Greek Orthodox leader makes visit to Astoria

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The spiritual leader of world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians was greeted with a jubilant reception Friday for his visit to St. Demetrios Cathedral in Astoria, where the neighborhood’s strong ties to Greece appeared to convince him he stood in the true Athens of America.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited the church and the adjacent school during a three-city tour of the East Coast that brought him to Washington, D.C. and Boston before he arrived in New York at LaGuardia’s Marine Air Terminal at 3:30 p.m. Friday.

Although he had already met with President George Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the patriarch received what was likely the most enthusiastic reception of his seven-day journey when he stepped out of his car and into the embrace of the St. Demetrios Greek American School of Astoria

“If it were the pope, you’d have all the Catholics out,” said Van Christakos, a cubmaster from Astoria whose Boy Scout troop formed an honor guard to honor the arrival of the patriarch.

Two dozen priests and clergymen wearing flowing black robes stood along the sidewalk in front of the school to welcome Bartholomew, who passed by a crowded group of schoolchildren and altar boys gathered in a formation by the entrance.

A line of schoolchildren dressed in traditional costumes representing various regions of Greece stood along the stairwell leading up to the auditorium, greeting the Patriarch as he made the climb.

When he reached the Petros G. Patridis Cultural Center, an auditorium on the second story of the school, students awaited him in sharp navy blazers with gray pants or plaid skirts. A couple of the older students began the assembly by making presentations to him in fluent Greek.

The patriarch was impressed.

In a speech delivered entirely in Greek despite his fluent English, he commended the school and the Astoria community for holding onto Greek tradition while still embracing American culture and ideals.

“This is really the Athens of America,” Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America told the patriarch as they stood before the crowded hall.

As a case in point, Bartholomew gestured to the walls in the back of the auditorium, where two enormous murals represented the dual thrust of Greek heritage.

On the right was an image of the Parthenon, the temple in Athens that is seen today as symbolizing the architectural genius of ancient Greece. On the left was the Hagia Sophia, the grandiose church that was used for 1,000 years by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople before it was converted to a mosque and, finally, a museum.

“It’s our culture and our religion as one,” said Frodite Fountas, a student who enthusiastically described Bartholomew’s speech as she waited for him to step back outside on his walk between the school and the cathedral.

“I’m very proud because it’s very rare to actually get to meet him,” said Despina Galatoulas, a sophomore at the school. “It’s so exciting.”

It was also a point of pride for the 500 students at St. Demetrios.

“Out of all the schools in Astoria, they picked us,” said Amalea Sideris.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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