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Greek American Institute’s beginnings

When my children were young, we enjoyed taking them to the local fairs including the one at the Greek American Institute on Bruckner Boulevard just south of Arnow Place which will be coming up again later this month.Ones attention was immediately focused on the Ferris wheel but it was the baklava that kept my wife coming back.We enjoyed their fair and on our trips watched with great interest as their new church was being constructed in the late 1980s and early 90s.

It’s difficult to separate the school and the church, yet they were independent entities for many years.They got their start back in 1912 when their school was opened at 985 – 989 Eagle Avenue not far from East 161st Street.It was the first and only Greek American school in the city and also boasted of a chapel visited by the occasional traveling orthodox priest.The school also housed Greek orphans who were taught the language, religion and customs of their heritage.They lost this property in 1928 due to insufficient funds to maintain it but they continued their educational programs first at Ebling’s Casino located at Third Avenue and East 163rd Street and then above the bank at East 156th Street and Westchester Avenue.Since both facilities lacked space and permanency, however, they could no longer board students.

Later, they were able to obtain the use of the top floor of the firehouse on Forest Avenue between East 161st and 163rd Streets for a church and then in 1931, they were able to buy an old synagogue at 860 Forest Avenue just south of East 160th Street.They purchased it for $40,000 and used the first floor for a church and the second floor for classrooms.The basement became the social center and cafeteria.Although housed in the same building, the church and the school remained independent of one another.

Attendance began to wane at the old converted synagogue, however, as that area of the Bronx was changing and the Greeks were moving out.They had to locate a more stable community for their church and school.Finally in 1966 they found a Jewish convalescent home at 3573 Bruckner Boulevard just south of Arnow Lane in the Pelham Bay community and purchased the one and a half acre property from Beth Abraham Hospital for $500,000. They followed their earlier tradition of keeping the church on the main level with classrooms above.Their first Mass in the new facility was celebrated on August 16, 1967.

The next big event for the church was the ground-breaking for new community center which took place on May 2, 1976. Archbishop Iokovos, who led the Greek Orthodox Church in both North and South America, presided at the ceremonies.The building was sufficiently complete by September of 1977 for the community to begin using it.The next big event would be preparations for a new church which took place on October 2, 1988 with the archbishop officiating at the ground-breaking ceremony.

The new Church of Zoohodos Peghe was completed at a cost of 1.7 million dollars and the official door opening (Thyranixia) took place on April 27, 1995.The archbishop presided and all the local politicians and clergymen were in attendance for the grand event.Zoodohos Peghe, by the way, means life-giving fountain and refers to the Blessed Virgin Mary who is always depicted in icons with Jesus. The formal consecration of the church and the altar where the relics of St. Panteleimon, St. Kyrikos and St. George were inserted took place on November 4, 2007 by Archbishop Demetrios.Archbishop Iokovos, who led the church through much of its development, had passed away on April 10, 2005 but there was no doubt that he was smiling down on the festivities from his celestial abode.Today there are only about 3,500 Greeks still living in the Bronx and many rely on the Greek school to help keep the language and traditions alive. May it ever be so.

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CNG: Community Newspaper Group