19 July 2013
Father Elias Koucos presides over the liturgy at Prophet Elias Church in Holladay, Utah.
(photo: Cody Christopulos)
Three years ago, we visited the Greek Orthodox community in the heart of Mormon-dominated Utah:
From the summit of Ensign Peak in Utah, a mountain Mormons believe sacred, the visitor takes in a panoramic view of the rugged but splendid geography of this unique southwestern American state. To the west, one glimpses the Great Salt Lake and desert; to the south, one looks down upon the Salt Lake Valley, which cradles the state capital, Salt Lake City, and its sprawling suburbs; and to the east, one’s vision is blocked by the Wasatch Mountains, a forbidding, craggy wall towering thousands of feet above the valley. It was through these mountains that the Latter-day Saints first entered the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847 after their long, difficult flight from religious persecution across America’s heartland. Mexican territory at the time, they and their followers nonetheless adopted the valley as their homeland, referring to it as “Mormon Zion,” and began settling what is today Salt Lake City.
A half-century later, the first Greek immigrants arrived in Salt Lake City. They did not come by handcart and oxen-pulled wagons, as did the original settlers, but by railroads built with immigrant labor in the decades before their arrival. Attracted to Utah with promises of jobs on the railroads, most of these Greeks soon began laying railroad tracks themselves. …
The precise number of Utahans of Greek descent is difficult to assess. In the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly 12,000 state residents reported to be of Greek ancestry. Approximately 1,000 active families, or about 4,000 people, belong to the Greek Orthodox Church of Greater Salt Lake. While small compared to the larger Greek-American enclaves in the eastern United States, Utah’s Greek-American community is thriving. According to the 2000 Census, Utah ranks ninth in the nation with respect to the percentage of the population claiming Greek ancestry.
Today, the Greek Orthodox Church is the binding force for Utah’s Hellenic community. Father Matthew Gilbert, pastor of Holy Trinity Cathedral, describes the parish as very active, with no shortage of activities, especially for the youth. Still, says the priest, himself “Greek” by marriage, passing down the faith to the next generation remains a challenge.
“The hardest thing is the spiritual aspect. It’s nice to dance and to play basketball. We have Greek schools, dance programs, Orthodox Christian camps in the summer, Greek camp, Sunday school. We offer everything imaginable, but it’s up to individuals to cultivate their spiritual life. It’s always easier to cultivate the fun things, but a spiritual life is difficult. It takes a lot of work. Being baptized is the easy part. The rest is commitment.”
Read more about Greek Orthodoxy in Mormon Zion from the July 2010 issue of ONE.
Tags: Eastern Christianity United States Orthodox Church Orthodox