The Greek Orthodox Church

Written by: Angeline Antonakos Boswell, KGHP Researcher


Audio Clip: Listen to Father Chrysostomos Achilleos describe how the Orthodox church stimulates the five senses.

Joanna (daughter) Baptism 2
The Interior of Koimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Kingston.

The Orthodox Religion and the Greek Community

The Orthodox church has played an important role in the Greek Community throughout its history, and still plays a central role in the community today. The church is an important site for cultural upkeep and community connection, since it is within the church that most important holidays, important rites of passage (such as baptisms and weddings), ethnic traditions (such as Greek dancing and Folklore), and important cultural institutions (such as Greek school and Philoptohos) take place. Because of the importance the church – as both a religious and cultural institution – has in the life of a Greek community, it is no surprise that the church became a crucial site for cultural upkeep among Greek immigrants in Canada. The first Greek Orthodox churches in Canada were formed very shortly after Greek immigration to Canada began growing: one was formed in Montreal in 1906 and one in Toronto in 1909 (Chimbos, The Canadian Encyclopedia). Such ethnic community formations, which inevitably became “parish communities [performing] both religious and cultural functions”, began early on in Greek immigration to Canada in order to provide immigrants with a space to “adjust to the new society”, make connections, “combat prejudice and discrimination”, and preserve their Greek language and culture (Chimbos, The Canadian Encyclopedia).

The importance of the Orthodox church in the lives of Greek Canadians persisted over the years, and continued to be the glue for Greek communities as Canada received its second, and largest, wave of Greek immigration after World War II. In the 1940s, for example, an important early Greek Orthodox priest in Montreal named Father Salamis was described as the “rock” of the community. Along with attending to the spiritual needs of the congregation, he also “eased the frictions which developed between the established Greek community and the new immigrants” (Century Man: The Father Salamis Story). The church has been important in facilitating immigrants’ transition into their new society. It provides them with a cultural and religious core, since all the cultural and religious functions of the community tend to occur within the physical building of the church. It also provides them with a familiar space in which to upkeep their traditions while simultaneously branching out into the new society through making connections. The idea that the parish community might be able to attend to all aspects of Greek life is a distinctive feature of Greek Orthodoxy’s blurring between the religious and secular aspects of life. The concept of “kinotits” [kinotita], or “spiritual community”, is a “peculiarly Greek concept” which refers to both the members of a Greek community and the congregation of its church, which is implied to be the same thing (Nagata 1969, 51).

The Greek Orthodox church, as Nagata says in her study on Greek Immigrants in Toronto, is “remarkable for its qualities as a Greek culture-preserving institution” (1969, 55). Why is the Greek Orthodox religion so interconnected with the Greek culture? This interconnection has its roots in the history of the church itself. Greek Orthodoxy began during the Byzantine Empire. When Greece was conquered under the Muslim Ottoman Empire, the “Greek Orthodox Church kept its identification with the Greek nation” (Kaketsis 2000, 46). The everyday life of Greeks and religious rituals became largely intertwined: the secular and religious are quite blurred in the Greek Community. For example, March 25th is a date celebrated as part of the ritual calendar, as a religious event, although it commemorates the historical event of Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire (ibid). Growing up in Kingston’s Greek community, every child participates in the March 25th celebrations which take place following church, and involve a mixture of commemorative poem-reading, traditional Greek dancing while wearing ethnic costumes, recounting of the story of Greek independence, and much more. Both Sunday School and Greek School – although the children usually attend both and thus the groups consist of the same individuals – prepare for this day each year, since it is a day which holds great significance for both cultural and religious groups.

Sakell Folklore 2
An example of the traditional costumes worn during March 25th celebrations. This is a photograph of the Sakell family in the 1970s.

Presvytera Catherine Penney, a former Presvytera (or Priest’s wife) for Kingston’s Greek Orthodox Church, remarked on the living tradition of the Orthodox faith in Greek communities. Presvytera Catherine was not born Orthodox: she converted to Orthodoxy along with her husband, Father Matthew Penney, during their university years. Since she approached Orthodoxy from the ‘outside’, she was able to see the presence Orthodoxy has in the everyday life of Greeks – something that goes unnoticed when you grow up used to it. When she went to Thessaloniki in order to learn Greek and be exposed to an Orthodox country, she found that people “absorbed the faith naturally” because it was so deeply embedded in their culture: “I think a lot can be ‘ingrained in your soul’, she said, “if you’re exposed to it even a little bit. Another factor is that Orthodoxy is very tied to the Greek culture, so you get exposed to it.” Thus, she described the Greek community – both in Greece and abroad – as having a living tradition of the faith: it is hard to separate the faith from everyday life.  

What is the Orthodox Church?

The word orthodox means “straight worship” or “straight teaching” (Kaketsis 2000, 46). It is the second largest Christian denomination and the longest continuous church, thought to be established by Jesus and his apostles. Since it was founded in the Byzantine era, it maintains the Byzantine style of art (iconography), hymnography, dress, and rituals. Being inside of an Orthodox church feels like being inside a different era. In an interview with a former priest of Kingston’s Greek Orthodox Church, Father Chrysostomos Achilleos (lovingly nicknamed Fr. C.), he describes how being inside an Orthodox church stimulates the five senses:

Fr. C First Liturgy Kingston
Fr. C. in Kingston’s Greek Orthodox Church. We can see the intricately decorated walls of the church, and the “visual splendor” of everything from the icons to the Priest’s vestments.
  1. Our sense of sight is stimulated by the obvious visual splendor of the Orthodox church. The walls are filled with vibrant Byzantine-style icons. Orthodox icons are made according to traditional standards, so that each depiction is made with the same symbolic components. In other words, everything depicted within an icon – even the colours used! – has symbolic theological meaning, and thus stays generally the same throughout time and place. Within them, the halos, and often the backgrounds, are encrusted with real gold flakes. There is no section of an Orthodox church left undecorated: the visual splendor of the church shows it is a devotional holy space, sets it apart from our everyday life, and is meant to give those who step within it a sense of what the splendor of Heaven will be like. Even the Priest’s vestments are heavily adorned, usually involving gold, and seem (according to Fr. C.) “from a different era altogether”.
  2. Our sense of sound is stimulated by the Byzantine hymns integral to the liturgy. Fathew Matthew Penney, our priest during the beginning of this Kingston Greek History Project in 2018, explained the use of hymns in liturgy, saying “hymnography is an essential part of the faith”. There is nothing we do in church that does not include continuous singing; this is because, according to the tradition of the psalms, we “lift our voices up to God”.
  3. Our sense of smell is stimulated by the incense that burns during the service, as well as by the candles that burn continuously throughout the service that we have lit to commemorate the dead and bless the living.
  4. Our sense of touch is stimulated by the candles we light, our prayer ropes, the feeling of the pews, and more. We also bless ourselves with the sign of the cross, which is as Fr. C. says, a “tactile representation of our faith”.
  5. Our sense of taste is stimulated by the very important Holy Communion. While the Holy Communion is made up of a specific type of bread and wine, it is important to note that Orthodox Christians believe that once the “consecration of gifts” takes place, the bread and wine are Mystically changed into the risen Body and Blood of Christ.

Here is a small video of a special Greek Orthodox church service at Kingston’s Greek Orthodox Church, to give you an audiovisual sense of the atmosphere of being within an Orthodox church.

The Role of the Priest

When Fr. C. describes his choice to become a Priest, he says that he slowly felt an urge to help people grow more and more in him. “When you see someone in pain, in need, does your heart not go out to them?” he asks. He realized people were starting to seek him out for guidance and advice. It became part of who he was, and the natural progression of things continued that way, since one role of the priest is to have people come to him for guidance. Now, he is in a position to be doing what he wants – helping people – all the time. He feels that being a priest is the role he was meant to fill, and so he feels a sense of fulfillment as a priest – an important feeling we get when we realize we can “contribute in some way”. I spoke to Fr. C. because his first parish as an ordained priest was in Kingston, and so Kingston holds a special place in his heart.

The role of the Priest, according to Fr. C., is much more than celebrating the liturgy alone. It is leading the people in prayer. He is given this authority to celebrate the liturgy and, through God’s grace, consecrate the gifts. In baptisms, he is given the authority bless the water. It is God doing the work, but priests are a vessel. They are given the authority on earth to do the work of God, to “work in his garden”. That spirit of helping one another, of fulfilment, is only magnified because we realize it is not just me anymore – it is God and Man and everyone connected, through the Priest. To Fr. C., feeling God’s love and being able to share that love with people “is indescribable”.

The role of the priest in a Greek Orthodox Community is a very important one. The church takes care of us, from the beginning of our lives to the end and beyond. The Priest, and the kinotitis, or spiritual community, are there during the following states of the Orthodox life cycle, as told by Fr. C.:

  1. When a child is born, the church has a prayer for the first day of life. There is an 8th day prayer where the priest will go to the home and read it. In 40 days, the mom comes to the church with the baby and the child is introduced to the church. (Note: the church is not the building itself; it’s the people in it too, so this is best when the church is full of people).
  2. The next step is the baptism of the child. In the baptism, we mimic the journey of coming from outside of the church to inside of the church, since the baptism literally begins in the narthex and then moves inward. The goal of the baptism is to have the child fully immersed into the water; it’s our initiation into the church, but it is also our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. In the baptism, the child cannot breathe under water (like in death); and when they come out of the water they take a huge breath. They announce that they are alive through this breath and through usually screaming/crying afterwards. (Note: everything in the orthodox church – every practice, every object – has a lot of theological meaning). When Fr. C. baptized Joanna, one of the first babies he baptized, he truly understood the overwhelming significance of this practice. He was choking on his words with emotion when he did it.
  3. Confession happens throughout the life cycle. Confession is a big part of Orthodoxy. We call it a second baptism, or a baptism of tears. It is the re-washing of the soul. We don’t use sin in our church. We use “amartia” – or we’ve missed the mark. In confession, we recognize the error of what we have done and we ask for forgiveness from God, through the priest. The priest isn’t the one doing the forgiving; it is through him, “the sinner”. The priest also recognizes he is a sinner, because everyone is. It is a humbling: he is no better than anybody else. The priest too has to go for confession!
  4. In Weddings, the priest asks God to bless the union. The crowns we wear in Orthodox weddings are the crowns of martyrdom, because in marriage we sacrifice for one another.
  5. During funerals, the priest prays for the soul of the departed. He is also there to give support to the living.
Joanna (daughter) Baptism 4
Fr. C. baptizing his daughter, Joanna, at Koimisis Tis Theotokou.

It is important to note that the priest is there not only when things go bad but also when things are good, which we tend to forget. Fr. C. tells the story of when he was in the hospital visiting the maternity ward, and the lady in the elevator expressed her apologies, because she assumed someone was sick or dying for him to be there. He asked “why are you sorry?” and explained that it was a time to celebrate, because a mother and her baby had made it through childbirth. By the time the elevator ride ended, the woman’s perception had changed completely.

Both Father Matthew Penney and Fr. Chrysostomos Achilleos mention the important role of priest as a leader of the congregation. This is why he faces the same direction as the people: he is leading as we all face God towards the front of the church. The priest’s vestments are so adorned for this reason too. Father Penney describes it as “putting on the glory of God”. As himself, Fr. Matthew has no ability to come before the throne and do this, but as Father, he is blessed and charged with the task of leading the divine services. The Priest is also meant to be the icon of Christ to the people; this is why they dress in the long clothing, and why they have beards and long hair. They are meant to be a visual reflection of Christ.

The Role of the Presbytera

The Presbytera (also spelled ‘Presvytera’) is the wife of the Priest, although her position is much more than that of an add-on to the Priest’s: Presbytera is a role in itself. According to Presbytera Catherine Penney, of course a presbytera must be totally united with her husband and his role, but she makes her own contributions to the parish. Priests and Presbyteras are meant to be exemplary of their faith, but there can be a lot of variations in how this is expressed, depending on the personality of the Presbytera. Some, Presvytera Catherine says, can be very active in a Sunday School, and others can keep a lower profile. Her own personal goal is to be somebody that people feel comfortable speaking to. Presvytera Catherine certainly accomplishes this with her kind and peaceful energy, and she contributes to the community in many ways, such as through leading iconography lessons for children and always assisting with Philoptohos.

Paula and Presvytera Catherine Penney making icons with the community's youth
Presbytera Catherine Penney (left) instructing Iconography for the youth.

Father Chrysostomos Achilleos (Fr. C.) speaks lovingly of his wife, Presbytera Dina and her contribution to the Church. “She is my partner in life. She is my sounding board. She… has given up more for the sake of the ministry than I have. Without her, what I have done – what God has done through me – would not have been possible,” he says. He tells me of an old proverb that the Presbytera must love God more than the Priest does, because of the sacrifices she has to make for the sake of the community. I personally assisted Presbytera Dina in the nursery she began at our church, which was meant to take care of babies and toddlers so parents could attend church without interruption. Presvytera Dina played a very active role in our Sunday School. Fr. C. shares a memory he has of Presvytera Dina, when he was at a festival in Sarnia and she gathered all the children to dance one of the Greek dances. And it was the Priest, as the father of the community, and he was looking at her thinking “and this is the mother of the community”. He describes her as glowing in that moment, like a mother with her children does. As in any family, he describes, the mother and father have both shared and distinct roles.

Father C, Presvytera Dina, and their children Maria and Joanna
Fr. C. and Presbytera Dina, with their two oldest children, Maria and Joanna.

Inside the Orthodox Church

Father Matthew Penney describes the components of the Orthodox Church, using Koimisis Tis Theotokou (the Greek Orthodox Church in Kingston) to illustrate them. The following text comes from an interview with him as he gave me a tour of the church.

When you first enter into the church, you enter into the narthex. Since this is where you step foot into the church from the street outside, the narthex serves as the bridge between our everyday life – our earthly life – and the kingdom of heaven. As Father Penney describes, it is the bridge between what is going on out there in our earthly lives, and in here in a space of divine worship.  Our church in Kingston was not originally orthodox; it was transformed into an orthodox church in the 1960s, and so our narthex is unusual. Typically, an Orthodox narthex would be larger so that there would be a clearly divided space between the entrance and the church to house the two sets of candles (one for the living and one for the dead), and the icons. In the narthex, we have the icon for the church, depicting the saint or life event of Christ that the church is dedicated to. Ours is the Koimisis of Theotokou – or the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. The narthex contains this icon, along with icons depicting Christ and other saints, which we kiss in order to “greet”. It is called a Veneration. We do the sign of the cross, bow, do the cross again, bow, kiss the icons, and then do the cross and bow again. The narthex is a place in which to “gather ourselves”. We are to quiet ourselves here, to “unburden ourselves”, and take some time to prepare ourselves for entering into the holy space.

The main part of the Church is the nave. The nave represents entering into the kingdom of heaven, as it is the space leading up to the front of the church from the narthex. In an Orthodox church, you are meant to see richness and gold; your senses are meant to be overwhelmed, as the church is supposed to be a preview of the “splendor” of heaven. Around the church there are many large icons of important scenes in the life of the saints.

In the front part of the church, we are almost entering into the altar – or the “holy of holies”. The front of the church is the space before the Iconostas, or the icon wall separating the altar from the church. The church is laid out to show one ascending towards heaven, such as that the spaces from the narthex to the altar increase in importance. The front of the church is then the third most important space. The architecture even shows this ascension, as there is a small staircase before this section. Every aspect of the orthodox church means something: it holds symbolic value. There is the Bishop’s throne in this space, where he will sit when he comes to visit his churches. There is one bishop in the geographical area who is responsible for all the churches within it. It is in this space that the chanters stand. I had the chance to speak to an important and long-time chanter within our church, Manos Tryfonopoulos. Manos immigrated to Kingston in the 1950’s and has been chanting in church services ever since. He feels passionate about chanting, and he attends almost every church service to do so. I have never not seen Manos up at the front of the church chanting, and I remember a time when he dedicated his time to help me learn how to play the Byzantine hymns on the organ. Since Manos has never learned how to read music, he chants everything only from memory. His passion for being a chanter – or a “psaltis” in Greek – as well as his passion for supporting the Greek Community and the Greek Church in general is evident.

The third distinct space is the altar area, or the “holy of holies”. Much of our worship within the church involves looking forward towards it, as this space represents the very throne of the Holy Trinity. The Orthodox church’s architecture is very similar to the Temple of Jerusalem in the New Testament. As in the temple, the Holy of Holies was the most sacred of places which was only allowed to be entered into by the high Priest and only once a year. The only people allowed to enter into the altar are those who have been given a particular task in the space, and have a function to perform in the liturgical worship of God. The altar holds the gospel, a cross, a tabernacle (with the communion bread), and much more.

The iconostasis (icon wall or icon stand) is the wall before the altar. It represents a threshold into the most holy space; and so on it we see icons depicting the most holy figures. First and foremost is, Jesus Christ. On either side of him are the figures most significant to him in his earth life: the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. The icon beside the Virgin Mary’s is the icon of the saint or life event of the Church (ours is the Dormition Tis Theotokou). Above the doorway to the altar is an icon depicting the last supper, and around it are icons of the holy apostles.

In the following video, Father Matthew Penney gives an audiovisual tour of the Greek Orthodox Church:


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