Lining the red-velvet cloaked altar of St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Arbutus Street is a wooden rail, adorned with thin gold chains and rectangular tin tokens, each depicting a single image.
The tokens are placed under paintings of icons, such as Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, where the most poignant of the figures hang, including those of tiny babies. Other shapes depict men, women and body parts, including an arm or pair of eyes.
Reverend Demetrios Partsafas said the tokens are placed on the rail as a way to thank the icons once a prayer has been answered.
“The tokens represent all of the sufferings,” explained Partsafas. “When you pray and ask for help, even if that prayer is only partially answered, it should be acknowledged.”
During a tour of the cathedral, Partsafas is obviously proud of the stunningly beautiful church topped with an elaborately painted onion-shaped dome. Religious paintings line the walls and domed ceiling, which was created by a fresco iconographer from Greece who spent six months completing the project prior to the church opening in 1977.
“The scaffolding was still in place during those first services,” remembers Partsafas, who in 2014 will have been at St. George’s for 40 years.
It was between 1954 to 1960 when Vancouver saw such an influx of Greek immigrants that Hellenic community leaders realized their original church at West Seventh and Vine was no longer large enough to accommodate the congregation. The property, today the home of Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, was also not big enough for the construction of a larger church so a new location was proposed.
Partsafas said at the time many members of the congregation were upset about that proposal because they lived close to the original location.
He added some parishioners pushed to have a second church built instead of closing that first cathedral.
“Greek communities are built around the church, and that’s what had happened in Kitsilano,” said Partsafas. “But the church at Vine was just too small.”
Partsafas added because Greeks don’t like to be in debt, the church sold some properties it had accumulated and then searched for a new home. Partsafas said the church did consider the property the Arbutus Club sits on today, which is at the top of a slope.
“But this property was a few thousand cheaper and Greek people also like to save money,” said Partsafas laughing.
According to a history of the church published in 1977 to celebrate the Hellenic Community of Vancouver’s 50th anniversary, it was decided in 1962 to purchase the 1.4-acre property on Arbutus Street. The sale was finalized with the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1964 for $72,720. In 1965, a building fund was set up and the community began to raise money for the new cathedral, which was completed in time for Easter services in 1971, exactly 41 years after the opening of the original church.
Effie Kerasiotis, president of the Hellenic Community of Vancouver, said today the church’s membership includes about 500 families.
“And between 300 and 400 attend each Sunday,” she said.
Kerasiotis added the main goal of the group, including the Ladies of Philoptochos (Ladies Auxiliary), is to raise money to keep the church and community centre operational.
To that end, it hosts events such as the annual Greek Food Festival, Easter bake sale and Christmas bake sale, which this year takes place Nov. 24 in the main hall from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The community hall is also rented out for weddings and baptisms.
Kerasiotis said funds raised at these events support everything from a Greek soccer league to Greek language lessons for youth to childcare and helping needy families.
“It’s important that we support our culture and community,” said Kerasiotis.
Partsafas agrees and said he has mixed feelings about his imminent retirement after four decades at St. George’s. While Partsafas will be sad to leave, the Montreal Canadiens fan is also looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren and possibly watching a bit more hockey.
“I will also always help out at the church,” said Partsafas, standing near the altar of the iconic cathedral. “I came here as a young man and I will retire as an old man.”