By Jonnathan Pulla and Joshua Blake
More than 300 Greek Orthodox Christians gathered at St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church in Blue Point on April 1, celebrating Palm Sunday and kick off the beginning of their Holy Week.
The service began at 9:00 a.m. with only a few people in attendance prior the big event, which started two hours later. As time went on, people started to fill up the empty seats until the church was full. Some visitors had to stay at the lobby to get their palm blessed, and even though attendance numbers were huge, this is not a pattern on a regular Sunday.
There are approximately 4,500 people in Suffolk County who speak Greek and about 9,000 in Nassau, according to a 2010 U.S. census, while some 200,000 Greeks live within the tri state area – encompassing New Jersey and Connecticut along with New York.
“The Holy Week is a lot more intense in the Orthodox Church,” Andrew D. Cadieux, the Parish Priest, said. “People come to the big holidays and the big feasts.”
Preparations are not exclusive to the Holy Week; Members of the church fast for a total of sixty-one days prior to Pascha, the Greek Easter holiday which falls on April 8. Visitors are expected to increase to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ on Thursday and culminates with the Christos Anesti, or the rise of Christ, on Saturday at midnight, followed by a resurrection meal that includes Tsoureki Easter bread.
“We always have soup, and the red dyed bread that represents the blood of Christ,” 94-year-old Tista Pelzman, one of the congregations eldest members, said.
The Greek Orthodox Church uses Greek language for chants and sermons.
Unlike other Christians, Greek Orthodox attend mass twice a day during this week, which can be exhausting for members of the church.
“(This) week for a chanter there is no end especially on Holy Thursday,” Andreas Pappas, a chanter at St. John’s, said. “From the moment I come in until the moment I leave I’m standing.”
Greek’s Pascha doesn’t coincide with the Christian’s Easter because it follows a different calendar.
At the beginning of Christianity it was established that Easter would be celebrated “the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox,” said Katrina Nineve, a member of the church.
“(Church) is very important for the older people,” Noumi Nineve, an Orthodox who converted to the religion a year ago. “Is part of their life and their culture,” Nineve, who had to change his name from Carl to Noumi as part of the conversion ritual, said.
There has been a decline on the younger generations of churchgoers Pappas said, and blames Sunday activities like sports or even college for the lack of youth.
“Unfortunately is not that busy and we see it now,” Pappas said. “What happens is after they finish school they go to college and stop coming. After they marry you see them back because they want to raise their kids with the same traditions.”