening the church community.
Earlier this week, church members were busy rolling dough into small Greek cookies, known as koulourakia, for an upcoming annual bazaar the church will hold. Stephanie Koutroulis said celebrations always have one common focal point: the food.
Koutroulis used to walk to the church on Adams Street in Biddeford, and then straight on to Greek School, like Anagnostis. She said the Greek Orthodox community is unique in that it doesn't hesitate to help each other out when necessary, but it doesn't hesitate to disagree, either. She mentioned relatives who would comment on the youth's Greek-speaking ability, though she spoke well, telling them their Greek was horrible and needed work.
"How you really learn Greek is to go to Greece and sit between two grandmothers, and you'd better learn," Koutroulis said.
She said it's more than just the Greek language that binds its members, though many Greek Orthodox were raised by first-generation immigrants who spoke Greek at home. The church offers church school programs, retreats, Bible studies, a dance group, and a youth camp in New Hampshire, which the church purchased a few years back.
She said St. Demetrios' members treat each other like a family.
"When someone asks, you don't refuse because it's disrespectful to refuse," she said.
Anagnostis said it's that kind of community-minded attitude that allowed the Greek Orthodox community to grow and thrive in the Saco-Biddeford area long enough to celebrate 100 years. He remembers his parents extending invitations to relatives in Greece to immigrate to Maine. He said once the family arrived, an informal game of host and sponsor ensued, the burden being placed on the host family, whose responsibility it was to find work, food and housing for the new arrivals. Anagnostis' father worked in Pepperell Mill in Biddeford. He also owned a fruit stand, where Anagnostis worked as a soda jerk, as he calls it.
"My uncle said to my father, there's work here, and I'll sponsor you," he said. "They established the church because to them, it's not a Greek community without a church."
Arthur Starr, whose wife Debbie converted to Greek Orthodoxy when they were married, said that there has been an inspiring influx of youth involved with the church, for which he credits Arabaztis, who gets the community involved by asking members to use their skills and talents to help in whatever way they can.
"Father Basil recognizes people's strengths and then utilizes those strengths," he said, pointing to the ladies rolling dough behind him. "They're here for their love of the church and because they know how to bake."
Anagnostis said people are attracted to the church because of a need they have.
"People are searching for something they can grasp on to and feel good about," he said. "The spirit is here, and when people come here they sense that activity and that sense of belonging."
"Yes...belonging," Kourtroulis said.