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Finding Sanctuary 

The congregation of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral celebrates 100 years with a personalized exhibit.

click to enlarge The Rev. Nicholas Bacalis of Sts. Constantine and Helen and Sylvia Evans, church member and curator, stand in the cathedral sanctuary.

Scott Elmquist

The Rev. Nicholas Bacalis of Sts. Constantine and Helen and Sylvia Evans, church member and curator, stand in the cathedral sanctuary.

For every hundred, make that a thousand, visitors who flock to the wildly popular Greek Festival at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Malvern Avenue each spring, there probably aren't two who venture into the church sanctuary.

They are missing food for the soul. The cruciform-plan and white-walled interior— unmistakably and crisply midcentury modern — is a serene and spiritually-evocative space. Natural light flows through slender windows. Large brass and glass chandeliers hang from the nave's ceiling, strangely bulbous in shape, like wasp nests, but altogether handsome.

Within this embracing space one's eye is drawn to the huge wall mosaic of Mary and Jesus that rises on the apsidal wall. A few feet in front of this Byzantine-style image is a sweeping wooden icon screen, embedded with carefully articulated holy figures. The screen divides the worshippers from the clergy, enhancing a veil of mystery and wonder between the worldly and the spiritual. It is an important part of the Eastern tradition, dating to before the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine (244-337) and his mother Helen, which led to establishing Christianity in the Byzantine Empire — and Greek Orthodoxy.

The impressive cathedral's elegant near West End grounds and facilities, serving 600 member families, are a far cry from the humble beginnings of a congregation that is marking its 100th anniversary this year. Therefore, the faithful and wider community alike should welcome an exhibit currently on display in the church house atrium. "Rising from the Ashes: New Buildings, New Visions, New Faces" includes scores of items, mostly lent by church members, that relay stories and symbolize the devotion of the congregants, many from disparate parts of the world, who have found solace and offered service through this church. It is clear that they have sought to assimilate quietly into the wider American — and Richmond — community and narrative.

The exhibition's title, "Up From the Ashes," suggests that like many a Richmond epic, the Sts. Constantine and Helen story, which begins in 1917, includes a fiery tragedy. The year was 1957 when its handsome church, located downtown at Foushee and Main (now a surface parking lot directly across from the Ellen Glasgow House) was destroyed by flames. The building had been built in 1854 by Grace Episcopal Church and was converted for Greek Orthodox worship in 1934.

The late Rev. Constantine Dombalis, who headed the church at the time of the fire, would champion the congregation's move to Malvern Avenue and establishment of the new campus in 1962 — it worshipped at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Ginter Park during the interim.

For the past 22 years, the Rev. Nicholas G. Bacalis has served as cathedral dean.

The exhibit captures the era of the congregation's move in 1962 with an unlikely assemblage of ephemera for a church exhibition. Howdy Doody, a Madame Alexander doll and a figurine of a resplendent Jacqueline Kennedy share limited space with Matchbox vehicles, a Beatles 45 rpm record and Jerry Lee Lewis and Perry Como music.

Nearby showcases develop themes that exhibition curator Sylvia Evans and the church have deemed essential to the church's core values.

First, is certain humbleness. Evans reiterated this on a recent morning as she guided a visitor through the exhibit. Among the founders of the congregation in 1917 was a man who washed dishes at the Jefferson Hotel. At first he and his group rented quarters variously on North Seventh and Sixth streets, where the Richmond Coliseum stands. The congregation grew during the First World War when an influx of Greeks to the United States, a number of whom found their way to Richmond and Hopewell. "They were bakers, tailors, restaurateurs, cleaners and hat-makers," Evans says.

"Life had been difficult for them in Greece," she says, "They thought that America would offer the better life they were looking for. And they were resilient people — they didn't come here to fail."

Approaching another showcase with the theme "United by Faith," a viewer is struck by the assemblage of needlework and embroidery pieces. Evans suggests that immigrants would have brought with them something with personal meaning and that was light and packable. This might have been textile work created by a relative, perhaps a grandmother.

In addition to textile pieces, metallurgy works, paintings and archival and family photographs signify what came with new arrivals as they found their way to membership at Sts. Constantine and Helen. A bed covering with a crocheted fringe is from Greece. An embroidered blouse comes from Ukraine while painted plates were brought by an Egyptian member. A coffee set is from Lebanon and there is a crewel pillowcase from Serbia. Crosses formed by latticework come from Ethiopia and a silk runner represents a Bulgarian church member. Other objects show the congregation's international reach from Palestine, Romania, Russia and Syria.

The exhibition also stresses how Sts. Constantine and Helen offered classes in citizenship and how the members have participated for decades in the community's pressing ecumenical, interracial and social causes.

One of the most intriguing objects in the exhibition is a Greek version of a Monopoly game: the colors, figures and addresses are recognizable, the language not so much. Monopoly! Isn't that representative of what America is about, free enterprise? And in Richmond it's well-known that for the past century Richmond's culinary development has been shaped by Greek-American-owned small businesses and restaurants.

Hung high on a wall and easy to miss in the exhibit is a vintage poster from one of the cathedral's earliest Greek festivals. In bold Madison Avenue advertising graphics is the statement: "One taste of their cooking and you'll know that Greek goddesses are no myth."

Time spent in "Rising From the Ashes" reveals that the women and men of Sts. Constantine and Helen are serving up not just spanakopita, but an embracing community rich in tradition. S

Special tours of the sanctuary, 30 Malvern Ave., and "Rising from the Ashes" will be held on Fri., Dec. 15, from 11:30-1:30 p.m. and from 2 to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For reservations, call 355-3687.

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