Greek Independence Day
Commemorative Series

Greek-Americans Celebrate an Influential Greek Legacy

The Role of the Orthodox Church in the Preservation of a Glorious Heritage During the Turkocratia and Revolutionary Period

Greek Independence Day Celebration
Sunday, March 30, 1997
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
Portsmouth, New Hampshire

-- by Mary Papoutsy

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I am delighted and very honored to share in our community’s celebration of Greek Independence Day today. Thank you for asking me to participate.

Let me start by extending my sincerest congratulations to the students and to their teacher, Nina Gatzoulis, for an excellent program. They deserve great praise for their efforts and accomplishments. Let us give them an extra round of applause to show our appreciation.

It is especially heartwarming to witness the success of their diligent efforts in our new hall, a very fitting tribute to the vision of the Jarvis family and of the entire community. For what other reason but our children, the youth of the community, have we all labored so long and generously? And, indeed, it is for the youngsters here today that I would like to offer a few of my thoughts, since our Church’s sponsorship of their Greek studies recollects a centuries-old tradition, one that hearkens back to the Turkish occupation of Greece. It is this tradition of our Church which I would like to highlight today, since it played a pivotal role in nurturing Hellenic spirit and ideals during the occupation. As we celebrate the Greek struggle for independence today, it is worthwhile for us to review some of those inspirational ideals which spurred the Greek patriots on to victory and which served as cornerstones not just for the formation of the Modern Greek state but for all of Western Civilization. For we Americans, as modern-day standard-bearers of freedom and democracy throughout the world, can truly appreciate these Hellenic ideals as few others can.

As I watched the youngsters performing, I began to think back to those years when I myself participated in many such celebrations. After a few minutes of reminiscing, I realized with a smile that this process of recollection and reflection is exactly what we want our children to do. We want them to participate in these educational programs so that they, too, will experience them and cherish the resultant memories. Each time that they attend a celebration as they grow up, they will revisit these long-lasting and potent memories. Each time they hear “Zeto E Ellas” (“Long Live Greece”) and “Eikostipempti Martiou” (“The Twenty-Fifth of march”) their hearts will swell with pride as they think of their own accomplishments in these programs, as well as those heroic deeds of the Greek freedom fighters. And they will come to understand that they share in this glorious heritage, regardless of whether or not they are of Greek ancestry. For the achievements of the Greeks form the cornerstone upon which the West was built. Each poem, each song, each dance depicts a part of us and of our children, a priceless part of our inheritance, an incomparable religious, ethnic, and intellectual heritage. And each Greek Independence Day program we all witness keeps alive this immutable bond with our ancestors, our heritage, in our minds and hearts. But the shining crown of our heritage is that it is a living history, that it continues in an unbroken line from the remote past on through to the present. With our educational program, we occupy a place in this history as we keep alive our ethnic and religious heritage. We continue in the footsteps of earlier Greeks and Orthodox Christians when we march forward proudly with our youth and celebrate our heritage on these special occasions.

And what a shining inheritance the Greeks can boast! Who does not know of the Greeks? What land has not been touched by the deeds and achievements of the Greeks? Hellenic ideals have come to symbolize excellence, the best efforts of mankind. Since the beginning of recorded history, men have known about the Greeks. The famous seven sages or wisemen of ancient times were Greeks. Many of the ancient wonders of the world were either Greek or could boast of Greek influence. The Olympic Games began with the Greeks. The first historians were Greeks. We attribute the beginnings of science, philosophy, and geometry to the Greeks. Poetry and literature produced by the Greeks, as far back as 2500 years ago has not yet been equaled by any other people. And what person has not seen or read of the famous sculptures of Myron or Scopas or Phidias? Or of the incomparable beauty of the Parthenon in Athens?

We have only to look around us to see how the world has admired the achievements of Greek builders and architects—our nation’s capital and other government buildings boast a strong Classical influence with Greek columns and pediments. Greek concepts of government and freedom have had the greatest, most profound effect upon world history. And it is this last concept, the idea of freedom, that we Americans celebrate today more than any others. For the adjective, “American,” is nearly synonymous with freedom. Oppressed people and freedom fighters around the world look to America for guidance and inspiration. Our constitution which guarantees the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is the model for others throughout the world. So, when we as Americans celebrate Greek Independence Day, we therefore also celebrate our own country’s love of freedom, both political and religious.

The American founders took inspiration from the Greek achievements they had studied during their upbringing. A good education at that time had required the study of Greek and Latin. And a gentleman’s library—as a Williamsburg publication attests—included many Greek works such as those of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, and others. Several of our most noted patriots earned themselves Greek epithets: John Adams was called “our Colossus on the floor”; Patrick Henry was often referred to as the “forest-born Demosthenes” for his supreme oratorical skills.

The greatest connection, however, between the American founding fathers and our Greek ancestors can be found in our own system of government. The Greeks were the first to envision a multipartite government where there was a division of powers and checks and balances. They were also the first to establish a democratic voting assembly and a jury system. All of these elements we see today in our own current form of government. It is no small wonder, then, that the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution commemorating Greek Independence Day as “A National Celebration of Greek and American Democracy,” recognizing the “the Founding Fathers of the United States of America drew heavily upon the political experience and philosophy of Ancient Greece in forming our representative democracy. . .[and that] these and other ideals have forged a close bond between our two nations and their peoples.” So when we Americans celebrate Greek Independence Day we honor not just a shared love of freedom, but also the birthplace of key elements of our own government.

This, then, is the shining heritage which our Church preserved for generations of Greek youths during the Turkish occupation. In secret schools, as the youngsters have portrayed so nicely here today for us, parish priests conducted lessons to keep alive the Greek language and Orthodoxy. Their sacrifice was enormous because they risked incurring death penalties if caught. Yet, they endured to preserve their heritage and to inspire the youth by teaching them about their glorious ancestors. In this way for hundreds of years our Church labored secretly to help keep a tiny flame of hope alive that the Greek people would once again rise to their previous splendor and worship their faith freely.

But the role of the Church throughout the Turkocratia extended far beyond secret sponsorship of Greek studies. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in the mid-1400’s, the only cohesive administrative structure which survived the destruction was the Orthodox Church. Because of this, the Turks very quickly forced the Church into an unaccustomed and unwanted role of governing the Sultan’s subjects and being responsible for their behavior. Compliant behavior brought a small measure of relief for some of the Greeks; rebellious behavior, on the other hand, brought immediate and brutal reprisals. The successive Patriarchs of Constantinople were thrown into the unenviable position of having to convince the Christians that compliance was the best way to survive; the Church leaders paid a heavy price for this position: when the Greeks finally revolted and won their freedom, the Turks hung the Patriarch, all the metropolitans, all the bishops, and all of the remaining executives and Church officials in Constantinople. Nevertheless, the Patriarch and the other leaders had remained true to the end; when they understood that the revolution would succeed, they refused to bow to Turkish pressure and to denounce it. What they managed to achieve, though, has often been overlooked or underemphasized. By counseling caution and token compliance until the proper moment, they managed to preserve our Church for us intact. And this was no small accomplishment. For Church leaders had not traditionally been political leaders. Many did not have the necessary skills to carry out the work previously done by the Byzantine emperor and his lay officials. Very bravely and with great difficulty they found and surrounded themselves with able lay people to help them act as guardians of the Greeks after they had had this unwanted role thrust upon them by the Turks.

Ever so slowly, over the decades and centuries, the tactic of the Church paid off. Unlike farmers and peasants, merchants, sailors, and traders were generally allowed to travel since the Turks had a distaste for these activities. A small number of wealthy Greek families and a tiny, growing middle class took advantage of the Turks’ aversion to increase their resources and to obtain education that is more formal for their children. Their youths often went abroad to learn, urged on by expatriates in other European countries. Increasing numbers of Greek patriots who had fled their homeland, prospered and established schools abroad for Greek students. The ideas of enlightenment, rationalism, and nationalism came back with these youths. The Greeks’ renewed interest in their ancient ancestors—as I have already outlined—gave them hope and the inspiration to persevere. This was when they began to entertain a new idea, the concept of a Greek nation defined by its language, instead of a unified empire as in the centuries of Byzantine rule. Increasingly, the idea of a revolution clearly emerged as Greeks amassed the resources and allies to contribute to this struggle. Finally, at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the secret society called Philiki Etairia was formed to plan the fight for freedom. The rest of the story, of course, is more familiar to us. We have heard of the exploits of Kolokotronis and Botsaris and Miaoulis and Bouboulina and Ypsilantis and many others. We know, too, about the contribution of Germanos, the Metropolitan of Ancient Patras who first raised the Banner of the Uprising following the services at the Cathedral of Aghia Lavra. And many of us are acquainted with the story of Archbishop Kyprianos of Cyprus who was martyred for his support of and membership in this Philiki Etairia, which promoted the notion of the Greek revolution in Europe.

But what we celebrate here today, in addition to the Greek movement for freedom, is the enormous role the Church played in this period of Greek history. For without the security and structure which the Church provided, this long and arduous process of education and enlightenment would not have taken place. In short, our Church was the caretaker of the Greek hope and spirit during this dark and challenging period.

So, my friends, in conclusion, we celebrate many things today, but above all we honor our dear Church for preserving our faith and helping to make our own freedom possible. For without the Greek revolution, many of us would not be here today; our ancestors would still be slaves to harsh and cruel masters. We celebrate the education and enlightenment which enabled the Greeks to conceive of a Greek nation and to aspire to create it. And equally important, we as Americans celebrate our country’s connections with the birthplace of democracy and our efforts to continue to preserve our glorious heritage.

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