St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church hosted its annual Greek Festival Nov. 6-8. The parish’s youth danced on stage in traditional costume, as attendees enjoyed traditional Greek foods and baked goods. Looked forward to by many in Corpus Christi, the festival has been a means to support the parish and share a piece of Greek culture with the greater community for almost six decades.
But the Greek Festival is only the tip of the iceberg for a people who have called Corpus Christi their home since the 1880s, and the community has played a role in the city’s story as far back as the 1920s.
THE FIRST GREEKS (1880–1919)
According to an article published in the Journal of South Texas by local lawyer and Doctor of History William Chriss, the first recorded appearance of Greeks in Corpus Christi was in 1880. This first group consisted entirely of young men who had married into local Irish families and worked as sailors or fishermen. Without the infrastructure or numbers to sustain an organized community, many of these first Greeks would eventually leave the city. The descendants of those that remained would quickly be assimilated into the local culture and the culture of their mothers.
COMMUNITY FOUNDATIONS (1920–1933)
It wasn’t until 1920 when the first truly Greek-American community laid its roots in the city.
Following the end of the First World War, a new wave of migration from Southern and Eastern Europe came to the United States. Unlike the ones who came before, the Greek migrants who came over during this period maintained strong ties to their homeland and their faith, establishing Orthodox parishes across the country and primarily marrying members of their own culture and ethnicity.
At first, Corpus Christi was largely unknown to migrants from Europe, with the only Greek presence being a handful of families, but as word spread, many more would come to settle in the city. Today’s Greek-American community in Corpus Christi still consists mostly of the descendants of these “pioneer families” according to Chriss.
Many Greek families, as well as those of other Eastern European groups, would come to South Texas as a result of racial violence by the Ku Klux Klan, who actively campaigned to chase them out of East Texas.
By the 1930s and the onset of the Great Depression, each of the Greek families that had settled in Corpus Christi had established roots and maintained their own restaurants and cafés as a means of supporting themselves.
As the Greek community continued to grow during the first half of the decade, the seeds that would eventually sprout into the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church would be planted.
THE DELPHI CLUB AND ST. NICHOLAS (1933–1950)
In 1933, a group of women from the Greek community would form together into what would become the Delphi Club. The Delphi Club would be the primary organ sustaining Greek culture and social life within the city. The Delphi Club would begin fundraising for the establishment of a Greek language school for the children of their community. From there, the project would expand to establish Bible study classes, and eventually, the foundation of a parish church.
While the project that would eventually become St. Nicholas was primarily supported by the local Greek Community, it also saw non-insignificant funding from Greeks in other parts of the country, as well as donations from local non-Greeks. The project, led primarily by Pete Cassimus, would be finished with the opening of the church in 1950. Chriss’ grandfather was one of the men to lay the first cornerstone.
THE GREEK FESTIVAL (1960s–PRESENT)
The Greek festival that has become an annual staple of downtown Corpus Christi was started in the 1960s, originating as a humble bake sale to raise money for the church. In its 59 years of life, it has since grown into an expedition of Greek culture and Orthodox faith, including traditional dance by the parish’s youth and tours of the church by the parish priest, Father Thomas.
The festival was downsized substantially during the pandemic, consisting only of drive through food service. But as pandemic restrictions have been lifted and day to day life, for the most part, returns to normal, so too has the Greek fest begun to emerge from its temporary hibernation.
“We were cautiously optimistic going in,” said George Spetznos, the parish council president for St. Nicholas. Some anxiety remained as a result of the pandemic, but the success of this year’s festival has cleared many of those doubts, and the Greek festival will continue, and even grow, for years to come.
THE GREEK COMMUNITY’S FUTURE
Today, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church isn’t as exclusive as it was when it was founded. What was once the spiritual citadel for one of Corpus Christi’s oldest, but most insular, communities has since opened its doors to a diverse population of practitioners. Now, only about half of those who attend the church are of Greek ethnic origin. The other half consisting of Hispanics, Lithuanians, Arabs, Irish and many other groups. Services that were once exclusively Greek are now predominantly in English, and the Our Father Prayer is said in up to five languages every Sunday.
According to Chriss, “As people learn more about Orthodoxy and learn that it’s a religion and not an ethnicity, Orthodoxy in America becomes less tinged by its ethnic origins.” Over time, the church becomes less defined by the “Greek” part of its name, and more by the “Orthodox” part.
This development has not stopped the parish from continuing to be at the heart of the Greek-American community here, and in areas where it cannot continue to champion Greek culture, secular institutions have taken up the torch. Not only in Corpus Christi, but across the county. Greek ethnic clubs continue to promote the language and social life as they have for a century. The Delphi Club that set the foundations for the parish church back in the 1930s continues to serve its community faithfully.
With no shortage of champions, and a population faithful to its roots and identity, it appears that Corpus Christi’s beloved Greek-American community has a long and bright future in our city by the sea.