New Orleans – By Karen Brooks / The Dallas Morning News
The oldest Greek Orthodox church in the nation almost bowed to Hurricane Katrina when 3 feet of water lapped at the top step of the altar. But with the unlikely help Friday of sailors from the USS Iwo Jima, the historic Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral held its first worship service Sunday since the storm three weeks ago.
It was the first time in the cathedral’s 140-year history that services had been suspended for more than a week, and it was a symbol of residents’ determined effort toward recovery.
When the 17th Street Canal levee broke the day after Katrina hit, water gushed into the area, which is just south of the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, filling homes with as much as 8 feet of water.
The amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima arrived in New Orleans to help with relief efforts a week after the levee broke.
The sailors weren’t getting any direction from Orleans Parish officials on what to do, the Rev. Milton Gianulis said, so sailors began helping in their own way — at the request of specific agencies or relief groups. When they noticed that the fountain in front of River Park had been shut down, the ship’s engineers got it flowing again.
The chaplain suggested that the ship’s officers check out other churches, and of the 10 they saw, the cathedral in northwest New Orleans needed work more desperately than many and had a good shot at being saved.
The Iwo Jima’s captain — Capt. Richard Callas — is also Greek Orthodox.
The cathedral, which was built there in 1995 after moving from its original location closer to downtown, will probably lose its office and community center — a building that normally sees 25,000 visitors each Memorial Day weekend for its famous Greek festival. None of the! icons was damaged, but they’ll have to be cleaned before mold destroys them.
Most of the 300 families in its congregation had evacuated by the time the levee broke.
They are not allowed back in until power is restored and homes are drained of brackish floodwaters.
Mary Kontos, who was church secretary for 26 years, moved in with her daughter in College Station, Texas, to wait out the hurricane and aftermath. Hopeful congregation
Her home in Metairie was ruined, but she was glad to hear the church will survive.
“It just made us cry when we saw that e-mail,” Mrs. Kontos said, referring to how church officials notified the congregation about the Navy’s help. “It just made us all so very happy. It just felt like, you know, that things are going to come back.”
The congregation Sunday was thin, albeit hopeful.
Father Gianulis wasn’t going to have the Divine Liturgy all by himself and thought he’d have to cancel — until the first of the faithful walked in: Three sailors coming to worship in the church where 50 of them had spent eight hours cleaning up.
Two church board members were there helping with the service. A French Quarter businessman wandered in to show support for his friends on the church board.
Better late than never
And the last to arrive, half way through the service, was church member Nisha Sandhu and her fiancé, Sid Gearhart. The evacuees showed up late after talking their way through three checkpoints and dodging a fourth to get to the church.
“I was nicely surprised we could make it in time,” said Ms. Sandhu, 33. “It’s wonderful to be able to thank them [the sailors], and [I feel] blessed that they were actually able to volunteer and do this.”
THE GREEK CAPTAIN
His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America announced the liturgy on a statement issued on Monday.
“Fr. Milton Gianulis is attached to the USS IWO JIMA, a multi-purpose amphibious ship, headed by Greek Orthodox Captain Richard Callas. With the help of Captain Callas and under the direction of Fr. Milton, several members of the IWO JIMA crew salvaged books, furniture and other moveable items from the church and cleaned and dried the interior and exterior of the church, making the Liturgy possible.
On Sunday morning eight parishioners attended the Divine Liturgy including IWO JIMA crewmembers and two officers of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Nick Moustoukis, Vice President and Chris Kanellakis, Treasurer.
According to information received from those present, the level of the water inside the church had reached three feet from which there was considerable damage. What is not known at this time is how much structural damage there was to the church, which will be determined by inspection of engineers in the coming weeks”.