About 40 churchgoers sit together on the back porch of the St. Elizabeth Greek Orthodox Church parish house. It’s coffee hour after the Sunday morning mass. The Eritrean and Ethiopian families are providing the food, all of which is eaten in under an hour.
Gainesville’s Greek community is a small one.
St. Elizabeth, located down the street from Devil’s Millhopper State Park, is the only Greek Orthodox church in or near Gainesville. The building holds 22 pews, each of which could seat five people comfortably.
But size is not what sets this church apart from its Greek Orthodox counterparts across the country.
It’s the people inside.
Greek Orthodox church congregations are typically made up of Greeks and filled with Greek chatter, according to the Rev. Nikitas Theodosion, presiding priest at St. Elizabeth. This is not the case in Gainesville’s Greek Orthodox church.
Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Georgians and Romanians, and all of their respective Orthodox religions, make up the part of the church parish that is not of Greek descent.
“It’s more like 30 percent Greek,” Theodosion said of the church’s parish.
A Community Unlike The Others
Greek communities are generally anchored by two things: religion and food, joked George Caranasos, who has lived in Gainesville for 48 years.
Caranasos, along with his wife, Connie, were on the front lines of the formation of Gainesville’s Greek community in the early 1970s when they realized a small Greek population existed but a lacked organization.
That community has since grown and become more ethnically and culturally diverse. Because the church community and social community are almost one and the same, the local Greek community has become somewhat of a melting pot.
“We encouraged that from the beginning,” Connie Caranasos said.
This blending of ethnicities and cultures within the church community is quite different from the way Greek Orthodox churches tend to operate, according to Theodosion, who is from Cleveland, Ohio.
While growing up in Cleveland, he said there were four big Greek Churches. Almost everyone who attended them was Greek. Worshippers of other nationalities had their own churches.
Stella Harbilas said the same thing about the Greek Orthodox church in Redondo Beach, California, that she grew up in.
“That was probably 95 percent Greek,” she said. “With maybe non-Greek spouses mixed in.”
Harbilas, 52, works within St. Elizabeth and the Greek community and has lived in Gainesville since 1992.
Not Always So Diverse
To understand the history of Gainesville’s Greek community, you have to visit the large home of George and Connie Caranasos.
The house is littered with family photos. A religious calendar hangs on the kitchen wall, and a plate of cookies sits on the counter just begging to be eaten.
Because the Gainesville Greek population started with only a handful of people, it took a while to grow into what it is today.
Florin Curta’s first visit to St. Elizabeth was 16 years ago. Curta, born in Romania, said he remembers being outnumbered by the Greeks in the community.
“When I first came here, it was all Greek.” he said. “The service was in Greek, the singing was in Greek.”
Today, the services are in English.
Every Sunday, The Lord’s Prayer (“Our father, who art in heaven…”) is recited in as many as six languages, each nationality taking a turn to say the entire prayer in their language.
That’s something you won’t see in other churches, Curta said. It’s a tradition they developed over time.
Curta now says The Lord’s Prayer in four languages to support those who are alone in speaking their language.
By including so many different cultures and backgrounds in its community, the Greeks have created a social blending in Gainesville.
Harbilas and Theodosion both spoke of how the relationships that form between people go beyond just seeing each other at church on Sundays.
Harbilas emphasized how much people have learned from each other and about different traditions and cultures. The Eritrean and Ethiopian meal after Sunday’s mass illustrates that point.
Theodosion pointed out that in Africa, Eritreans and Ethiopians, residents of neighboring countries, do not get along.
“Yet here, they’re friends,” he said.
So, as everyone gathered after church on a blazing summer Sunday, these friends sat down together for a meal.