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The Greek Triangle of the Acre (Excerpts)

ARRIVAL AND EARLY YEARS

Alone, speaking only Greek, a destination tag safety-pinned to the black woolen suitcoat handmade by her mother, immigrant Vasiliki Karas, age 15, left Ellis Island by train for Lowell, Massachusetts. She could not have known in January 1917 that the Acre section of Lowell would become her permanent home; nor that she would not see her three younger sisters in Greece for fifty eight years. She would never see her mother, Evangelia, alive again. Widowed scarcely a year, Evangelia would die during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 in her home village of Skepari, Thessaly.

She carried with her one wool blanket and a woolen sack that contained her possessions; among them, two navy blue woolen skirts and two cotton dresses. In her suitcoat pocket she had her train ticket and the remainder of twenty dollars that her sponsor in Lowell had sent to assure the immigration officials that someone was waiting for her. Years later she would remember waiting for the twenty dollars to arrive at Ellis Island so that she would not be sent back to Greece. “Two women were sent back. Their husbands were supposed to be there, but no one came. They didn’t want to go back; they screamed and cried. I was frightened myself. What if no one sent for me? I didn’t want to go back, to be so close to America. I don’t know how those two women didn’t go mad. I didn’t have anyone to talk for me. If I went back I knew that I would never return. Where would I get the money? My father, when he returned from America in 1915, told us we would all emigrate. He bought himself and me tickets, we would come first, then we would send for my mother and my sisters. But he died just before Christmas. My mother didn’t want me to leave, but I had my ticket, my best friend Elizabeth Farris and her sister, who lived next door, were leaving. So I came, thinking to earn money and bring my mother and sisters here.”

On the train to Lowell, she kept touching her name tag, as the immigration officials had told her, to make sure she didn’t lose it. She talked about being directed by different people who read the destination tag and passed her from one person to another. “One to the other. From Greece, to Naples, to America. From the ship, to the ferry, to the train. The train conductor kept watching for me and when the train stopped, he took my hand and said, ‘This is Lowell’.”

“I had memorized the word Lowell. Po, po, how did I come all that way – ask me now to go anywhere. When I got off the train I was crying.” Her sponsor, a cousin of her mother, met her at the train depot and together they began to walk through the snow toward Dummer St. where she would live. She had a suitcoat over her clothes, for she had no overcoat, and wore the high button shoes that her father had brought from America just for her. Under one arm she carried a woolen blanket, under the other her sack of extra clothes. “Everything was frozen, huge snowbanks over my head, big icicles hanging from the roofs of houses. We had snow in my village but this! What had happened here?” An older Greek man passed us and said to my sponsor, ‘Where are you taking that girl, walking in this snow?’ He repeated it, ‘Where are you taking her? Why are you walking?’ I don’t remember his face, I was crying and watching myself so I wouldn’t slip and fall. What did I see on Dummer St? All the houses glued together.”

The houses were single dwellings, each one with its own front door, two rooms downstairs (one, the kitchen which had the stove), and two rooms upstairs. “In those days the people sifted the coal and coke ashes by the front door. Each doorway had a screen sifter beside it. They sifted, it snowed, they sifted, it snowed, until the snow and ashes reached sometimes to your shoulder. How many years with coal stoves before we got rid of them; now people are using them again.” So Vasiliki Karas settled in Lowell.

The city of Lowell, Massachusetts lies in a valley called the Merrimack, a name adopted into English from the Indian words meaning a place of strong (or swift) waters. If a slightly backward tilted capital letter “L” represents the Merrimack River, then Lowell straddles the river near the pivot point. Here the river changes direction from south (and slightly east) to northeast, as it flows from New Hampshire and into Massachusetts. Draining almost one half of New Hampshire, the Merrimack River begins its official journey at Franklin, New Hampshire, where the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee Rivers join, and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, nearly one hundred miles away (Reference 1). Because the river provided cheap and abundant power for factories and mills, several cities were established and flourished on its banks. On the long leg of the river, north of Lowell, lie cities in New Hampshire: Nashua, Manchester, Concord, Franklin. On the short leg, following Lowell are Lawrence, Haverhill and Newburyport, Massachusetts. Lowell itself was incorporated as a city in 1836 with a population of approximately 18,000 people.

Four years earlier in July of 1832, the Turkish Sultan signed the Treaty of Constantinople which recognized the independence of southern Greece (Peloponessus) after 400 years of Turkish rule. The Greek War of Independence, which began on March 25,1821, five years before Lowell was incorporated as a town, would recur until the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, nearly one hundred years later, when all of northern Greece also became free. Freedom came but the years of confiscatory taxes and deliberate strangulation of the Greek economy by the Turks, coupled with few natural resources, a growing and largely agrarian population with limited arable land, forced the Greeks to become wanderers in search of a better life. America beckoned to the world. Successive waves of immigrants (including Greeks), seemingly as inexhaustible as the waters of the Merrimack River, flowed into the valley to work in the steadily rising number of factories and mills. As had the earlier Irish immigrants, the first Greeks, and many who followed, settled in the heart of Lowell, in the Acre. By 1912, there were 20,000 Greeks in Lowell (Reference 2).

Looking True North, the Greater-Acre section of Lowell is a diamond shaped island with sides of approximately one mile. Its northerly sides are formed by the Merrimack River; its southerly sides by the Pawtucket Canal. Appropriately enough, the arterial conduits of river and canals that fed the factories and mills also enclosed the Greater-Acre and sustained its pulsing vitality. Eleven bridges and three railroad trestles connect its outer periphery to the rest of Lowell. The Greater-Acre island is itself divided into left and right sub-islands by two north-south canals that join. These two sub-islands are connected to each other by eleven bridges. Counting off-shoot canal crossings, there are about thirty bridges within the Greater-Acre or its periphery.

The section of Lowell called the “Acre” does not have definite boundaries and people differ as to what streets to include. However, its hub is a wedge bounded by Market and Fletcher Sts. Reasonable outer limits are Merrimack St. to the east and the University of Lowell South Campus to the west of the hub. The Acre includes Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, Dummer and Dutton Sts., and the North Common. It is heavily residential, as in the past, and contains the Triangle.

Six streets comprise the Triangle: Adams, Broadway, Fletcher, Lagrange, Marion, Suffolk. This area of about ten acres resembles an arrowhead pointing south: Broadway St. the base, Fletcher and Suffolk Sts. the two angle sides that meet at Liberty Square, Adams St. the center shaft. The other two streets lie within the arrowhead, Lagrange St. parallel to Broadway St.; Marion St. parallel to Adams St. As the Greek immigrants arrived in Lowell, they flowed naturally into the Acre and the Triangle to settle among their patrioti (fellow countrymen, more specifically, fellow villagers).

Driven mostly by the pressures of exploding populations (Ireland: 8,000,000 people, 1850) and economic disasters (Potato Rot, Ireland, 1846; German famine, 1847) more than 7,000,000 Northern Europeans (British, Irish, German, Scandinavians) migrated to the United States between 1800 and 1850. The Civil War and the Depression of 1872 temporarily slowed this influx between 1870 and 1890 approximately 8,000,000 more North Europeans entered the United States. Significant Greek migration occurred between 1890 and 1924 which coincided with the influx of 20,000,000 immigrants, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe. By 1920, out of a total U.S. population of 105.7 million, there were 175,972 foreign-born Greeks (References 3,4,5).

However, during these years a rising opposition to the newer immigrants produced attempts to limit their number. A Literacy Test Bill was passed by Congress in 1896, 1909 and 1915, but it was vetoed by the incumbent president. In 1917 a Literacy Bill was passed over presidential veto which barred from the country anyone over sixteen years of age who couldn’t read. Much to the befuddlement, chagrin, and fear of troubled earlier immigrants (as all Americans were except Indians) the law failed miserably. However the Immigration Act of 1921 did reduce Greek immigration (as well as Eastern and Southern European) by imposing a national origins quota for each nation. The harsher Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson Act) decreed a quota of two percent based on the 1890 census. These restrictive immigration laws favored the earlier immigrants from North Europe. Amendments to the law further reduced immigration. For example, during the 1930s the Italian quota was 5802 and the Greek quota 307. Asians were totally excluded. The national origins quota was not abolished until 1965, although special relief acts allowed refugees and displaced persons (after WW 11) to enter the United States exclusive of the quotas for a particular country (Reference 3). Despite the ignorance and prejudice that produced restrictive immigration laws, the Greek immigrants, as most other immigrants, enriched this country by their hard work. They sought jobs and so came to the cities of America, like Lowell, to work in the mills and factories. Each of the Greek immigrants had their own reasons for coming and their own stories.

John Spanos: “I was fifteen years old when I came to America in 1906. We lived good in the village, my parents, my two sisters and I. We had wheat all year round, made wine and sold olive oil. Then one time my father asked me if I wanted to go to America, to join my first cousin. I didn’t know whether I wanted to go or not, but I thought about it. After a while my father changed his mind but I said, ‘I’m going!’ and left with my uncle and a cousin. The ticket was fifty dollars, two hundred and fifty drachmas. It took us twenty days to cross, and the coals in the ship caught fire three times; nobody knew why. The ship’s name was Verdi, and everyone called it Dirty, as a joke.”

Thomas Releas: “My parents sent me to America for a better life but when I was leaving, my father, my mother, and my relatives all were crying. I was about sixteen when I came in 1912, young, so I didn’t mind leaving because I was going to see my sister who was married and living in America. I said goodbye and I left. When I went back to Greece for the first time in 1955, both my parents were dead.

“When I reached Ellis Island, I was sent to the hospital for thirteen days, because I had a sore on my cheek. I thought they were going to send me back, and I felt very, very bad. I was alone and I didn’t know any English but they let me go, and I came from New York by myself, a big name tag on me.” He remembered one of his first experiences in America, seeing people chew tobacco. “I was amazed when I first saw it. Like spitting blood on the snow. What are these people eating, I asked myself?”

Zoe Liakos: “I came to America to a married sister, intending to work for only three years, buy a sewing machine, and return to my village. When I arrived in September (1913), I didn’t like it at all, rain, mud, cold. I’d only seen some photographs so I didn’t know what to expect. The thing that amazed me, though, and I still remember it, were the street light lamps. I couldn’t understand how or why the lights worked even though I’d seen the man light the lamps in the evening, extinguish them in the morning. The cars amazed me too. How could a car move without someone pushing or something pulling?”

Evangelos Lekas: “ dream – coming to America – a dream.”

Emily Lekas: “The reason my parents came from Poland (1910) was there wasn’t enough food. They had a piece of land but it wasn’t enough for all the family. Where I come from (Pennsylvania), one of the first things the Polish immigrants did was buy land. My father had in mind, always, keep the house together.”

Evangelos Lekas: “I came to America in December 1913 (seven years old) with my mother Sabatou; my father had come about five years earlier. We would have come before but the Balkan War broke out and we were delayed. The boat trip was very rough because it was winter, but I remember the dolphins alongside the ship.

“When I walked out of the railroad station, in Lowell, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw snow as high as me, and higher. In Mani it doesn’t snow, except for frost in the winter, which disappears when the sun comes out. Mr. Speronis was waiting for us with a horse and sled and he drove us to Market St. My father was working so he couldn’t meet us. One of the most important things for a Greek, to supply food for his children.”

Zoe Ziogkos: “When I came to America, I was fourteen and I lived with an aunt, an uncle and a cousin. I came because it was better here – I could work and earn money. In the village what could I do, dig in the fields, work in the orchards? My father had come here before me, and worked for a year on the railroad, then returned to Greece. My sister Sophia (Kosartes) came to America, then I came and my brother, but both my parents remained in Greece. My first job was in a cotton mill and I got five or six dollars a week.”

Vasiliki Karas: “I came to America (1917) to live better. My father talked about this country, ‘It’s good, it’s good,’ he’d say. He bought tickets for himself and me but he died before we could leave. He used to call me his little dark one, and I think of him sometime, but I see him only dimly in my mind. I can’t seem to remember exactly how he looked, I don’t know why. I wouldn’t have left by myself but my girl friend from next door (Elizabeth Farris) and her sister were coming. I had everything packed and I had my ticket. At first my mother agreed, but at the train she cried and shouted for me not to go. She tried to pull me off, but it was too late to turn back, even if I had wanted to.

“My husband, Vaios, told me that in his village (Kastraki, province of Thessaly) all the people seemed to be going. The word spread, this one’s going, and that one’s going to America. People would ask, ‘Why is he going? Why shouldn’t I?’ Many left Kastraki and Kalabaka (a nearby city), but only a few from my village Skepari (higher in the mountains, above Kastraki) and most of those returned, to stay, but not my father. He wanted to return to America. Why, I didn’t fully understand then. We lived fair, had sheep and farmland, but we worked very hard and very long, and he didn’t want to work in the fields anymore. He couldn’t wait to return but the Mires (Fates) had written something else.”

Stavroula Harris: “My father came to America by himself about 1905 and he stayed five years. He returned to Greece because my mother didn’t want to come to America, she and the two children. She didn’t know any better. She forced my father to go back, but he never forgot this country.

“He used to say how beautiful it was and how nice to work, to come home, to get paid every week. ‘If I could walk to America, I’d go back but the ocean is in front of me.’ He worked on the railroad in Ohio (as did many of the earlier Greek immigrant men, like Vaios Karas (Karamousianis)), and when he returned he had five thousand dollars, American. In the village we were rich. When he went to church he wore a long black coat with a black fur collar, he looked so handsome.

“He was always talking about America. Before I came, in 1920, he explained to me about living with other people and how you paid board and room; and what money you had left you put in the bank. He taught me a few words in English, to say yes and no. I knew a lot about America, but I was young, only fourteen, when I came. I came to America on account of the dowry that a girl in Greece had to have to get married. With the girls in my family, and my cousins leaving for here, I said to myself, I’ll go there, work a few years, make money for the dowries, and return to my village. That was my idea then because I loved Greece; that was my country. In America, I even had a trunk, saving things to take back with me.”

Mary Koutsonikolas: “My older sister brought me to America. She had married in Greece and she wanted for us to be together because she didn’t have any of the family here. My other three sisters and my two brothers stayed in Greece, made their homes and didn’t want to leave. My mother was undecided about me, yes-no-yes-no, but I wanted to come, so finally she let me, with her sister.

“The voyage took about thirty-five days; we left in December 1920 and arrived at Ellis Island in January 1921. It was very stormy every day. Most of the people were terribly seasick, but not me, so I used to bring food to this one and water to that one. They were too sick to move.

“When I came to Lowell, I didn’t like it at all; the houses, especially the snow. I told my sister, what houses are these, and all this snow and cold. In my village if it snowed at night, it was gone by morning. Or if it snowed in the morning, gone by afternoon, but here! My sister said to me, ‘My little sister, if you don’t like it here in America, stay until you buy a return ticket and go back.’ Six months later I got married, and have never gone back to Greece.”

Though the Greek immigrants had scarcely settled in America, thousands returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

Apostolos Eleftheriou: “In Lowell, before the war, we were fifty or sixty people who drilled every Saturday in Dracut. In the beginning we wore our regular clothes, then we bought uniforms from the Merrimack Clothes Co., ten or twelve dollars each. Mr. Constantinidis was the officer who drilled us, and then we’d march from Dracut to Market St., disband, and go to the coffeehouses. There were organizations like ours all over America.

“When the war started, sixty or seventy thousand Greek immigrants returned to Greece to fight. Some had been here a few years, others just months. Still it was their patrida (fatherland), they had to go. How many young men got killed though.”

The young men marched off to war and each woman watched and began her own dark wait for them to return.

Mary Vergos: “I lived on Little St. in Theodore Gavriel’s houses. I remember the church bells of the Holy Trinity ringing to call the young men, who were leaving, to communion. All the people came to see them, and the mothers, the sisters, the wives, most were crying. The men formed in ranks in front of the church. Then with the band in front, playing loudly, they marched from the church to the train depot, with the people following behind, and the children running alongside, from Lewis St. to Suffolk St. to Fletcher St.”

John Spanos: “Everyone had different circumstances. Some went back to fight, others didn’t. Nobody notified us that we had to go. Because I was a Greek citizen I was liable for draft into the Greek army, even being in America. Everyone paid his own way and I paid fifty dollars for my trip ticket. When I returned, the Greek government paid for my ticket from Pireaus to New York City.

“I was twenty-one then and I was put into an office, because I was educated, with fifteen other privates and two corporals. The pay, as I remember, was three cents, American money, or fifteen lepta, in Greek money, a day. I didn’t get any discharge pay except my return ticket. Even though I had an education I couldn’t get promoted because I was assigned to an office, and only soldiers who had served in the field or had fought were promoted. I visited my parents a few times in southern Greece but it was very difficult since I was stationed in Thessalonika (northern Greece). I was discharged in 1916 and returned to America. The class of 1912 served the longest of all the draft classes.”

Many of the Greek immigrants died in battle. Christos Berys: “My older brother got killed. When he was here he took care of me, and I thought he would, of course, come back. What did I know of war, only the hurrahs and the brave loud words. When I learned that he’d been killed I couldn’t believe it; then it was as if I was going to die from my grief. My brother was too brave, too good. What could I do for him, only pray for his soul. I wanted to do more so I wrote a long poem describing how brave he was, how he had fought for his country and had died in the mountains of Greece, far away from America. I can still recite that poem, word for word, as I wrote it, more than fifty years ago. I still remember my brother. How can you forget someone you’ve loved.”

Many other Greek immigrants returned to Lowell to resume their lives; among them Charles Samaras, Vasilios Ganas (who had left a wife and five year old daughter), and John Kosartes who was decorated for bravery. They, and the others, had answered the call of their patrida as their sons and daughters would answer the call of America during the second world war.

From mid-1918 to the spring of 1919 an outbreak of influenza and pneumonia swept America and the world.  The disease claimed almost twenty-seven million people worldwide; half a million Americans perished, four times the number killed in the war. In all, some twenty million Americans suffered from this disease (Reference 6).

Vasiliki Karas: “All of us in the house caught the grippe, my mother’s cousin, his wife, their two children. He nearly lost them. The doctor came to the house and sent the wife to the hospital, but she had to go to the tuberculosis hospital on Varnum Avenue because there weren’t any beds in the other hospitals. We took the electric car to visit her.

“One evening when I got home from a visit a fever gripped me and I fell in bed burning. Thank God for the next-door neighbor, God rest her soul. I don’t know if I would have lived without her help. She was so good, not only to me, but to so many other sick people in the neighborhood. Everyone helped as much as they could but so many died in the neighborhood. I’d hear ‘so-and-so died’ and that one died. I couldn’t go to work because the factory nurse wouldn’t let you if you were sick. Many factories just shut down. I worried about my job. Like many others, I was afraid if I didn’t go to work, or if I couldn’t do my job because I was sick, I’d be fired. What would I do then?

“Then my mother died in the winter of 1919 from the grippe. My uncle wrote to me but what could I do, except cry for her. He took care of my sisters a while and he’d write to me for them. Then my three sisters went to different families to live.

“There were many hardships then, many people today don’t understand.”

James Palavras: “So many died from the grippe. The church bells of the Holy Trinity rang every day. On this day, the bell was ringing and my wife said, "Why don’t you go to church and see who has died.’

“I went to church, there were five or six caskets. An old priest was reading the service, the regular priest had died from the disease. While I was there, they brought in a young girl, about twenty-five, that my wife and I worked with in the mill. When I went home I told her, “There were five or six, but the last one I can’t tell you about.’ She insisted. I didn’t want to, my wife worked with the girl, next to each other. ‘Tell me,’ she kept asking, and when I told her she was shocked and cried.

“Every day someone died and the bell rang. One man, I don’t know what province he was from, not from our meria (portion or place of Greece), died, and he had two small sons. I don’t remember their ages, eh anyway, when the casket was brought into the church, the two children fell on it crying and shouting for their father not to leave them. All of us who were in church were touched and the priest could just recite the prayers, his voice quivering so that he couldn’t chant.

“Many of those who died were in their prime. It’s said, ‘When your time comes...young...old...who can escape?’.”

Christine Zouzas: “My father (James Karelas, later proprietor of a variety store in the Triangle) and my uncle Bill owned a dry goods store on Market and Jefferson Sts. During the influenza epidemic my uncle died, leaving his wife, in her early twenties; she’d married when she was sixteen, and had three small children. My father bought out her half of the store, and she moved away and remarried. One of her sons is a doctor now, living in Florida.”

In Greece, Mary Koutsonikolas recalled, “We were living in the city of Tripoli at that time. What I remember most about the sickness was that people got sick very abruptly. When a person got the grippe, that was it, they died.”

Though the stories of "streets paved with gold" lured some of the immigrants to America, the vast majority came because of the opportunities to work and make a living. The blessing was to have a job, no matter how long the hours and how difficult the work.

James Metilinos: “My father worked in the tannery all his life (American Hide and Leather Co.), and sometimes he would take us with him when he went to collect his pay. The first job he had was in the beam house, wearing hip boots because the water was up to his knees. This is where the raw hides were separated, always a stinking, rotten smell there. Later he became a stretcher, fastening the hides to a metal frame and curing them in ovens. That place was steamy and hot, every day, summer and winter. We knew how hard they worked, maybe that’s why we always had so much respect for them.”

The curse was not to have a job, or not to know when they awoke whether they’d work that day.

Demosthenes Samaras: “I was upset when my father didn’t work, I was the oldest, I understood what it meant to him. For him not to work was a very big thing. When he didn’t work we didn’t have any money. I’d get up when he left, about six in the morning, sit by the window and wait. If he wasn’t home by seven, I knew he was working and I’d be happy that day. Sometimes though, I’d see him turn the corner from Broadway St. into Marion St. No work. I’d be sad for him because I knew how badly he felt.”

As with other ethnic immigrants, the Greek immigrants in the Acre encountered hostility and prejudice during the first years of their arrival. Later, as these groups of people began to know each other, they realized that they shared many similar goals and began to respect each other’s customs and traditions, the hostility disappeared. Prejudice receded but still struck spasmodically, hurting deeply when it prevented someone from working.

Helen Veves: “Someone had told Mrs. Christopoulos’s husband at the coffeehouse that the Mohair Plush Co. was hiring. She told my mother and I went with them to help them with the application. Both my mother and she were light complexioned, sometimes my mother was taken as Polish. The man in the office said, ‘The boss isn’t here, but come back tomorrow, I promise you a job.’

“We left and the next morning the two of them went there for the jobs. Mrs. Christopoulos went first. He asked her name.

“ ‘Oh,’ he said, just like that. ‘You’re Greek.’ To my mother, ‘You too. Wait, I’ll see if the boss needs any help.’ He’d already given them the applications. When he came back out he said, ‘I’m sorry, he doesn’t need any help today.’

“It just happened that Mrs. Rodopoulos was working there but she was also fair. She had her name Rhodes because she told us later she’d known they didn’t hire Greeks.”

James Palavras: “Sometimes a few jobs opened and everybody would go and apply. Where the Market Mills are now, it was a munitions factory during the first world war. The factory began hiring and crowds went to apply. The line stretched from Worthen St., across the bridge, to where the parking Garage is now, on Market St., where the office was.

“There were two hiring agents. Lepon, they’d ask your name and so on. For the Greeks, ‘No job, we have no work today.’ Somebody else following would give his name and he’d be hired. It happened many times to many of the young Greek men. One day we were standing at the bridge, next to the Holy Trinity, a group of us, and discussing it, when Reverend Tachinopoulos came by. He was a good man, he died during the grippe epidemic. Anyway, he greeted us and we told him that we weren’t being hired because we were Greek.

“The next morning we were in line again, he walked by us and went into the office of the director. He told us all this after. ‘I’ve come to ask why you don’t hire Greek workers?’

“The director called in the two hiring agents. ‘Is what the reverend says true?’ They didn’t know what to say, what could they say. Right there the director gave them their notice and the factory began to hire Greeks.”

Anastasia Releas: “We had to work. We didn’t know how to speak English though. In the shoe-factory, some would make fun of me. I remember this Irish boy, nice, and very tall, about eighteen, he must be an old man now, pulling my pigtails (she was sixteen). I didn’t see any prejudice in the shoe shop except some of the young people teased me. They spoke to me in English, I replied in Greek, that’s all I knew. Vasilios Kiafis, the only other Greek working there, used to try to help me. ‘Tasia,’ he’d say to me, ‘Don’t you mind them, they’re only teasing you.’ When I got up in the morning, though, sometimes I’d cry before going to work to face all that teasing.”

John Spanos: “In the mills, during the early years, some bosses hired Greeks, some didn’t. One of my first jobs, I was small, was in the Merrimack Mills gathering spools (bobbin boy) and I quarreled with the mechanic who went to hit me. I told the boss and the mechanic was fired but he went to the Boott Mills and got another job. I don’t know why the boss took my side, maybe because he had two small boys, and he’d bring them in the mill sometimes and I’d look after them.

“Some places didn’t rent to Greeks, but not too many, because the Greeks had one trait, they paid their rent and they took care of the property. Of course some places were old and run-down so the people couldn’t do much with them. Yet the Greek people never made a place worse if they lived in it, if anything, they improved it.”

The prejudice experienced by the Greek immigrants sometimes surfaced to confront their children, years later.

Theodore Veves: “I’ll never forget, one day, after a heavy snowstorm, Harry Scarmeas, my brother Peter, and myself went to the City Barns (On Broadway St., part of the Triangle) to get a job shoveling snow for the city. We had to bring our own shovels too. We stood in line, in the cold, and the boss kept calling names, but no Greek names. We waited and waited outside but finally we ran to Dummer St., to Theodore Koutras, the barber, and told him. Right then he came back with us and confronted the boss. ‘Why aren’t you giving these kids work?’ The boss did; he sent us to Butterfield St. to shovel the sidewalks.”

Work, however difficult or low paid, regulated the lives of the Greek immigrants and was the mainspring of their energy.

Apostolos Eleftheriou: “I came to America when I was fifteen years old, in 1909. My father and two brothers were already here, but my mother and two more children remained in Greece.

“My first job, I worked for three months without pay while I learned the work, and I had to go to night school to learn English. Then I got two, two and a half dollars a week at the Appleton Mills. After two years I was earning six dollars a week, so with my father and two brothers, we made twenty-four dollars amongst the four of us. That’s the way it was then; you didn’t get paid while you learned. What were they paying then anyway, for twelve hours a day, nine or ten cents an hour.

“The mills began to slow down in nineteen twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven. My brother-in-law and my cousin helped me get a job at Laganas Shoe Co. where I worked as a pattern cutter for about forty years, until the shoe shop closed in 1963.”

Thomas Releas: “I was sixteen (1912) when I got my first job weaving six looms (Lancaster Mills, Clinton Mass.); a bit later I worked eight looms making gabardine and gingham. The first week I didn’t get paid, after that, five dollars a week. In the summer it got very hot inside the mill but we would open the windows for fresh air. I worked in the mills, all my life, as a weaver. On Monday and Thursday evenings I worked part time in the fruit market, Saturday all day, making about four or five dollars a week. The mill work was steady all through the 1920s (when the mills in Lowell began to close). We used to hear about labor troubles and union troubles. There wasn’t any union in the Lancaster Mills. Nobody tried to organize us.”

Vasiliki Karas: “If you lived in a large tenement, as I did, on Brooks St. (near the Triangle) which had six families, there was always someone who could baby sit. For a time a widowed friend of mine lived beneath me on the second floor. When I went to work early in the morning I left my son sleeping, but I put out his clothes and made breakfast. After I left she would go upstairs dress and feed him. During the day the door to our house was unlocked so that if he wanted something he could go in and get it.

“When the mills began to slow down in the nineteen twenties, you didn’t know from day to day whether you’d work, but I still needed a babysitter because you had to go to the factory and be told if they needed you. If you didn’t work that day, you still had to pay the babysitter something even though you hadn’t earned anything.”

Evangelos Lekas: “In the summer (1924, 1925) out of high school, we used to go to Asbury Park N.J. to work. We didn’t have any days off, but the boss would give us a couple of hours during the day to go to the beach. They’d give us the cottage but we did our own housekeeping, such as it was. You can imagine, we were only sixteen, seventeen.

“We were about twenty Greek boys from the Acre except for one Irish boy. He could speak Greek. His grandfather had been a Civil War veteran, and they lived on Adams St., close to St. Patrick’s school. His name was O’Brien but he could pass for a Greek the way he talked. One time someone asked him his name, ‘O’Brienopoulos.’ Anyway, we’d come home with between two and three hundred dollars, which was a lot of money then.”

If the Greek immigrant could have a job, he was thankful. Not working meant he had to use the family savings to pay the rent, buy groceries, clothe the children, meet the obligations of church and school; be vulnerable when next he needed money and had no more. There was little public aid, so he had to depend upon himself and obligate his patrioti when in desperate need.

During some sleepless hour of the night, he’d struggle to answer the questions he’d asked himself before and would ask himself again. “Will I have to ask once again, my grocer, for credit? How much do I owe him now? When will I be able to repay him? What if he can’t give me any more credit and I cause him shame and embarrassment when he has to refuse me?” He thought of his wife, who lay beside him, pretending to be asleep, so as not to hurt him with questions she knew he couldn’t answer; his children secure in their belief that he would provide for them. He wished with all his heart that his children would never know the anguish of wanting to work and not being able to find a job.

Still, as the night hours passed and morning came, so too would the workless days end as long as he could arise and begin another day. He thought of his parents and better understood why they had sent him to America, for they had endured poverty and struggled to provide for the family, many times without hope. Here in America there was always hope. Even in the darkest days of the Depression.

Nicholas Karas
Copyright © by Nicholas Karas

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The Greek Triangle of the Acre (Excerpts)

ARRIVAL AND EARLY YEARS

Alone, speaking only Greek, a destination tag safety-pinned to the black woolen suitcoat handmade by her mother, immigrant Vasiliki Karas, age 15, left Ellis Island by train for Lowell, Massachusetts. She could not have known in January 1917 that the Acre section of Lowell would become her permanent home; nor that she would not see her three younger sisters in Greece for fifty eight years. She would never see her mother, Evangelia, alive again. Widowed scarcely a year, Evangelia would die during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 in her home village of Skepari, Thessaly.

She carried with her one wool blanket and a woolen sack that contained her possessions; among them, two navy blue woolen skirts and two cotton dresses. In her suitcoat pocket she had her train ticket and the remainder of twenty dollars that her sponsor in Lowell had sent to assure the immigration officials that someone was waiting for her. Years later she would remember waiting for the twenty dollars to arrive at Ellis Island so that she would not be sent back to Greece. “Two women were sent back. Their husbands were supposed to be there, but no one came. They didn’t want to go back; they screamed and cried. I was frightened myself. What if no one sent for me? I didn’t want to go back, to be so close to America. I don’t know how those two women didn’t go mad. I didn’t have anyone to talk for me. If I went back I knew that I would never return. Where would I get the money? My father, when he returned from America in 1915, told us we would all emigrate. He bought himself and me tickets, we would come first, then we would send for my mother and my sisters. But he died just before Christmas. My mother didn’t want me to leave, but I had my ticket, my best friend Elizabeth Farris and her sister, who lived next door, were leaving. So I came, thinking to earn money and bring my mother and sisters here.”

On the train to Lowell, she kept touching her name tag, as the immigration officials had told her, to make sure she didn’t lose it. She talked about being directed by different people who read the destination tag and passed her from one person to another. “One to the other. From Greece, to Naples, to America. From the ship, to the ferry, to the train. The train conductor kept watching for me and when the train stopped, he took my hand and said, ‘This is Lowell’.”

“I had memorized the word Lowell. Po, po, how did I come all that way – ask me now to go anywhere. When I got off the train I was crying.” Her sponsor, a cousin of her mother, met her at the train depot and together they began to walk through the snow toward Dummer St. where she would live. She had a suitcoat over her clothes, for she had no overcoat, and wore the high button shoes that her father had brought from America just for her. Under one arm she carried a woolen blanket, under the other her sack of extra clothes. “Everything was frozen, huge snowbanks over my head, big icicles hanging from the roofs of houses. We had snow in my village but this! What had happened here?” An older Greek man passed us and said to my sponsor, ‘Where are you taking that girl, walking in this snow?’ He repeated it, ‘Where are you taking her? Why are you walking?’ I don’t remember his face, I was crying and watching myself so I wouldn’t slip and fall. What did I see on Dummer St? All the houses glued together.”

The houses were single dwellings, each one with its own front door, two rooms downstairs (one, the kitchen which had the stove), and two rooms upstairs. “In those days the people sifted the coal and coke ashes by the front door. Each doorway had a screen sifter beside it. They sifted, it snowed, they sifted, it snowed, until the snow and ashes reached sometimes to your shoulder. How many years with coal stoves before we got rid of them; now people are using them again.” So Vasiliki Karas settled in Lowell.

The city of Lowell, Massachusetts lies in a valley called the Merrimack, a name adopted into English from the Indian words meaning a place of strong (or swift) waters. If a slightly backward tilted capital letter “L” represents the Merrimack River, then Lowell straddles the river near the pivot point. Here the river changes direction from south (and slightly east) to northeast, as it flows from New Hampshire and into Massachusetts. Draining almost one half of New Hampshire, the Merrimack River begins its official journey at Franklin, New Hampshire, where the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee Rivers join, and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, nearly one hundred miles away (Reference 1). Because the river provided cheap and abundant power for factories and mills, several cities were established and flourished on its banks. On the long leg of the river, north of Lowell, lie cities in New Hampshire: Nashua, Manchester, Concord, Franklin. On the short leg, following Lowell are Lawrence, Haverhill and Newburyport, Massachusetts. Lowell itself was incorporated as a city in 1836 with a population of approximately 18,000 people.

Four years earlier in July of 1832, the Turkish Sultan signed the Treaty of Constantinople which recognized the independence of southern Greece (Peloponessus) after 400 years of Turkish rule. The Greek War of Independence, which began on March 25,1821, five years before Lowell was incorporated as a town, would recur until the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, nearly one hundred years later, when all of northern Greece also became free. Freedom came but the years of confiscatory taxes and deliberate strangulation of the Greek economy by the Turks, coupled with few natural resources, a growing and largely agrarian population with limited arable land, forced the Greeks to become wanderers in search of a better life. America beckoned to the world. Successive waves of immigrants (including Greeks), seemingly as inexhaustible as the waters of the Merrimack River, flowed into the valley to work in the steadily rising number of factories and mills. As had the earlier Irish immigrants, the first Greeks, and many who followed, settled in the heart of Lowell, in the Acre. By 1912, there were 20,000 Greeks in Lowell (Reference 2).

Looking True North, the Greater-Acre section of Lowell is a diamond shaped island with sides of approximately one mile. Its northerly sides are formed by the Merrimack River; its southerly sides by the Pawtucket Canal. Appropriately enough, the arterial conduits of river and canals that fed the factories and mills also enclosed the Greater-Acre and sustained its pulsing vitality. Eleven bridges and three railroad trestles connect its outer periphery to the rest of Lowell. The Greater-Acre island is itself divided into left and right sub-islands by two north-south canals that join. These two sub-islands are connected to each other by eleven bridges. Counting off-shoot canal crossings, there are about thirty bridges within the Greater-Acre or its periphery.

The section of Lowell called the “Acre” does not have definite boundaries and people differ as to what streets to include. However, its hub is a wedge bounded by Market and Fletcher Sts. Reasonable outer limits are Merrimack St. to the east and the University of Lowell South Campus to the west of the hub. The Acre includes Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, Dummer and Dutton Sts., and the North Common. It is heavily residential, as in the past, and contains the Triangle.

Six streets comprise the Triangle: Adams, Broadway, Fletcher, Lagrange, Marion, Suffolk. This area of about ten acres resembles an arrowhead pointing south: Broadway St. the base, Fletcher and Suffolk Sts. the two angle sides that meet at Liberty Square, Adams St. the center shaft. The other two streets lie within the arrowhead, Lagrange St. parallel to Broadway St.; Marion St. parallel to Adams St. As the Greek immigrants arrived in Lowell, they flowed naturally into the Acre and the Triangle to settle among their patrioti (fellow countrymen, more specifically, fellow villagers).

Driven mostly by the pressures of exploding populations (Ireland: 8,000,000 people, 1850) and economic disasters (Potato Rot, Ireland, 1846; German famine, 1847) more than 7,000,000 Northern Europeans (British, Irish, German, Scandinavians) migrated to the United States between 1800 and 1850. The Civil War and the Depression of 1872 temporarily slowed this influx between 1870 and 1890 approximately 8,000,000 more North Europeans entered the United States. Significant Greek migration occurred between 1890 and 1924 which coincided with the influx of 20,000,000 immigrants, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe. By 1920, out of a total U.S. population of 105.7 million, there were 175,972 foreign-born Greeks (References 3,4,5).

However, during these years a rising opposition to the newer immigrants produced attempts to limit their number. A Literacy Test Bill was passed by Congress in 1896, 1909 and 1915, but it was vetoed by the incumbent president. In 1917 a Literacy Bill was passed over presidential veto which barred from the country anyone over sixteen years of age who couldn’t read. Much to the befuddlement, chagrin, and fear of troubled earlier immigrants (as all Americans were except Indians) the law failed miserably. However the Immigration Act of 1921 did reduce Greek immigration (as well as Eastern and Southern European) by imposing a national origins quota for each nation. The harsher Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson Act) decreed a quota of two percent based on the 1890 census. These restrictive immigration laws favored the earlier immigrants from North Europe. Amendments to the law further reduced immigration. For example, during the 1930s the Italian quota was 5802 and the Greek quota 307. Asians were totally excluded. The national origins quota was not abolished until 1965, although special relief acts allowed refugees and displaced persons (after WW 11) to enter the United States exclusive of the quotas for a particular country (Reference 3). Despite the ignorance and prejudice that produced restrictive immigration laws, the Greek immigrants, as most other immigrants, enriched this country by their hard work. They sought jobs and so came to the cities of America, like Lowell, to work in the mills and factories. Each of the Greek immigrants had their own reasons for coming and their own stories.

John Spanos: “I was fifteen years old when I came to America in 1906. We lived good in the village, my parents, my two sisters and I. We had wheat all year round, made wine and sold olive oil. Then one time my father asked me if I wanted to go to America, to join my first cousin. I didn’t know whether I wanted to go or not, but I thought about it. After a while my father changed his mind but I said, ‘I’m going!’ and left with my uncle and a cousin. The ticket was fifty dollars, two hundred and fifty drachmas. It took us twenty days to cross, and the coals in the ship caught fire three times; nobody knew why. The ship’s name was Verdi, and everyone called it Dirty, as a joke.”

Thomas Releas: “My parents sent me to America for a better life but when I was leaving, my father, my mother, and my relatives all were crying. I was about sixteen when I came in 1912, young, so I didn’t mind leaving because I was going to see my sister who was married and living in America. I said goodbye and I left. When I went back to Greece for the first time in 1955, both my parents were dead.

“When I reached Ellis Island, I was sent to the hospital for thirteen days, because I had a sore on my cheek. I thought they were going to send me back, and I felt very, very bad. I was alone and I didn’t know any English but they let me go, and I came from New York by myself, a big name tag on me.” He remembered one of his first experiences in America, seeing people chew tobacco. “I was amazed when I first saw it. Like spitting blood on the snow. What are these people eating, I asked myself?”

Zoe Liakos: “I came to America to a married sister, intending to work for only three years, buy a sewing machine, and return to my village. When I arrived in September (1913), I didn’t like it at all, rain, mud, cold. I’d only seen some photographs so I didn’t know what to expect. The thing that amazed me, though, and I still remember it, were the street light lamps. I couldn’t understand how or why the lights worked even though I’d seen the man light the lamps in the evening, extinguish them in the morning. The cars amazed me too. How could a car move without someone pushing or something pulling?”

Evangelos Lekas: “ dream – coming to America – a dream.”

Emily Lekas: “The reason my parents came from Poland (1910) was there wasn’t enough food. They had a piece of land but it wasn’t enough for all the family. Where I come from (Pennsylvania), one of the first things the Polish immigrants did was buy land. My father had in mind, always, keep the house together.”

Evangelos Lekas: “I came to America in December 1913 (seven years old) with my mother Sabatou; my father had come about five years earlier. We would have come before but the Balkan War broke out and we were delayed. The boat trip was very rough because it was winter, but I remember the dolphins alongside the ship.

“When I walked out of the railroad station, in Lowell, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw snow as high as me, and higher. In Mani it doesn’t snow, except for frost in the winter, which disappears when the sun comes out. Mr. Speronis was waiting for us with a horse and sled and he drove us to Market St. My father was working so he couldn’t meet us. One of the most important things for a Greek, to supply food for his children.”

Zoe Ziogkos: “When I came to America, I was fourteen and I lived with an aunt, an uncle and a cousin. I came because it was better here – I could work and earn money. In the village what could I do, dig in the fields, work in the orchards? My father had come here before me, and worked for a year on the railroad, then returned to Greece. My sister Sophia (Kosartes) came to America, then I came and my brother, but both my parents remained in Greece. My first job was in a cotton mill and I got five or six dollars a week.”

Vasiliki Karas: “I came to America (1917) to live better. My father talked about this country, ‘It’s good, it’s good,’ he’d say. He bought tickets for himself and me but he died before we could leave. He used to call me his little dark one, and I think of him sometime, but I see him only dimly in my mind. I can’t seem to remember exactly how he looked, I don’t know why. I wouldn’t have left by myself but my girl friend from next door (Elizabeth Farris) and her sister were coming. I had everything packed and I had my ticket. At first my mother agreed, but at the train she cried and shouted for me not to go. She tried to pull me off, but it was too late to turn back, even if I had wanted to.

“My husband, Vaios, told me that in his village (Kastraki, province of Thessaly) all the people seemed to be going. The word spread, this one’s going, and that one’s going to America. People would ask, ‘Why is he going? Why shouldn’t I?’ Many left Kastraki and Kalabaka (a nearby city), but only a few from my village Skepari (higher in the mountains, above Kastraki) and most of those returned, to stay, but not my father. He wanted to return to America. Why, I didn’t fully understand then. We lived fair, had sheep and farmland, but we worked very hard and very long, and he didn’t want to work in the fields anymore. He couldn’t wait to return but the Mires (Fates) had written something else.”

Stavroula Harris: “My father came to America by himself about 1905 and he stayed five years. He returned to Greece because my mother didn’t want to come to America, she and the two children. She didn’t know any better. She forced my father to go back, but he never forgot this country.

“He used to say how beautiful it was and how nice to work, to come home, to get paid every week. ‘If I could walk to America, I’d go back but the ocean is in front of me.’ He worked on the railroad in Ohio (as did many of the earlier Greek immigrant men, like Vaios Karas (Karamousianis)), and when he returned he had five thousand dollars, American. In the village we were rich. When he went to church he wore a long black coat with a black fur collar, he looked so handsome.

“He was always talking about America. Before I came, in 1920, he explained to me about living with other people and how you paid board and room; and what money you had left you put in the bank. He taught me a few words in English, to say yes and no. I knew a lot about America, but I was young, only fourteen, when I came. I came to America on account of the dowry that a girl in Greece had to have to get married. With the girls in my family, and my cousins leaving for here, I said to myself, I’ll go there, work a few years, make money for the dowries, and return to my village. That was my idea then because I loved Greece; that was my country. In America, I even had a trunk, saving things to take back with me.”

Mary Koutsonikolas: “My older sister brought me to America. She had married in Greece and she wanted for us to be together because she didn’t have any of the family here. My other three sisters and my two brothers stayed in Greece, made their homes and didn’t want to leave. My mother was undecided about me, yes-no-yes-no, but I wanted to come, so finally she let me, with her sister.

“The voyage took about thirty-five days; we left in December 1920 and arrived at Ellis Island in January 1921. It was very stormy every day. Most of the people were terribly seasick, but not me, so I used to bring food to this one and water to that one. They were too sick to move.

“When I came to Lowell, I didn’t like it at all; the houses, especially the snow. I told my sister, what houses are these, and all this snow and cold. In my village if it snowed at night, it was gone by morning. Or if it snowed in the morning, gone by afternoon, but here! My sister said to me, ‘My little sister, if you don’t like it here in America, stay until you buy a return ticket and go back.’ Six months later I got married, and have never gone back to Greece.”

Though the Greek immigrants had scarcely settled in America, thousands returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

Apostolos Eleftheriou: “In Lowell, before the war, we were fifty or sixty people who drilled every Saturday in Dracut. In the beginning we wore our regular clothes, then we bought uniforms from the Merrimack Clothes Co., ten or twelve dollars each. Mr. Constantinidis was the officer who drilled us, and then we’d march from Dracut to Market St., disband, and go to the coffeehouses. There were organizations like ours all over America.

“When the war started, sixty or seventy thousand Greek immigrants returned to Greece to fight. Some had been here a few years, others just months. Still it was their patrida (fatherland), they had to go. How many young men got killed though.”

The young men marched off to war and each woman watched and began her own dark wait for them to return.

Mary Vergos: “I lived on Little St. in Theodore Gavriel’s houses. I remember the church bells of the Holy Trinity ringing to call the young men, who were leaving, to communion. All the people came to see them, and the mothers, the sisters, the wives, most were crying. The men formed in ranks in front of the church. Then with the band in front, playing loudly, they marched from the church to the train depot, with the people following behind, and the children running alongside, from Lewis St. to Suffolk St. to Fletcher St.”

John Spanos: “Everyone had different circumstances. Some went back to fight, others didn’t. Nobody notified us that we had to go. Because I was a Greek citizen I was liable for draft into the Greek army, even being in America. Everyone paid his own way and I paid fifty dollars for my trip ticket. When I returned, the Greek government paid for my ticket from Pireaus to New York City.

“I was twenty-one then and I was put into an office, because I was educated, with fifteen other privates and two corporals. The pay, as I remember, was three cents, American money, or fifteen lepta, in Greek money, a day. I didn’t get any discharge pay except my return ticket. Even though I had an education I couldn’t get promoted because I was assigned to an office, and only soldiers who had served in the field or had fought were promoted. I visited my parents a few times in southern Greece but it was very difficult since I was stationed in Thessalonika (northern Greece). I was discharged in 1916 and returned to America. The class of 1912 served the longest of all the draft classes.”

Many of the Greek immigrants died in battle. Christos Berys: “My older brother got killed. When he was here he took care of me, and I thought he would, of course, come back. What did I know of war, only the hurrahs and the brave loud words. When I learned that he’d been killed I couldn’t believe it; then it was as if I was going to die from my grief. My brother was too brave, too good. What could I do for him, only pray for his soul. I wanted to do more so I wrote a long poem describing how brave he was, how he had fought for his country and had died in the mountains of Greece, far away from America. I can still recite that poem, word for word, as I wrote it, more than fifty years ago. I still remember my brother. How can you forget someone you’ve loved.”

Many other Greek immigrants returned to Lowell to resume their lives; among them Charles Samaras, Vasilios Ganas (who had left a wife and five year old daughter), and John Kosartes who was decorated for bravery. They, and the others, had answered the call of their patrida as their sons and daughters would answer the call of America during the second world war.

From mid-1918 to the spring of 1919 an outbreak of influenza and pneumonia swept America and the world.  The disease claimed almost twenty-seven million people worldwide; half a million Americans perished, four times the number killed in the war. In all, some twenty million Americans suffered from this disease (Reference 6).

Vasiliki Karas: “All of us in the house caught the grippe, my mother’s cousin, his wife, their two children. He nearly lost them. The doctor came to the house and sent the wife to the hospital, but she had to go to the tuberculosis hospital on Varnum Avenue because there weren’t any beds in the other hospitals. We took the electric car to visit her.

“One evening when I got home from a visit a fever gripped me and I fell in bed burning. Thank God for the next-door neighbor, God rest her soul. I don’t know if I would have lived without her help. She was so good, not only to me, but to so many other sick people in the neighborhood. Everyone helped as much as they could but so many died in the neighborhood. I’d hear ‘so-and-so died’ and that one died. I couldn’t go to work because the factory nurse wouldn’t let you if you were sick. Many factories just shut down. I worried about my job. Like many others, I was afraid if I didn’t go to work, or if I couldn’t do my job because I was sick, I’d be fired. What would I do then?

“Then my mother died in the winter of 1919 from the grippe. My uncle wrote to me but what could I do, except cry for her. He took care of my sisters a while and he’d write to me for them. Then my three sisters went to different families to live.

“There were many hardships then, many people today don’t understand.”

James Palavras: “So many died from the grippe. The church bells of the Holy Trinity rang every day. On this day, the bell was ringing and my wife said, "Why don’t you go to church and see who has died.’

“I went to church, there were five or six caskets. An old priest was reading the service, the regular priest had died from the disease. While I was there, they brought in a young girl, about twenty-five, that my wife and I worked with in the mill. When I went home I told her, “There were five or six, but the last one I can’t tell you about.’ She insisted. I didn’t want to, my wife worked with the girl, next to each other. ‘Tell me,’ she kept asking, and when I told her she was shocked and cried.

“Every day someone died and the bell rang. One man, I don’t know what province he was from, not from our meria (portion or place of Greece), died, and he had two small sons. I don’t remember their ages, eh anyway, when the casket was brought into the church, the two children fell on it crying and shouting for their father not to leave them. All of us who were in church were touched and the priest could just recite the prayers, his voice quivering so that he couldn’t chant.

“Many of those who died were in their prime. It’s said, ‘When your time comes...young...old...who can escape?’.”

Christine Zouzas: “My father (James Karelas, later proprietor of a variety store in the Triangle) and my uncle Bill owned a dry goods store on Market and Jefferson Sts. During the influenza epidemic my uncle died, leaving his wife, in her early twenties; she’d married when she was sixteen, and had three small children. My father bought out her half of the store, and she moved away and remarried. One of her sons is a doctor now, living in Florida.”

In Greece, Mary Koutsonikolas recalled, “We were living in the city of Tripoli at that time. What I remember most about the sickness was that people got sick very abruptly. When a person got the grippe, that was it, they died.”

Though the stories of "streets paved with gold" lured some of the immigrants to America, the vast majority came because of the opportunities to work and make a living. The blessing was to have a job, no matter how long the hours and how difficult the work.

James Metilinos: “My father worked in the tannery all his life (American Hide and Leather Co.), and sometimes he would take us with him when he went to collect his pay. The first job he had was in the beam house, wearing hip boots because the water was up to his knees. This is where the raw hides were separated, always a stinking, rotten smell there. Later he became a stretcher, fastening the hides to a metal frame and curing them in ovens. That place was steamy and hot, every day, summer and winter. We knew how hard they worked, maybe that’s why we always had so much respect for them.”

The curse was not to have a job, or not to know when they awoke whether they’d work that day.

Demosthenes Samaras: “I was upset when my father didn’t work, I was the oldest, I understood what it meant to him. For him not to work was a very big thing. When he didn’t work we didn’t have any money. I’d get up when he left, about six in the morning, sit by the window and wait. If he wasn’t home by seven, I knew he was working and I’d be happy that day. Sometimes though, I’d see him turn the corner from Broadway St. into Marion St. No work. I’d be sad for him because I knew how badly he felt.”

As with other ethnic immigrants, the Greek immigrants in the Acre encountered hostility and prejudice during the first years of their arrival. Later, as these groups of people began to know each other, they realized that they shared many similar goals and began to respect each other’s customs and traditions, the hostility disappeared. Prejudice receded but still struck spasmodically, hurting deeply when it prevented someone from working.

Helen Veves: “Someone had told Mrs. Christopoulos’s husband at the coffeehouse that the Mohair Plush Co. was hiring. She told my mother and I went with them to help them with the application. Both my mother and she were light complexioned, sometimes my mother was taken as Polish. The man in the office said, ‘The boss isn’t here, but come back tomorrow, I promise you a job.’

“We left and the next morning the two of them went there for the jobs. Mrs. Christopoulos went first. He asked her name.

“ ‘Oh,’ he said, just like that. ‘You’re Greek.’ To my mother, ‘You too. Wait, I’ll see if the boss needs any help.’ He’d already given them the applications. When he came back out he said, ‘I’m sorry, he doesn’t need any help today.’

“It just happened that Mrs. Rodopoulos was working there but she was also fair. She had her name Rhodes because she told us later she’d known they didn’t hire Greeks.”

James Palavras: “Sometimes a few jobs opened and everybody would go and apply. Where the Market Mills are now, it was a munitions factory during the first world war. The factory began hiring and crowds went to apply. The line stretched from Worthen St., across the bridge, to where the parking Garage is now, on Market St., where the office was.

“There were two hiring agents. Lepon, they’d ask your name and so on. For the Greeks, ‘No job, we have no work today.’ Somebody else following would give his name and he’d be hired. It happened many times to many of the young Greek men. One day we were standing at the bridge, next to the Holy Trinity, a group of us, and discussing it, when Reverend Tachinopoulos came by. He was a good man, he died during the grippe epidemic. Anyway, he greeted us and we told him that we weren’t being hired because we were Greek.

“The next morning we were in line again, he walked by us and went into the office of the director. He told us all this after. ‘I’ve come to ask why you don’t hire Greek workers?’

“The director called in the two hiring agents. ‘Is what the reverend says true?’ They didn’t know what to say, what could they say. Right there the director gave them their notice and the factory began to hire Greeks.”

Anastasia Releas: “We had to work. We didn’t know how to speak English though. In the shoe-factory, some would make fun of me. I remember this Irish boy, nice, and very tall, about eighteen, he must be an old man now, pulling my pigtails (she was sixteen). I didn’t see any prejudice in the shoe shop except some of the young people teased me. They spoke to me in English, I replied in Greek, that’s all I knew. Vasilios Kiafis, the only other Greek working there, used to try to help me. ‘Tasia,’ he’d say to me, ‘Don’t you mind them, they’re only teasing you.’ When I got up in the morning, though, sometimes I’d cry before going to work to face all that teasing.”

John Spanos: “In the mills, during the early years, some bosses hired Greeks, some didn’t. One of my first jobs, I was small, was in the Merrimack Mills gathering spools (bobbin boy) and I quarreled with the mechanic who went to hit me. I told the boss and the mechanic was fired but he went to the Boott Mills and got another job. I don’t know why the boss took my side, maybe because he had two small boys, and he’d bring them in the mill sometimes and I’d look after them.

“Some places didn’t rent to Greeks, but not too many, because the Greeks had one trait, they paid their rent and they took care of the property. Of course some places were old and run-down so the people couldn’t do much with them. Yet the Greek people never made a place worse if they lived in it, if anything, they improved it.”

The prejudice experienced by the Greek immigrants sometimes surfaced to confront their children, years later.

Theodore Veves: “I’ll never forget, one day, after a heavy snowstorm, Harry Scarmeas, my brother Peter, and myself went to the City Barns (On Broadway St., part of the Triangle) to get a job shoveling snow for the city. We had to bring our own shovels too. We stood in line, in the cold, and the boss kept calling names, but no Greek names. We waited and waited outside but finally we ran to Dummer St., to Theodore Koutras, the barber, and told him. Right then he came back with us and confronted the boss. ‘Why aren’t you giving these kids work?’ The boss did; he sent us to Butterfield St. to shovel the sidewalks.”

Work, however difficult or low paid, regulated the lives of the Greek immigrants and was the mainspring of their energy.

Apostolos Eleftheriou: “I came to America when I was fifteen years old, in 1909. My father and two brothers were already here, but my mother and two more children remained in Greece.

“My first job, I worked for three months without pay while I learned the work, and I had to go to night school to learn English. Then I got two, two and a half dollars a week at the Appleton Mills. After two years I was earning six dollars a week, so with my father and two brothers, we made twenty-four dollars amongst the four of us. That’s the way it was then; you didn’t get paid while you learned. What were they paying then anyway, for twelve hours a day, nine or ten cents an hour.

“The mills began to slow down in nineteen twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven. My brother-in-law and my cousin helped me get a job at Laganas Shoe Co. where I worked as a pattern cutter for about forty years, until the shoe shop closed in 1963.”

Thomas Releas: “I was sixteen (1912) when I got my first job weaving six looms (Lancaster Mills, Clinton Mass.); a bit later I worked eight looms making gabardine and gingham. The first week I didn’t get paid, after that, five dollars a week. In the summer it got very hot inside the mill but we would open the windows for fresh air. I worked in the mills, all my life, as a weaver. On Monday and Thursday evenings I worked part time in the fruit market, Saturday all day, making about four or five dollars a week. The mill work was steady all through the 1920s (when the mills in Lowell began to close). We used to hear about labor troubles and union troubles. There wasn’t any union in the Lancaster Mills. Nobody tried to organize us.”

Vasiliki Karas: “If you lived in a large tenement, as I did, on Brooks St. (near the Triangle) which had six families, there was always someone who could baby sit. For a time a widowed friend of mine lived beneath me on the second floor. When I went to work early in the morning I left my son sleeping, but I put out his clothes and made breakfast. After I left she would go upstairs dress and feed him. During the day the door to our house was unlocked so that if he wanted something he could go in and get it.

“When the mills began to slow down in the nineteen twenties, you didn’t know from day to day whether you’d work, but I still needed a babysitter because you had to go to the factory and be told if they needed you. If you didn’t work that day, you still had to pay the babysitter something even though you hadn’t earned anything.”

Evangelos Lekas: “In the summer (1924, 1925) out of high school, we used to go to Asbury Park N.J. to work. We didn’t have any days off, but the boss would give us a couple of hours during the day to go to the beach. They’d give us the cottage but we did our own housekeeping, such as it was. You can imagine, we were only sixteen, seventeen.

“We were about twenty Greek boys from the Acre except for one Irish boy. He could speak Greek. His grandfather had been a Civil War veteran, and they lived on Adams St., close to St. Patrick’s school. His name was O’Brien but he could pass for a Greek the way he talked. One time someone asked him his name, ‘O’Brienopoulos.’ Anyway, we’d come home with between two and three hundred dollars, which was a lot of money then.”

If the Greek immigrant could have a job, he was thankful. Not working meant he had to use the family savings to pay the rent, buy groceries, clothe the children, meet the obligations of church and school; be vulnerable when next he needed money and had no more. There was little public aid, so he had to depend upon himself and obligate his patrioti when in desperate need.

During some sleepless hour of the night, he’d struggle to answer the questions he’d asked himself before and would ask himself again. “Will I have to ask once again, my grocer, for credit? How much do I owe him now? When will I be able to repay him? What if he can’t give me any more credit and I cause him shame and embarrassment when he has to refuse me?” He thought of his wife, who lay beside him, pretending to be asleep, so as not to hurt him with questions she knew he couldn’t answer; his children secure in their belief that he would provide for them. He wished with all his heart that his children would never know the anguish of wanting to work and not being able to find a job.

Still, as the night hours passed and morning came, so too would the workless days end as long as he could arise and begin another day. He thought of his parents and better understood why they had sent him to America, for they had endured poverty and struggled to provide for the family, many times without hope. Here in America there was always hope. Even in the darkest days of the Depression.

Nicholas Karas
Copyright © by Nicholas Karas

Return to Nicholas Karas    Go to:    The Greek Triangle of the Acre         Greek Immigrants at Work

Greek Immigrant Chronicals (Excerpts)

4 – Faith and the Church

The first large group of Eastern Orthodox communicants in continental America was Greeks from various parts of the Mediterranean basin who finally abandoned the settlement of New Smyrna, Florida in 1777 because of disease and death.

Russian monks (Eastern Orthodox) settled on Kodiak Island, Alaska (then known as Russian America) in 1794. In 1900 the diocese of “Aleutian Islands and North America”, established by the Holy Russian Synod, established its headquarters in San Francisco. From there, the diocese sought to exercise its jurisdiction throughout the North American continent.

In 1905 Bishop Tikhon proposed that the Russian synod establish an independent (autonomous or autocephalous) church in North America to include all Orthodox ethnics. Farsighted, he also recommended the translation of the liturgy into English, for he foresaw that many future communicants would understand only English.

Meanwhile, other ethnic Orthodox communities began to spring up in America. For example, Greeks played a major role in establishing the Eastern Orthodox Holy Trinity Church in New Orleans (1866). Other Greek immigrants founded church communities in major American cities like New York, and Chicago (circa 1892). In Lowell, MA, which was to become the home of one of the largest Greek communities in America within twenty-five years, the first Divine Liturgy was celebrated by Greek immigrants in 1893.

Orthodox communities, especially Greek and Rumanian, ignored the assumed jurisdiction of the Russian diocese. For example, the Greeks turned to their mother-country church to establish a familial umbilical cord to nourish their religious communities, and also to sustain their cultural identity as Greeks.

The steps that led to the creation of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox community of Lowell, MA were typical of those followed by other Greek immigrants in creating their own religious communities in other cities of America. First, the scattered Greek immigrants gathered together and formed informal “associations” which served to identify both individual and collective needs. As their numbers grew they organized themselves into a more formal community (kinotis), with an elected council or board of directors (symvoulion).

In Lowell, in 1895, the association was called the Washington-Acropolis society and consisted of approximately two hundred members. By 1895, about four hundred and fifty (450) Greek immigrants resided in Lowell. Up to 1900, among other endeavors, the “Washington-Acropolis” association assumed the task of persuading Greek Orthodox priests to visit Lowell, and also of renting suitable quarters in which to perform the liturgy. One of the more frequent visitors was Archimandrite Rev. Kallinikon Delveis from New York City (NY).

Later, the Greek immigrants of Lowell organized themselves as a Greek Orthodox Community, and elected officers and board members for the “Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church”. The elected officials quickly undertook the task of incorporation under Massachusetts Laws (March, 1900), and chose “Greek Orthodox Community” as the corporation name.

Up to that time the Lowell Greeks had held church services in rented quarters, such as the Associate Hall (1895), and the Urban Hall (1900), which were within walking distance for most of them. In 1901 (February) they purchased a house at the corner of Lewis and Jefferson Streets, in the heart of the Greek community which was located in a section of Lowell called the Acre. Subsequently, they used this house for church services. In 1903 (November), they purchased an adjacent tenement on Lewis St.

The first property cost sixty-five hundred dollars ($6500.00), of which the Greek community raised one thousand fifty ($1050.00), and mortgaged forty-five hundred dollars ($4500.00). A second mortgage of twenty-eight hundred dollars ($2800.00), again with The Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank, secured the second property.

On Suffolk St., parallel to Lewis St. but separated from it by the Northern Canal, stood imposing St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, directly opposite the Greek Orthodox “tenement house” church. The grey stone structure dominated the neighborhood of mostly wooden tenement houses by its sheer size, its soaring bell tower, and its complex of accompanying buildings. As testimony of their faith, Irish immigrants to the Acre had built St. Patrick’s in 1850.

Equally intense in their faith, the Greek community resolved not only to erect a church for worship, but also to create a building that would proudly and unequivocally proclaim its Greek Orthodox heritage.

The cornerstone was laid on Sunday, October 29, 1906, attended by approximately one thousand Greeks, with the ceremony officiated by the Reverend Nicholas Lazaris. The next day, a Lowell Sun newspaper article describing the event, also reported that the procession of Greeks from Mathews Hall on Dutton Street to the building site included St. Patrick’s Cadet Band. Seventeen and one-half months later, on Sunday, March 15, 1908, the Reverend Lazaris officiated at the official opening of the church doors.

The Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Lowell was the first Byzantine-style Greek Orthodox church built in America. Today the church is a national treasure, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The faith of the Greek immigrants, their determination, and their sacrifice, brought into being a vision of spiritual beauty.

Money problems from trying to meet the mortgage payments, and church expenses, threatened the existence of the parish in 1920. After a plea by church leaders, Greek immigrants donated money, jewelry, wedding bands, and other personal valuables which saved the church from foreclosure. The 75th anniversary book states that, “16,000 (dollars) was contributed that day.”

During the decade of the 1920s, the political and religious turmoil in Greece, a continuation of the political and religious upheavals starting in 1915, discombobulated even the most placid of Greek immigrants in America. Greek political authority changed unpredictably between the royalists and the republicans, sometimes followed and sometimes led by changes in ecclesiastical authority both in the Church of Greece, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The changes in ecclesiastical authority especially provoked quarrels in Greek church communities in America for the changes created confusion about who had jurisdiction and control of the local parish’s administration and finance.

Aside from the paramount religious importance in their lives, the proprietary interest of the Greek men in the local church rose from several factors. Some had helped to establish and build the church. Others managed its finances, and directed its policies. Members supported it by paying dues from meager and hard-earned wages. Personal ambitions and animosities played a role. Even those on the sidelines of political involvement expressed their opinions on church affairs.

All Greek men believed that they had a right to talk about any subject however little they knew about it. They also believed that such an occasion was very rare, but being fair-minded, they conceded that once – maybe twice – that might have occurred. Each maintained that accusations of ignorance from other participants in a discussion came from their frustration in failing to demolish his analysis. On proof of that, he said, was that the others bellowed and grew apoplectic, in contrast to his reasoned words and calm demeanor. Until – unfortunately – in self defense, he also had to explode.

During the early years, the Greek immigrant “public” community meshed with the “religious” community. Thus, the “church community” offered the Greek immigrant men a democratic forum in which they could voice their thoughts and feelings about all matters that concerned them, both religious and secular.

During the mill strikes of 1912 in Lawrence (MA) and Lowell (MA), the downstairs hall of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church served as the meeting place for striking Greek workers, and also as a forum for guest speakers such as Helen Gurley Flynn, a union leader in the I.W.W.

To recapitulate, three major disagreements divided members of the early Greek church communities in America: political (Royalists vs. Venizelists), religious (Julian, old calendar, observance vs. Gregorian, new,), ecclesiastic jurisdiction (royalist appointed bishops vs. Venizelist appointed bishops which entangled the Church of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate).

A controversy also existed between the various Orthodox ethnic churches. By history, from the Byzantine times, the Patriarch of Constantinople was a Greek. It, the Church of Greece and the Archdiocese of North and South America, all ethnic Greek Orthodox, resisted other ethnic Orthodox churches, especially the Russians, in their attempts to establish jurisdiction over Greek Orthodox communities, or even to ordain priests.

To complicate the quarrels, many Greek immigrants held conflicting beliefs about the disagreements. However, as generally defined, the “Frouri” were old calendar royalists, the “Laiki (pronounced La-ee-ki)” were new calendar republicans or Venizelists.

On a Wednesday evening (December 27,1922), President Apostolos Johnson of the Holy Trinity presided over a meeting – more than 1000 members attended – in which the assembly voted to secede from the Holy Synod of Athens and the Patriarchate.

Among those in forefront of a committee to draw up a new set of by-laws and petition the secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a new charter were: Constantine Vurgaropoulos, Constantine Constantinides, Christos Ziogkos, James Kirkilis (secretary), James Danas, Peter Rigopoulos, John Tavoularis, James Angelopoulos, Vasilios Christakos, Louis Gagalis, John Batsillis.

The above action followed similar actions of about fifty-four other Greek communities throughout America. Approximately sixty-six other communities had taken no action so far.

A newspaper report on the next day contained other information about the Greek community in Lowell. On Sunday, January 7, 1923 would be Greek Christmas Day according to the Julian calendar, and more than a thousand children were expected at the celebration.

Also a new teacher, Aris Voyatjis, had been added to the Holy Trinity Parochial School staff. He had taught at some of the principal schools in Greece for over fifteen years. A member of the Greek bar, having graduated from the University of Athens, he spoke Greek, French and English fluently. Ousted by Venizelos as a teacher, he had later been appointed a secretary in a ministry by Prime Minister Gounaris during the reign of King Constantine. He declared that he loved this country, and determined to stay here indefinitely. The school had approximately 400 boys and girls, and five Greek and two English teachers. The principal was Peter Souflis.

The secession of the Holy Trinity was declared illegal by President Johnson. At a tumultuous meeting on Friday, January 5, 1923, the members deposed Johnson, and ratified their vote to secede taken a week earlier to 1) renounce allegiance to the Holy Synod of Athens and Patriarchate of Constantinople 2) pledge allegiance to the Greek Independent Church of the United States and Canada, and Bishop Germanos of New York, head of the Independent Church 3) change the name of the community from Greek Orthodox community of Lowell, Mass., to Independent Greek community of Lowell, Mass., Holy Trinity.

Deposed President Apostolos Johnson sought a court injunction to prevent use of the church and its funds by the opposing faction. Ousted Rev. Nestor Souslides declared that the community was under the spiritual government of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and direct jurisdiction of Bishop Alexander Rodostolou of New York. “Bishop Germanos Troianos has been recalled by Constantinople, and has no jurisdiction in America.” Despite the efforts of the deposed president the church remained in the hands of those who had seceded.

However, like the law of physics that states that every action has a reaction, Greek immigrant factions acted and reacted in a seemingly endless cycle of bickering, quarrels, and even violence.

On January 20, 1923, Mr. Johnson and Dr. D. Generales requested the presence of police officers at next day’s services. Edward T. Tierney, counsel for the Vurgaropoulos faction, declared that no one would be barred from attending services, but that Rev. Souslides would not be allowed to officiate. Services would be conducted by Rev. Costos Papanicholas who had been assigned by Bishop Alexander of New York.

A regular church service was conducted at 8:00 A.M. by Rev. Nicholas Meniedes and Rev. Constantine Papanicholas. At 12:30 P.M. Mr. Johnson, Rev. Fr. Souslides, and about thirty followers attempted to enter the church, but were confronted by board members who declared that people could enter the church but that Rev. Fr. Souslides could not officiate at a service. After discussions, with Counsel Tierney also present, Mr. Johnson and his followers left.

A church announcement stated that the following Sunday a memorial service would be held for the late former King Constantine and that Bishop Germanos of New York, head of the Greek Independent Church of the United States, would officiate.

The same week President Constantine Vurgaropoulos received the news that his brother Alexander, age 22, a lieutenant in the Greek army, was a Turkish prisoner. Constantine's brother Harilos in Greece wrote in his letter that he feared for their brother’s life because most of the Greek officers captured by the Turks were being put to death.

On February 11, 1923 more than six thousand Greeks attended the memorial service for the late king at the Holy Trinity, officiated by Archbishop Panteleimon of Neapolis (Greece).

In November of 1923 Metropolitan Vasilios Komvopoulos of Methimnes, a royalist and an adherent of the Julian calendar, arrived in Lowell, MA and the Holy Trinity. The members voted a by-law pledging ecclesiastic allegiance to him for four years. Meanwhile the groundwork for his break with the Archdiocese of North and South America had already been established because the Church of Greece and the Archdiocese, earlier in the year, had accepted the Gregorian calendar. Disregarding his excommunication by the Holy Synod and the Patriarchate, Vasilios proclaimed Lowell, MA as his see, and designated the Holy Trinity as his cathedral for the Independent Royalist Communities of the United States and Canada during December of 1924.

            Unrest simmered continually in the Greek community; trouble flared on Friday, February 1, 1924. Church officials refused admittance to a group of dissidents who wanted to hold a meeting and adopt resolutions condemning by-laws and regulations passed the previous December. The petition to hold the meeting was said to have the approval of Vice-President Achilles Natsios, but was opposed by President Panos Rigopoulos.

The president declared that although only 101 names were required to hold a meeting, and the petition contained 123, many of the names had not been signed in person. Further, the petition had not been presented to the proper authorities for official approval. Upon refused admittance early Friday evening, the dissidents broke open a door and entered the church. However the police, who had been summoned by the president in anticipation of violence, persuaded the trespassers to leave peacefully, if noisily. Bishop Vasilios, away at the time, expressed his sorrow at the trouble and turmoil between his parishioners, all of whom he loved.

Later the president declared that the malcontents numbered only 125 out of more than 1000 parishioners, and he deplored the harm done to the peace and stability of the church community. Since the start of the controversy, the church had paid out two thousand dollars for legal fees. Some church officials accused involved lawyers of advising people to go to court instead of settling differences.

In defense of the church-board’s handling of finances, President Rigopoulos gave an accounting: church holdings were valued at 500,000 dollars with a mortgage of 65,000 dollars. The real estate consisted of the church edifice, property on Dummer, Worthen, and Market Streets consisting of 40 tenements including three stables, several stores and two school buildings.

During the past year the church paid 6000 dollars on the debt, 2000 dollars interest on principal, and spent 4000 dollars on tenement repair. Furthermore, since the coming of the new archbishop (Vasilios) church collections increased and average of over 100 dollars a month.

Finally he said that elections would be held on February 22 (1924), and that he did not fear another disturbance.

On February 21, 1924 the East Cambridge superior court refused to issue an injunction sought by George Patsourakos and George Genekos which would have postponed the scheduled 22 February election, and also restrained the adoption of by-laws making Bishop Vasilios head of the community. President Panos Rigopoulos and Treasurer Theodore Gavriel appeared for the current board.

A group of dissidents in the church community, which included many prominent Greek immigrants, decided that they no longer wanted to be part of the Holy Trinity congregation.  Gathering together, they incorporated themselves under the name of the Transfiguration Greek orthodox community, they rented quarters to hold services; within a year they erected their own church building.

Emmanuel Kaknes served as president from 1924 to 1928. Others who served as president, up to WWII were: Antonios Sampatakos, Costas Georgeou, Costos Deros, Theodore Thomatos, Leonidas Keramidas, James Sintros, Arthur Veves, Christos Svelantopoulos, Michael Pappas, George Malliaros.

Spiros Sintros: “For the first time, we had services in a building on John street, where the parking garage is now.  There used to be a Protestant church there. They closed it and we rented it. Yes, my father went there. I can’t tell exactly but we stayed there about two or three months.

Then they decided to build a church here (present location at the corner of Father John Sarantos Way and Hanover Street). The cost was going to be about sixty to sixty-five thousand dollars.  As I remember they borrowed fifty-five thousand dollars from the bank, and paid back so much per month.

“But the Problem was, they couldn’t pick up enough money on Sundays. What – thirty-five dollars! How were we going to pay the priest, the psalti, heat, electricity? So we were going under.  We did all we could, we couldn't pick up the money.

“My brother Jimmy was involved at that time. So a group of them – trustees – went to the bank and gave them the keys. ‘Here are the keys to the church, we can’t pay you.’

“The banker says, ‘What am I going to do with that building. If it was level ground it could be a garage. What are we going to do with it?’

“ ‘What then can we do?’

“ ‘Can you pick up any money at all?’

“ ‘Possibly. How much money do you want?’

“The banker says, ‘Four thousand dollars.’

“The Holy Trinity was having the same kind of trouble. They were in financial trouble too. Who bailed them out – Laganas. He bought the mortgage for thirteen thousand dollars and stayed (as president or board member) until be got his money back.

“This is the way they decided to raise the money.  I own a couple of bricks there, in this church. They went around, and sold stock, ten dollars each, and got two hundred people to buy twenty dollars each to get the four thousand.

“The church was ours. Two hundred people own it today.

“Then at the end, business is very good. The young people take over the church, and they make some money. And they decide to build up. Something like three hundred thousand dollars. Some people said to build it at the bottom of the Lafayette Club.

“You can’t do what you want. This church owned by two hundred people. We’re going to give them questionnaires and let them decide. So they did.

“And I signed. I said, ‘I want it right here. I don’t want it moved. Eighty to eighty-five percent said right here.”

He explained his feelings about the Transfiguration. “How does it feel when I come to this church?

“When we go by here with my grand-daughter, a little baby, my wife says, ‘Christina, it’s Papou’s and mine church. Do your cross.’

“I feel part of the Transfiguration. Absolutely. Absolutely.

“I know that some people don’t support the church regularly – not only this one, but like the Holy Trinity, and the others. They use it for baptisms, or weddings, or funerals. Well, if they feel they don’t want to give to the church that’s the way it is.

“The people who built this church are not here anymore. There were many businessmen. The time came when the banks were after us for the money. Whatever they owned, they put in their wife’s name, or relative because they were afraid the bank was going to attach what they owned.

“Everybody had to sacrifice to support the church all through the Depression, to keep the church going.

“Listen, I don’t want you to think that I and the others did tremendous things. Whatever we did, we did for the good of the community, and the people know it. We don’t want to feel that if it wasn’t for us, this never would have happened. Yes, it would have. We have good people in this community (Transfiguration), good people.

“Why they picked this location for the church, I don’t know, I can’t tell you. But I can tell you one thing though. Down at the bottom of the hill here was a big block, a big house. We bought that house.

“We knew we needed more land, for parking, and other things. Whatever the church needs, people are willing to get together and do.

“We are still here, we’re happy. I think we got the best Ladies Society in the country. The board, the members, all work for the church.

“When I was a vice-president, George Dristiliares was president. He owned the Ymittos Candle Company. Every Easter, all the candles we used, he’d say, ‘No charge.’

The political upheavals in Greece continued unabated between 1922 and 1927. Due to the catastrophic Greek defeat in Asia Minor King Constantine had abdicated in favor of his son George in September of 1922.

King George left Greece in October of 1923; in December the Liberals (Venizelists, anti-monarchists) won the election.

In 1925, General Theodoros Pangalos seized the government. However, in August (1926), General Georgios Kondilis deposed General Pangalos.

Venizelos to Greece from exile in March 1928, became prime minister in August, and remained in power until 1932.

In Lowell, MA the political and religious turmoil of the early 1920s in the Greek community, had subsided during 1925, 1926, and 1927. In 1928, violence erupted in the Holy Trinity church community.

However the Transfiguration church community remained quiet, and its members worked diligently to support the church. For example, on January 31, 1928, the Ladies Association held their annual ball at Association Hall for the benefit of the Transfiguration school. Officers and members who directed the affair included: Mrs. Helen N. Houpis, vice-president; Mrs. Ithome J. Athanasoulas, secretary; Miss Cornelia Spyropoulos, treasurer; Mrs. Pota P. Vekos and Mrs. Pota D. Coumoundoureas. Men who assisted included: Emmanuel D. Kaknes, Sam Houpis, James Athanasoulas, Constantine Ganellas, Arthur Nakos, Sam Sampatakos, James Papacostas, George Harkoplis, James Sintros, Demetrios Kates, Athanasios Serfes, Efstratios Gazos, John Dagoumes.

In February, the Transfiguration basketball team made ready to play St. Anne’s at the Church of All Nations gym on Worthen St. Starters for the Transfiguration: Fypeas, lf; Saunders, rf; Paul Coumoundoureas, c; Peter Coumoundoureas, lg; Faneros, rg.

In March the Transfiguration Juniors defeated the Holy Trinity Juniors at the Y.M.C.A gym, 21 to 11. The local newspaper declared it a fast game. Transfiguration players were, Skandalis, Saxones, Katsiganis, Georgecoulos, Georgon, Salpas; Holy Trinity, Voyatjis, Vergados, Sarris, Mangianos, Sokorellis, Busbanes, Fafasanos, Tsonpnokokos.

In February of 1928, Holy Trinity church elections returned the Laiki to control. The new church board immediately disowned any jurisdictional claims by Archbishop Vasilios and his followers. Also, they refused to allow the bishop or any of his priests to conduct services.

On a Wednesday evening, March 21, 1928, violence broke out at the Holy Trinity Greek Parochial School involving the ladies society of the church.

Refused admittance to the school to protest the presence of Rev. Jakin C. Malahias as a speaker, several women stormed the school.

As a result of the riot, one man and five women were arraigned in district court: George Birbilis, charged with carrying a pistol; Fotini Chiakos and Diamanto Phelan charged with assault and battery on President Aristides Malicourtis; Hresanthe Demetropoulos, Sophie Favas, Mary Bosenie, charged with assault and battery on James Pappacostis.

By 8:30 P.M. the Wednesday evening of the riot Greek immigrant men had started to leave the coffeehouses on Dummer Street for home. Usually they walked in pairs, or small groups loathe to end the conversations that they so enjoyed as they sat and sipped their Greek coffee in the coffeehouse. They would stop, usually on a street comer, to discuss or argue a particularly important point, sometimes one, and sometimes all, talking loudly and gesticulating.

Here and there though a man walked alone, hands clasped behind his back, deep in his own thoughts. Which immigrant man did not at one time or another face the problem of not enough money – whether to pay the rent, or buy fuel, or pay something on his grocery bill, or send even a few dollars so desperately needed by his mother, father, brothers, sisters, back in the village in Greece.

This evening many were later than usual in reaching home. If they were fortunate enough to have work the next day, and as they prepared their sandwiches or “extra”, they told their wives what they had seen, with amusement and amazement, “…a frenzied crowd of wild women, rushing in and out of the school like they had gone mad, shouting and gesturing with their fists. I stayed across the street.”

At the court trial Mrs. Christina Dedousis described her experience. “I came down from the ladies gathering upstairs to the office where President Malicourtis introduced me to Father Malahias who was to be our guest speaker.” Also present in the office were George Birbilis and Mr. Pappacostis. As she left, several angry and highly excited women pushed her aside and rushed into the office toward President Malicourtis.

Under questioning by Atty. Tierney, who was representing George Birbilis, she testified as follows:

Q:    Did you see anyone strike him (Malicourtis)?

A:    They all rushed at him at once.

Q:    Did you see anyone in particular strike him?

A:    I saw several hands strike him, but I could not identify any of them.

Q:    What did you do?

A:    I left the school, called a taxi, and went home.

Officer Francis J. O’Loughlin described what he had encountered. “There were people crowded on the street, in the hallway, on the stairs.

“President Malicourtis came out of his office bleeding from a gash on his forehead. The windows in the office had been broken by projectiles thrown from outside.

“I asked him if he knew who had struck him, but he didn’t give me any name. Someone shouted that someone else had a gun but I didn’t see that.

“I advised Father Malahias to leave by the back, since when he appeared at the front door, the crowd surged forward, jeering. Though some cheered also.”

The cases were disposed of as follows: Fotini Chiakos, fined fifty dollars; Hresanthe Demetropoulos, Sophie Favas, Mary Bosinie, twenty dollars each; Diamanto Phelan, not guilty. George Birbilis was found guilty of possessing a pistol and sentenced to six months in the house of correction suspended for one year.

The riot at the Greek parochial in March foretold of further disturbances to come to the Greek community but all remained quiet until July.

On Good Friday at 9:30 P.M., April 13, 1929, Father Malahias and the church congregation conducted Epitaphio from Jefferson St., to Broadway, Worthen, Market, Adams, Cross, Suffolk Streets, and back to Jefferson St. The Greek Orthodox observance of Holy Week was according to the Julian calendar.

On Thursday, July 19,1928, the weather report stated that it was the sixth day of a heat wave. More than 3000 people slept outdoors on the North and South Common. The oppressive heat turned the North Common in the Acre into an outdoor bedroom as people fled their stifling tenements and slept on benches, on blankets spread on the grass, on cots, in sleeping bags. Baby carriages were everywhere.

“It was a big get-together, everybody friendly and trying to make the best of it,” said Ted Lekas. “But the Greek people knew, at least the men, that there was going to be trouble at the church, too many things were happening, too many rumors floating around.”

The following Sunday, July 22, began the occupation of the Holy Trinity by the Vasilios faction. Bishop Vasilios Komvopoulos, three priests, and followers, gained entrance to the Holy Trinity before daylight and at 5:00 a.m. held services. At the conclusion about one hundred men remained in the church, bolted the doors, and retained physical possession of the church.

The next day, the Malicourtis faction asked the court for a contempt citation against the following people: Bishop Vasilios Komvopoulos, Rev. John Pappadopoulos, Rev. Anastasion Anastasiou, Rev. Constantine Harmantas, Demetrius Danas, Michael Bucouvalas, Nicholas Protopapas, Demetrius Lianeris, Vaios Karamousianis, Panagiotis Athanasopoulos, Lampros Papaiaprou, A. Sgonis, Louis Sperounias.

The events that had led to the forced entrance originated from the election of a new church board the previous February: as president Aristides Malicourtis, Demetrius Demetroulakos, Christos Ziongos, Constantine Vurgaropoulos, George Tsouprakakis, Thomas Papacostas, Phillipos Karabatsos, Christos Kakris, Anthony Balatsos, Theodore Koutras, George Birbilis.

In May, the elected board drew up a new set of bylaws negating the recognition of Bishop Vasilios as head of the Holy Trinity.

The bishop then filed a bill of equity which claimed the election had not been proper or legal.

In turn the board filed a demurrer on July 16; the court set a hearing for July 30.

Bishop Vasilios declared that only he had the authority to conduct the affairs of church corporation, both temporal and ecclesiastical.

In reply, the board contended that the bishop was no longer connected to the Greek Orthodox church; he had been excommunicated by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

On the Saturday (July 28), Atty. Tierney for the board, interlocutory decree in hand, demanded entrance to the church. Police arrival prevented his bodily removal by an agitated crowd aroused by the pleas of help from the besieged.

The board decided not to take any further action pending the court hearing.

The following Tuesday (July 31), the doorkeeper for the besieged men gave an interview to the local newspaper (The Sun). He refused to give a list of the men inside. Police believed there were not more than eight. Further he said, “...we’re going to stay right in this building with the doors locked until we die, or until the judge gives the church to the bishop...” He said that last night he rang the bells to alert sympathizers because he and the others had heard a pistol shot in the rear of the church. A crowd quickly gathered, but then dispersed peacefully.

Atty. Tierney said that the Malicourtis faction would await court action.

Eight days later (August 8), the occupiers released a written statement: denied defiance of any court order since no decision had been issued ordering them to leave; the majority of the community sympathized with them; a fair vote would favor the bishop; the community had urged them to keep possession of the church despite any loss or sacrifice.

The day before Atty. George G. Eliades and Professor Simpson of Boston represented Bishop Vasilios at a hearing before Superior Court Judge Qua on a bill of equity against the Malicourtis board. The judge took the matter under advisement for a week.

In the community, like a rising wind presaging a storm, incidences of violence foretold of more violence to come between the civil faction (Malicourtis faction) and the ecclesiastical faction (Vasilios faction).

On August 15, police charged John Demas, age 22, with assault and battery on Rev. Joakim Malahias (civil faction). Rev. Malahias said that while walking on Fletcher St., near Dutton St., that morning John Demas accosted him, accused him of making derogatory remarks about Demas, and punched him in the face breaking his glasses.

Later that evening another assault occurred involving four other people. As they argued about possession of the church, the arrest warrant for three of the men alleged that Peter Apostolakos struck Efstratios Kakrimanis twice with a sharp instrument, and that Athos Apostolakos and William Malicourtis punched and kicked Kakrimanis as he fell to the ground. The three then jumped into an auto and sped away; Malicourtis has also been charged with driving to endanger the lives and safety of the public.  Efstratios Kakrimanis was treated by Dr. Xenophon Vurgaropoulos and released.

In district court, John Demas was found guilty and sentenced to six months in the house of correction, suspended for two years. Panagiotis Goulas, in whose car Demas left after the assault, was found not guilty.

The three defendants in the alleged Kakrimanis assault were released when the plaintiff failed to appear for the prosecution. However driver William Malicourtis later was fined fifty dollars when convicted of driving his auto at 35 miles per hour through a crowd of about 600 people gathered at Dummer and Markets Streets.

Concurrent with the violence, court actions proceeded. The following day (August 17, 1928), Atty. Tierney filed for a writ of assistance in Boston superior court to allow the Malicourtis faction to take possession of the church.

On August 28, 1928, a deputy sheriff served writs charging the following people with contempt of court: Archbishop Vasilios, Rev. Constantine Harmantas, James Tsakonas, James Kouloheras, Peter Goulas, Harry Sarris, and Athas Georgopoulos.

In superior court on September 4, the judge gave Atty. Tierney time to research for citations to buttress his request for contempt citation against the occupiers of the church.

The bitter dispute between the two factions inevitably affected the parochial school. The monarchists held the Holy Trinity Church on Lewis and Jefferson Streets, the republicans the Holy Trinity Parochial School building on Broadway and Worthen Streets.

On September 12, 1928 John Tsigas and James Danas of the Vasilios faction called upon the associate commissioner of state education, Mr. Wright, to report that 160 parochial school children had been refused admittance.

Mr. Wright said that some immediate action should be taken, but that it was strictly a city matter.

On September 17, 1928 the Vasilios faction reported that they had hired the Worthen St. Baptist Church (later to become St. George Greek Orthodox Church) as a schoolhouse. They also reported that 212 children were enrolled; Miss Mary Frawley was teaching the English subjects, and Mr. Demosthenes Balakis the Greek subjects. The children previously had been attending classes at the Merrimack Hall.

The day before the Reverend Constantine Harmantas conducted morning services at the church on Worthen St. Bishop Vasilios presided over evening services attended by 800 people, as reported in the newspaper. John Tsigas gave a talk on why the recent attempts of conciliation with the Laiki had failed.

Nicholas Karas
Copyright © by Nicholas Karas