By Anthony Caciopo
Regional News Editor
A new book documents and celebrates the century-old St. Spyridon parish in Palos Heights, and it’s no lightweight.
Tipping the scale at more than four pounds, the beautifully crafted hardbound volume contains pictures and stories of hundreds of people in the congregation over the generations. Also included are historic documents that trace the parish to its founding more than 100 years ago on the South Side of Chicago.
“We first gathered in 2015, and it took a good three years to finish it up,” said Peter Korbakes about the project. Korbakes is one of approximately 20 dedicated volunteers who gathered photos, collected oral histories and searched the archives of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago for the countless pieces that tell the story of a congregation devoted to St. Spyridon, the “Saint for the Little Guy.”
The limited-edition volume, already almost sold out, is a richly illustrated coffee table-styled book. One was presented recently for the permanent collection of the Palos Heights Public Library by representatives from St. Spyridon.
“This is an incredibly timely and welcome gift to the library,” said Director Jesse Blazek, noting that the library is celebrating a landmark anniversary of its own this year, the 75th.
“It’s perfect timing for us, and a great addition to our collection to help us continue to tell the interesting stories that make up Palos Heights. We’re starting to push more this year to collect stories from the community and become more of the community’s archive, one of the most ancient roles of a library,” he said.
“What a great job you did,” said Susan Snow, library board president. “On behalf of the trustees, I’m very grateful and I know that our ladies who are working on all our local histories are going to find such an amazing resource here. We deeply appreciate it.”
Page after page in the book shows the faces of the faithful, from pictures that appear to have been taken a year ago to pictures that clearly date back many decades.
Weddings, baptisms, graduations, formal school photos, parades and even men about to go to war are all depicted, along with old newspaper clippings, church flyers and even handwritten parish council minutes.
“Having seen not just the history very well laid out but also the histories of our families, we see it as a great responsibility to continue the legacy,” said Rev. Tilemahos Alikakos. “As the book was being compiled, we became more and more awestruck with the responsibility.”
Alikakos, also known as Father Tim, said “The dedicated families, they made the church the priority of their life. They took away literally from their children’s mouths to support the church, to build this community. It was the collaborative work of so many people who sacrificed and took food off the table to build this church.”
The parish was founded in 1917 and in the following year a parcel of land was purchased by “St. Spiridon Greek Orthodox Church of Pullman” (note spelling of Spiridon) at what would become 11357 South Park Avenue in the Roseland community.
“The small parish struggled for 10 years to raise the funds for the completion of the church building,” according to the book. “Raffles took place, parish council members went door to door and the Saint Spyridon Educational Society hosted an annual dinner dance beginning in 1927.”
Ground was broken for the new church in 1928 and it was completed in 1929. The congregation was made up of 80 families at that time.
In 1970, church leaders voted to buy five acres of land in Palos Heights and 1972 they voted to sell the Roseland church. But the last liturgy was held in Roseland before a new church was built in Palos Heights.
“We were broke,” said current parish treasurer Gus Kolyvas who remembers the transition years.
“We rented two rooms for a couple years at an old school on 127th St., east of where the McDonald’s now is, until the gymnasium/community center (on the new land) was being built. That was in 1974 to ’76.
“On July 4, 1976, on the bicentennial, we borrowed trucks and we loaded them up from the old school (since demolished) and we moved here on that day.”
Still, with no formal church building yet, worship took place in the gymnasium/community center until the faithful could again rally and raise enough money to build the church.
Parishioner John Eliacostas, a builder, provided general contracting services.
“That was his business. He did it very cost-effective, which gave us the foundation to be here today. We never went into debt, never took a mortgage,” said Kolyvas.
“Saint for the Little Guy”
“St. Spyridon was a bishop in Cyprus, a shepherd with no formal education at all,” explained Father Tim about the parish’s namesake.
“In the year 325 A.D., one of the problems that arose was the Heresies. Constantine, the emperor, gathered all the bishops of the church to have a discussion. Spyridon wanted to speak, but they wouldn’t let him because he was illiterate.
“He finally was allowed to speak and he asked for a clay brick. He told them a clay brick is made out of three things: clay, water, fire. But you only see one thing—the brick. St. Spyridon said ‘In the name of the father, and fire jumped up; in the name of the son, and water dripped out; and in the name of the holy spirit,’ clay remained in his hands.
“By showing the sign like that it basically reaffirmed what the majority of the church believed at that time: that God is Trinity; father, son and the holy spirit and therefore Jesus is fully god and fully man,” said Father Tim.
Father Tim, an affable man with a beard partly black and partly gray, has served at St. Spyridon for 15 years. He is married, with four children. He describes the Orthodox faith as “basically, it is the Christian church from the beginning, from the time of Christ. Our roots are to the Church of the Apostles.
“When you drive past St. Spyridon, you see a building that’s different but you have no idea what’s inside. People that come from the neighborhood, they’re immediately impressed that such a jewel exists in our community.”
A jewel, indeed, as a look inside the church reveals artwork on virtually every surface.
“Our church is filled with iconography,” Father Tim said. “Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Spyridon, St. George, the Baptism of Christ. I had the altar boys count how many icons of Christ. They counted 53.”
And, he says, there is even more but all the iconography in the church’s collection can’t be adequately displayed.
James Korbakes, former Parish Council president who was the chairman of the 100th anniversary committee, gazed inside the church from the choir loft during a visit with The Regional News.
“I’m awestruck. I love the church. Everything that’s been put in the church has been donated. People respond. You come in and you connect with the saints. It’s humbling.”
An artifact from the old Roseland church is a formal display containing a slipper worn by the corpse of St. Spyridon.
“When they exhumed his body they found it incorrupt, meaning that his body was still whole, and it is still whole to this day. It’s in the island of Corfu,” said Father Tim.
“His body is intact. It’s flexible. It’s black, except for the feet, which are white. His skin has not decomposed, 1,600 years later. The only thing that happened to him was that the Crusaders cut off his right hand to take it with them. Eventually his hand was returned to his body in 1984.
Father Tim said St. Spyridon’s slippers are changed 2-3 times a year and the slippers are distributed to churches that are dedicated to him. The Bishop of Corfu will also share them when he visits other churches, and sometimes share them with people who make a pilgrimage.
Greek Fest this weekend
On July 6 and 7, St. Spyridon Parish will hold its annual Greek Fest that is open to all.
“The festival is an imitation of the festivals in Greece. If you go to Greece during the summer, there’s always a village throwing a festival. It is always centered around the church, or the village square around the church and they would raise money for the church or the village’s needs,” said Father Tim.
“We continue this tradition to this day. A lot of Greek orthodox parishes have festivals like that. We celebrate a sense of community.”
Everyone is invited to attend, and the event typically draws thousands of visitors.
“Everything that we serve is made with recipes that are centuries old; the pastries, the meals we cook, everything is made here.
“It’s a celebration of Greek food, hospitality, music and dancing. It’s a celebration of community. The community here has embraced us. They walk and they drive from all over the place. Without the support of the local community this would be a very different affair. It makes it festive that you have a mix of Orthodox faithful from parishes all around, from Indiana to Wisconsin, but the local community supporting it, that’s really what we see as an encouragement to keep this going. It’s an opportunity to see our church, see our community, the family environment that we have.
“We invite people to have a nice family day with a Greek flair,” Father Tim said, with a laugh.
The St. Spyridon Greek Fest will be held from 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday at 12307 S. Ridgeland Ave., Palos Heights. There is an entrance charge. A free shuttle van will operate for remote parking. The church will be open for visits during the Fest. More information may be obtained at www.saint-spyridon.org.