Parish History: The Turbulent Twenties

Written by: Rev. Andrew Demotses

In the opening years of the decade of 1920, the United States government instituted an official quota system to restrict the flood of immigrants. Since the stated policy was to obstruct, in particular, the immigration of peoples from Southern and Eastern Europe, immigration from Greece was drastically reduced. According to the New York Times and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization reports, the number of Greek immigrants in the year 1925 fell to 826, an astonishing reduction compared to only four years earlier, in 1921, when 31,828 Greek immigrants entered the country.

These draconian measures changed the atmosphere and attitudes of the country in dramatic ways. Fed by nativist fears of the growing immigrant population based on racism and abject ignorance, helpless immigrant populations saw themselves blamed for virtually every unsettling change in American life and made into easy scapegoats by the editorials of the nation’s leading newspapers. 

As anti-immigrant sentiments grew, the community was inevitably affected. One of the engines of its growth-new immigrants-suddenly disappeared, and St. Vasilios now could only grow internally. Immigrants additionally found themselves the targets of increasing hostility and discrimination. Employment opportunities and advancement diminished markedly. When employment was available, it entailed only the most difficult, dangerous and least desirable jobs. Signs reading “Greeks and Italians Need Not Apply” blossomed unashamedly. The children of immigrants were similarly affected, having to fend off physical attacks from fellow students on the way to school and back. Children of Greek families in the east end of Peabody were often forced to travel to and from school in large groups that offered protection from physical assaults.

But the dark clouds gathering on the horizon were also internal to the parish. Its immigrant members were struggling to assimilate in the American environment but were not so far removed from their homeland that they were not interested in, nor influenced by, political and ecclesiastical events in Greece.

There, a profound struggle had erupted between the Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, and King Constantine, the official head of state. Ultimately, the struggle evolved into whether Greece should declare itself a republic or remain a constitutional monarchy. Members of the parish followed the unfolding events and inevitably began to take sides in the dispute. Soon, the parish was divided into two opposing groups with a larger group siding with the monarchists, and a smaller but still sizable group siding with the republicans.

As if this dispute were not enough, a purely ecclesiastical controversy further muddied the waters. In 1920, Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios and the Synod of the Church of Constantinople abolished the adherence of the Orthodox Church to the old Julian calendar which, because of its inaccuracy, had fallen 13 days behind the secular, or Gregorian calendar. This decision aroused fierce opposition from church traditionalists who insisted that the Julian calendar remain. Schisms erupted with the majority defending the old calendar and a vocal minority accepting the new calendar.

As might be expected, these two unrelated disputes became intertwined with each other. The monarchists in the political quarrel sided with the old calendarists of the ecclesiastical dispute, while the republicans generally took the side of the new calendarists.

A final complication involved a dispute unique to St. Vasilios. Some members of the church, primarily republican new calendarists, had suggested that pews be introduced into the church. Until this point, the community had adhered to traditional Orthodox practice in which Christians stood throughout the services of worship. The new calendarists, who viewed this as a reasonable and harmless accommodation to evolving standards, were fiercely attacked by the monarchist old calendarists who saw the matter quite differently. In their view, this was an assault on Orthodox practice which, together with the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar, was an effort to “protestantize” the character of Holy Orthodoxy and make it conform to modernist and heretical concepts of religiosity. 

As the disputes both in Greece and in America intensified, intractable dissension and irreconcilable differences overtook St. Vasilios Church, and the unthinkable happened. In March of 1926, the unity of the parish was torn asunder, and it separated into two mutually hostile factions. The majority old calendar monarchists, numbering 330 members, retained control of the church properties and treasury. The minority new calendar republicans, numbering 235 members, formed a new parish which they named Holy Transfiguration and began worshipping in borrowed space provided by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Washington Street in Peabody. Shortly thereafter, they rented a hall on the second floor of a building located at the corner of Central and Walnut Streets, renovated it into a place of worship and made it their permanent home.

The controversy, unfortunately, did not end there but assumed added dimensions. On February 25, 1926, 10 members of the parish of the Holy Transfiguration filed suit in Supreme Judicial Court seeking to force the board of St. Vasilios Church to recognize Archbishop Alexandros of America, the new calendar hierarch, as the legitimate Archbishop of America, and to force the old calendar Metropolitan Vasilios to cease his claim to be the rightful Archbishop.

The Supreme Judicial Court assigned the case to Judge Joseph Doyle, a Justice of the Superior Court in Salem, to hear the arguments in the case, to ascertain the facts, to issue a preliminary determination and to report them to the Supreme Court.

During the lengthy trial, the Holy Transfiguration parish was represented by Atty. James Liacos, the first member of the local Greek community to be admitted before the bar, and St. Vasilios was represented by the Attorneys George Vournas and F. L. Simpson. Numerous witnesses testified, including Archbishop Alexander, Metropolitan Vasilios, the Patriarchal Bishop of Boston Joachim, numerous priests and members of both parishes.

Judge Doyle examined the case, concentrating particularly on the issue of who was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America-Alexandros or Vasilios. Judge Doyle decided for the plaintiff, Archbishop Alexandros, essentially declaring the new calendarists victorious and submitted his findings to the Supreme Judicial Court.

The Supreme Court issued its decision on January 3, 1928, overturning Judge Doyle’s findings. It did so, however, not on the merits of the facts, but on constitutional grounds. While the court agreed with Judge Doyle’s conclusion that Alexandros was the legitimate Archbishop, it nonetheless ruled that since no issue of criminal or civil law was involved, the matter was entirely of a theological and ecclesiastical nature and thus outside the jurisdiction of the court. The justices ruled that their intervention in such a dispute would violate the establishment clause of the Constitution and rob the people of St. Vasilios of their unfettered right to acknowledge as their spiritual leader any person of their own choosing, entirely free of any governmental coercion or influence.

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