Athenagoras (born Aristocles) Spyrou was born in 1886 in Vasilikos Pogoni. He completed primary education in his village, in Konitsa, and in Ioannina. In 1910 he graduated from the Theological School of Halki and in the same year he was ordained a deacon. From 1910 to 1918 he served the Holy Metropolis of Pelagonia, while in 1919, after a short stay on Mount Athos, he was appointed as deacon and secretary of the Holy Metropolis of Athens by Meletios Metaxakis. The new clergyman showed his abilities early on and for this reason in 1922, still at the rank of deacon, he was elected Metropolitan of Kerkyra and Paxos. His ordination as a priest and bishop took place in December of the same year. As Metropolitan of Kerkyra, he developed a rich philanthropic, social and educational ministry, while at the same time he maintained excellent relations with the Roman Catholic and Armenian inhabitants of the island. He represented the Church of Greece in important inter-Christian and inter-Orthodox meetings, such as, for example, the Preliminary Committee of the Orthodox Churches on Mt. Athos in 1930.
In August 1930, the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate elected Metropolitan Athenagoras of Kerkyra and Paxos as Archbishop of America.
The new Archbishop of America, after visiting the Phanar to receive the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch Photios, arrived in New York and was enthroned in the Church of St. Eleftherios in February 1931.
Archbishop Athenagoras managed very quickly to adapt to the circumstances of the American reality, understanding the essence of the problems and initiating solutions. Among other things, the personal friendship that connected Archbishop Athenagoras with Presidents Roosevelt and Truman contributed to this latter cause, as evidenced by the usage of Air Force One by which Archbishop Athenagoras travelled to Constantinople when he was elected Ecumenical Patriarch.
During the tenure of Archbishop Athenagoras, a new Charter for the Archdiocese of North and South America came into force, which proved to be quite durable in time, as it was in place from 1931 to 1977. The main pivot of the new administrative structure was the abolition of the Episcopal Synod as it had then operated, the establishment of the institution of Auxiliary Bishops, and the creation of Archdiocesan districts (Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Charlotte).
From the beginning, Archbishop Athenagoras turned his interest to the crucial issue of the Archdiocese’s economic stability and he proved successful. The economic situation improved and enabled the establishment of the Pension Fund for the clergy of the Archdiocese, the transfer of its seat in 1942 from Astoria to Manhattan, the purchase of land, and also the reconstruction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral of New York in the early 1930’s.
In 1931, Archbishop Athenagoras founded the Philoptochos Sisterhood with the aim of supporting the charitable work of the Church. In 1934 he founded the "Orthodox Observer", which has continued for decades its pioneering presence of informing not only the Greek Orthodox community but other communities as well. Of historical significance for the future of the Archdiocese of America was the establishment of the Holy Cross Theological School in Pomfret, Connecticut in 1937, later transferred to Boston in 1947.
Moreover, Archbishop Athenagoras focused on deepening inter-Christian and inter-Orthodox collaboration. In particular, he strengthened the fraternal ties with the other Christian Churches and confessions, while taking a decisive step in the further promotion of inter-Orthodox cooperation. His initiative in the founding of the Federation of Orthodox Christian Churches of America in 1943 formed the basis for the later-named Standing Committee of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) which would have its present-day manifestations as the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. Finally, Archbishop Athenagoras also showed particular interest in the suffering Greeks in the homeland. Thus, he founded the Greek War Relief which sent food, medicine, and clothing during this most difficult period from 1940–1947.
In November 1948, Archbishop Athenagoras of America was elected Ecumenical Patriarch, succeeding Ecumenical Patriarch Maximos V who resigned for health reasons. He would spend two more months in America prior to departing for Constantinople, ultimately, being taken to Constantinople by military airplane sent by President Harry Truman.
He continued his rich and varied ministry in Constantinople, improving relations with Orthodox Churches and non-Orthodox communities alike, especially with the Roman Catholic Church. Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras passed away on July 7, 1972. His long and fruitful tenure particularly as Archbishop of North and South America was critical in elevating the profile of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek people in American society. His leadership also initiated many programs which exist today in the Archdiocese.