Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

It's Greek to Me
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Oct 8, 2012, 14:52

photo by Sarah Steele Wilson A group of dancers in traditional Greek costume entertained dinner time attendees.

This weekend saw Hopewell celebrating what has become one of the city’s biggest and best attended traditions: the St. Elpis Greek Orthodox Church Annual Festival.

Although many of the thousands of visitors from Hopewell and the surrounding communities attend to enjoy a diverse array of home made Greek foods, the festival offers other attractions.

“We came to get the food and didn’t know there was a church tour,” said Larry Gilbert as he stood in the nave of the church that organizes the festival every year.

The festival is the largest annual fundraiser for the church, which opens its doors for tours that serve as an introduction to a branch of Christianity with which many visitors are unfamiliar.

“I think many people who come to our church tours are just hearing about the Orthodox Christian Faith for the first time, so they’re very eager to learn, which is nice,” said Father Jon Emanuelson, the priest at St. Elpis.

Although the current church building was not constructed until 1967, the St. Elpis church has existed in some form since 1917, when members of the Greek Orthodox faith moved from the space they were renting above a store on Main Street to a new church building that stood near the current structure.

“There are many things from the old church in the new church,” said Emanuelson.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Father Jon Emanuelson gave guided tours of St. Elpis.

One of those things is the icon screen, which stretches across the front of the church. Emanuelson said the screen was painted in 1952 and includes the traditional images of religious figures seen in all Orthodox Churches. Emanuelson said one panel on every church’s icon screen depicts the church’s namesake. In this case, that is St. Elpis, which means St. Hope.

“We are one of the two churches in the archdiocese where the name of the church is connected to the name of the city,” Emanuelson said.

In the early years of the 20th century, Hopewell had a large Greek population, as immigrants were drawn to the prospect of work in the factories.

“Factories along the James River were filled with immigrants from many places,” Emanuelson said.

Many of the Greek immigrants lived in the neighborhood where the church and AHEPA Community Center now stand. Although the Greek community has shrunk, as its original members dispersed, the 55 families in the congregation of St. Elpis have a strong bond.

“The wonderful thing about a small community is it’s tightly knit most of the time,” Emanuelson said.

He said that the festival started in 1978 and mostly consisted of parishioners. Over time, it grew into an event the whole community was invited to attend.

Although the church tours, music and vendors are popular, the food is always one of the main attractions. On Friday night, the line of people waiting for moussaka, spanakopita, souvlaki and other favorites stretched from the buffet, around the banquet room, through the door and into the outside dining area.

“We baked more this year than we’ve ever baked before and we sold out of everything already,” said Sharon Daniels, who attends the church and helped cook the food and bake the desserts.

All the food is home made, from scratch, by members of the church. Daniels said that it takes a lot of work to prepare the food and host the party, but added that they have a lot of fun.

When asked what brought him to the festival, Rob James had a simple answer.

“Food,” he said.

James said he tries to attend the festival every year and developed an interest in trying different kinds of cuisines from his travels around the world.

He also attends the Greek festival in Richmond.

“I go to the big one in Richmond in the summer, then I wait for this one to come around in the fall,” he said. “It quenches my thirst for it.”

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