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New cathedral, old traditions showcased at Greek Fest

October 7, 2018

Most parishioners at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral haven’t stepped foot inside their church for more than 18 months. Instead, they’ve spent Sunday mornings at the gymnasium next door as the historic building was rebuilt.

Church members and Houstonians of all faiths were welcomed back inside the completed cathedral this weekend as part of the Original Greek Festival, which Annunciation has hosted every year since 1968.

Its doors officially opened Sept. 30, and the festival served as an informal introduction to the community.

“Change is hard, but everyone has been so pleased with the way it turned out,” said Dana Kantalis, a board member on the festival committee. “The more things changed, the more they stayed a little bit of the same.”

Nearly the entire building was torn down and rebuilt to hold twice as many parishioners, but iconography, stained glass, chandeliers and other precious elements of the church were preserved and restored. Kantalis said many of the church’s oldest members said it still feels like home.

The stairs leading to the balcony were a little creaky, Kantalis said, but the main reason parishioners voted for the restoration was the congregation’s growth. About 1,000 people called themselves members, but the old cathedral, built in 1950, could only hold about 475.

Now, the cathedral is twice as large and can hold more than 900 people.

“For any normal Sunday, it got to be kind of crowded. Then you had a major church event, like Easter, for example, or Christmas,” said Paul Voinis, 81, a lifelong member of Annunciation. He also served on the committee that ran the church expansion. “We’d have to accommodate people by closed circuit TV, or we moved to the gymnasium so we could accommodate a crowd. It finally reached a point where there was a can-do attitude: ‘Let’s do it.’”

Growth mandates expansion

Annunciation’s expansion comes at a time when the church’s members are reaching into the fourth generation. A group of Greek immigrants founded Annunciation in 1917, meeting in a small wooden building downtown, across from where City Hall now sits.

Voinis’ father, Nick Voinis, was one of those original members. He emigrated from Patmos, a Greek island, to the United States via Ellis Island in 1911 and moved to Houston when he was 15 years old.

“At that time, the membership was all immigrants,” Voinis said. “They came from some of the same places in Greece — like Patmos, for example, had a seemingly large number that immigrated to Houston. They settled like immigrants usually do, among their friends, to meet the challenge of the new land.”

Many of Houston’s Greek immigrants settled near Houston Avenue and Alamo Street in the Sixth Ward, he said. After a few decades downtown, much of the congregation had moved west, and they voted to move the church with them to its current location at 3511 Yoakum.

The festival has history, too — its first official year of introducing Greek food, dance and religion to others in Houston was 1968.

“The previous year, 1967, was our 50th anniversary, and we had an affair at the church, a celebration,” Voinis said. “One night was called ‘Greek Night,’ and we had dancing and food. And we decided to make that the festival.”

The Greek culture in the church — so strong when Annunciation was founded — has diluted somewhat over the years as the founding families’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren move away, adopt other faiths or fail to learn the Greek language.

Paul Voinis himself speaks Greek, and though nearly all of his three children and nine grandchildren are Annunciation members, none of them speak the language.

When Voinis’ daughter, Stephanie Alvarez, was a kid, the services were almost entirely in Greek. Today, it’s the opposite: mostly English.

Her husband, Rafael Alvarez, converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity when they married, one of the main ways the church has grown over the years, Paul Voinis said. Alvarez grew up mostly going to Catholic churches in Mexico.

“I married a Greek, and people around here say it was the best day of my life!” Alvarez said.

Family, fun and traditions

Unlike the congregation, not much about the festival has changed in its five decades. Church volunteers make all the food, which comes from traditional Greek recipes, and start preparing the feast as early as June. The recipes have never changed. Some festival chairmen have tried to sneak in their families’ variations on the dishes, but they never succeeded, Voinis said.

And the dancing has been a mainstay. Voinis’ first wife, Georgia Voinis, choreographed much of the children’s and adult routines over a 30-year run. She passed away in 2003, but today’s dancers, which include most of the Voinis grandchildren, still perform many of her moves.

“It’s just a family thing, and it’s a lot of fun,” said Melanie Voinis, 18. “You learn these dances, and it’s really fun to perform onstage. It’s part of our culture. The Greek fest is the main way we learn about our Greek culture.”

Like many of the church congregation, Melanie Voinis started dancing in second grade and continued until this year, when she started college at Texas A&M University and couldn’t attend the rehearsals in Houston.

At the daytime shows, kids ranging from 2nd to 10th grade dance in traditional clothing in front of hundreds of attendees: often their parents and grandparents alongside other festival-goers. At night, older high schoolers and adults perform.

Hailey Economides, 11, has been dancing at the Greek Festival for four years. Her two brothers — ages 9 and 23 — also dance. This year, she performed the pentozali, a bouncy number in which the dancers hold each other’s shoulders and hop on one foot.

“My parents told me the first year, ‘You could be a leader to the other little kids who don’t want to dance or can’t dance yet,’ Hailey said.

Some of the third- and fourth-generation church members, including Hailey, said they absorb a lot of their family’s culture from coming to the festival every year.

“We get to see all the food and the dances — the adult dances are somewhat different than the kid dances,” she said. “We get to see the costumes, the music, and honestly, we get to see how Greek people are. They’re fun people.”

Nia Botti, 16, who has been dancing almost a decade, performed the zorba this year.

“It’s so much fun,” Nia said. “This is my last year in the day show, and next year I’ll be in the night show. Honestly, I don’t want to quit. I don’t know any other girls who want to quit either. It’s enjoyable learning all the dances and being with the same people every year.”

Her mother, Maria Botti, danced at the Greek festival when she was a kid, too. In the ’70s, Botti appeared in a photo in the Houston Chronicle dancing at the festival as a 3-year-old.

“I kind of forced Nia,” Botti said. “She was like, ‘I don’t want to do it!’

“And now I just can’t quit,” Nia responded.

This year’s festival concludes from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $5 for those older than 12.

emilyrburleson@gmail.com

@emilyrburleson

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