November 2010-On a sunny day in October, I walk with my family up Montrose Boulevard near Westheimer Road. Jolted by a low but sharp metallic sound buzzing through the air, I turn to my husband and I ask, “Is that a bouzouki?” As I amunaccustomed to hearing the sounds of this long necked Greek lute while traveling the streets of Houston, I would like a second opinion. “I do believe it is,” he replies, seeming proud in our shared instrumental acuity. The music signals that we are approaching our destination, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral and their annual Greek Festival.
The tinny tones swell as we move and mingle with the scent of fire and the seasoned meat and vegetable used to make souvlaki. The intoxicating mix of aroma and music guide us to the corner of Yoakum Boulevard and Harold Street. Noise from the busy streets behind us disappears as the sounds and scents transport us to a land, exotic but familiar, far away from the metropolitan bustle. The pale white brick signals the end of our trek, it is only three blocks but the intrigue and longing made it seem an eternity. As we reach the gate the pleasant pallor of the church’s adjacent annex is invaded by vibrant reds, deep blues, and golden yellows, as performers dressed in traditional costumes enter preparing for the next dance performance. I take a deep breath and realize that it is going to be a good day sharing this beautiful place and wonderful culture with the thousands of people who will visit the church this weekend.
The proto-cathedral we stand before is one of the largest Greek Orthodox churches in North America, erected in 1952, but it is not the original home of the Annunciation community in Houston. The first was built in 1917 on Walker Avenue, in what is now Tranquility Park because of the influx of immigrants from Greeceat beginning of the twentieth century. Upon arrival the Orthodox Greeks found no place to worship in the area save the Saints Constantine and Helen Orthodox Church in Galveston. There they fellowshipped with Russians and Serbians who shared their faith.
They might have remained, but the day trip by streetcar to Galveston from the Greek neighborhoods near Milam Street in downtown and West Gray in Fourth Ward proved too taxing for some. As an alternative the families would come together in private homes to celebrate Name days, the Saint’s Day for which the head of their house was named, or gather for Christmas or Easter. And after much prodding from the mothers, grandmothers and wives, the communities scraped together what money they had to build a small, white weather-beaten building near city hall. But soon after, the growth of the congregation and changes in the city of Houston necessitated a move from the original location.
Since the Annunciation’s founding more than 90 years ago, it has been a center for the Orthodox community to educate their children, celebrate their faith and indulge in a rich cultural heritage. The church is part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and became a Cathedral in 1967 when Houston became the See of the 8th district. The See has since moved and the Annunciation Cathedral is now under the Holy Metropolis of Denver.
The Cathedral complex includes the Polemanakos Education Building, the Steve G Caloudas Athletic Center, S P Martel Hall, a banquet area, the Cathedral bookstore, administrative offices, a festival center, and the St George Chapel. In the center of it all are a stunning outdoor courtyard and a square fountain. Fish at each corner issue forth plumes of water into a blue tile basin, and upon one of the fish a boy sits, cherubic, holding a fishing pole. The stained-glass windows of the wall of the Church look out upon this brick-paved pavilion enclosed by the walls of the compound’s various buildings and the olive trees that grow in the corners around from the fountain.
The Cathedral itself seems a pale vision. The walls are a beautiful mosaic of gray and white bricks. Upon entering, I thought that knowing a thing or two about Catholic churches will give me an understanding of what is inside, and I was and yet so wrong. Walking in, the walls bombard me with beauty. I can’t help but be stuck by Platytera, “She who embraces all the Heavens,” as she floats above the far end of the sanctuary. It is Mary, the Christ Child and mirrored images of the Archangel Gabriel over each shoulder. Her arms outstretched as if she held the whole of creation wound into a ball and released it leaving only the rounded remnant, a semi-domed recess know as an Apse. Icons of saints glow inside the sanctuary, gold and blue, red and green. Crystalline chandeliers hang though the center like shining stars. Stained glass windows, stream light into the open space between paintings of the Apostles, with all of their names written in Greek below.
They Icon of the Virgin Falling Asleep and the icon of St. Paul are from the original church but are not really in the Byzantine style. Paintings on the back wall were more in line with the classic style and have the symbolic representations small mouths and large ears for the Saints to speak less and listen to God more. All of the icons are in vivid hues of blue, gold, red and earthy oranges collectively filling the space with a deep sense of the divine. Over the pews a domed ceiling is decorated with images of the saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who bringing faith, hope and light to the parishioners of the Annunciation Cathedral as the parishioners bring them to the rest of the world though the church’s activities.
Sunday masses are conducted in Greek and English with morning prayers (Orthros or Matins) said before each service. As well as a number of community organizations structured to bring the parishioners together and foster a sense of unity. The church runs a Greek Language and Cultural School started in 1918. The language and cultural school teachers are fluent Greek speakers. GL&C School teaches language, geography, history, music and dance, and has classes for Pre-K through 7th grade, teen classes and adult classes all meeting weekday evenings.
The Greek Festival alone donated $34,500 in 2009 to charities like the Make a Wish, Star of Hope, Covenant House, Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, and Houston Area Women’s Center as part of its community outreach. What begins in the first week of October, started as a “Greek Night” to celebrate the Church’s 50th anniversary, ends not with the end of the music and food on Sunday evening but instead contributes to the spiritual and physical well-being of all, not just the parishioners of the Annunciation.
Through the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese AGOSS (singles group) and the Ladies Philoptochos Society are philanthropic organizations that fellowship while helping those in need. The church has many organizations for children: Faith, for newly baptized infants and toddlers (with parents); Hope, for K-2nd grade; Joy, for 3rd-6th grade; and GOYA, for 12-18 year olds. All are geared towards teaching about faith, tradition, and life. They host a chapter of Sea-Scouts of the Boy Scouts of America and offer marriage preparation courses and grief counseling. The church also started the Annunciation Orthodox School as a Pre-K in 1970 but it is now separate from the church teaching 3 year olds to 8th grade. All of these threads building web of caring, generous support so desperately needed in a modern world.
Traveling through the “nice” neighborhoods of Houston can be painful. Gargantuan speed bumps prevent you from cruising passed the sea starter mansions and faux plantation homes at what they would deem an unacceptable speed. Houses have hideous abstract lawn “art” implanted in the ground; all twisted metal and carved sealed wood pretending to be poignant. The thinly veiled desire for people to “look and envy, but don’t touch” is everywhere passing prominently placed signs advertising security services behind rod iron gates and towering wooden privacy fences. Everything geared toward a convening a pathetic imitation of culture, history, substance. Disconnected from their surroundings to the point of being surreal, it’s hard to believe that a places like this and worse exists in the same town the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a place that steeps visitors and parishioners with a sense of culture and meaning. But as I pass these scenes daily, I am grateful for they reside side by side and long for my next embrace with Platytera.
Aisha Colón is a first year student at the University of Houston Downtown, who is currently making a second attempt at a degree in Accounting. She was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, across the Wabash River from Purdue University, where she was enrolled in the Krannert School of Management.
If pressed, Aisha would describe herself as a “learning otaku,” as she has a tendency to immerse herself in any subject the catches her eye. She believes that learning feeds the soul and the moment you stop learning, like a plant without water, you begin to wither and die. This propensity has led her to collect a variety of odd hobbies, mannerisms, and media.
Aisha currently lives in Houston with her husband and son.