Some Greek Orthodox immigrants to the United States preferred to settle in the mountains as opposed to near the sea. Asheville is just such a place.
“It’s surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains,” said Fr. Michael Diavatis, the pastor since August 2012. “It’s an absolutely gorgeous place.” Ironically, many of the first arrivals in the early 1900s came from Chios but, “now almost everyone is from Evrytania,” the mountainous region in Central Greece west of Lamia and east of Arta and Amfilohia. This explains why one of Asheville’s sister cities is Karpenisi, the main administrative center of the region.
At an altitude of about 2,100 feet, Asheville itself is in a “bowl” surrounded by mountains and about 30 miles east of Mount Mitchell, the highest U.S. peak east of the Mississippi.
Holy Trinity Church has a cross-section of members, including immigrants, first and second-generation Americanborn, converts and Orthodox Christians of Jordanian and Ukrainian background. Most of the Sunday Divine Liturgy is in English.
Parishioners engage in a variety of occupations, with business being one of the major activities. “There are a lot of restaurants that parishioners own,” Fr. Diavatis said, along with many employed in hospitals and other health services.
Fr. Diavatis said he is “in the process of building up the community’s grassroots ministries.” The parish is on Stewardship, with the Greek festival in late September also bringing in considerable revenue.
Over the past 10 years, Holy Trinity parish has renovated its existing church, adding a dome and extending the narthex to give the building a more Byzantine appearance.
The first Greek Orthodox Christians began arriving about 1900, with the first known Greek to arrive was Demosthenes Psychoyios who opened a restaurant on Pack Square in downtown Asheville, according to a parish history prepared by Presbytera Drucilla Arakas Papafil in the late 1980s. In town he was known as “Psychas,” and later as “Barbathimo” within the small Greek community that was taking root.
The first Greek family was Peter (Epamenontas) and Stavroula (Kourelakos) Chakales. Peter opened the Athens Cafe also on Pack Square, which was becoming a hub for more Greek businesses, including candy makers, a hat shop and other establishments.
Some of the earliest families to settle in this part of Western North Carolina included the Karambelis, Gianakos, Mimidis, Mozales, Megaliopou, Papadeas, Kooles, Pappas, Calogerakis, Kalogerakis, Spirakis, Tshouras, Moushouris, Coutlakis, Patelides and Naomi families.
By 1922, coincidentally the year of the establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, the several Greek immigrants in Asheville formed the Holy Trinity community. Whenever a priest could visit, the First Baptist Church and the Trinity Episcopal Church offered rooms for services.
Between visits, women of the community gathered to sing a paraklesis in their homes. Baptisms also took place in he homes. Galvanized washtubs served as baptismal fonts, the parish history noted.
One leader of the community, Peter Chakales, became the first president of the newly formed AHEPA Chapter No. 28 in 1923.
By the early 1930s, the community rented space in an upstairs floor of a commercial building. This is considered the first Greek Orthodox “church” in Asheville. During this period, an Orthodox monastery was established with three monks in Gastonia, N.C., about 70 miles to the east. The eldest monk, who was a priest, would travel once a month to Asheville to perform the Liturgy. He built an iconostasion with lumber he brought for one of the rooms in the building, which served as the church. Another room served as the Greek school, which took place every afternoon for all children of the parish.
Political upheavals in Greek in the late 1920s and early 1930s between the Royalists and Venizelists, which spilled over into this country, affected the Asheville parish but not to the extent of other communities that split into separate churches.
Instead, the recently established Greek school divided into two separate schools, with one faction of royalists comprised of Spartans, forming a school with Mr. Rodopoulos as the teacher, while the Venizelists operated the other, with Mr. Halikakis as the children’s instructor. However, the parish itself remained united. After the two groups reconciled, the new Greek school teacher was Mr. Anamourlis, who taught all the students. In the early 1940s, the parish moved from its location to another building, which the community purchased, on another downtown street.
The first full-time priest was assigned at this time, Fr. Pouleropoulos, who also shared among four communities – three Sundays a month in Greenville, S.C., one Sunday in Spartanburg, S.C., one Saturday in Anderson, S.C., and one Saturday a month in Asheville.
Following World War II, the Asheville community began to grow as many Greek displaced by the war came to the United States.
Other developments in the community included the organization of the Philoptochos chapter, officially recognized in 1944, and one of the earliest youth groups in America, the Hellenic Forum.
In 1954, the communities in Asheville and Spartanburg agreed to share a priest, Fr. C. Bitzas, who officiated at the Liturgy three Sundays a month in Spartanburg and one in Asheville. Holy Trinity parish purchased property in the 1950s and groundbreaking took place Sept. 22, 1957. It was completed in1958.
The community’s first full-time priest, Fr. Nicolaos Spirakis, came to the parish in 1959 and served until 1970. Among the noteworthy developments included the establishment of the first GOYA chapter, with Anastasia Hanzas as its first president. She and her sister, Effie, were the first parishioners to attend and graduate from Saint Basil Academy, which had a teacher training school.
Also in the 1960s, Athanasios John Pistolis became the first parishioner to attend Holy Cross School of Theology and the community center and education building were completed.
Holy Trinity’s second permanent priest, Fr. Nicholas Vangelopoulos, arrived in 1970 and served until 1984, when he was succeeded by Fr. Theodore N. Papafil who, in turn was succeeded by Frs. Stavros Akrotirianakis and James Iliou. Fr. Diavatis is only the parish’s fifth priest. He and his presbytera have eight children, two of whom are altar boys. He came to Asheville after serving parishes in Las Vegas, Alaska, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Aside from his delight of being in Asheville, Fr. Diavatis has enthusiasm for serving his congregation. “I really enjoy the people here,” he said. “We have a good group of peaceful people.”