40th Annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival • A Landmark Year

Four Decades of Connecting Culture & Community Together

Posted In: Culture, ,   From Issue 862   By: Robert E Martin

24th May, 2018     0

As temperatures heat up, flowers blossom, and the long days approach each year with the Summer Solstice, hundreds of volunteers throughout the community collectively gather together on the grounds of St. Demetrios Church at 4970 Mackinaw in Saginaw Township in order to tend to the myriad of details and nuances that must flow together like a finely tuned machine in order to transform the parish into the setting for their annual Greek Festival, which over the past four decades has served as one of the most  pivotal celebrations of ethnic food, music, dance, and cultural fellowship to resonate throughout the Great Lakes Bay region.

Happening Father’s Day weekend from June 15-16-17th, this year will also mark the landmark 40th Anniversary for this celebrated gathering, which epitomizes what both a church & community are capable of achieving, having consistently grown over the decades into a festival that not only draws tens of thousands of patrons from all points of the state and beyond eager to savor the many flavors & components of Greek culture and cuisine, but also invests thousands of dollars each year from proceeds of the festival back into community organizations.

Over the years around 40 organizations have received monetary donations from the festival, sometimes regularly. Last year alone eight of them were independent of St. Demetrios. Past recipients have included the Alzheimer’s Association, American Red Cross, Bayside Lodge Clubhouse, CAN Council, City Rescue Mission of Saginaw, East Side Soup Kitchen, Flint Water Crisis Relief, Great Lakes Autism Center, Heritage High School, Hidden Harvest, Nouvel Catholic Center, Saginaw Public Libraries, The Saginaw Sports hall of Fame, the Saginaw YMCA, and Underground Railroad, to name but a few.

Opening at noon each day and with admission set at only $3.00, with children 12 and under admitted free and Senior Citizens also admitted free on Friday from noon to 4 pm, the true heroes of this annual celebration are the members of St. Demetrios Church, who gather together on weekends beginning in February to bake & prepare the many delectable items that populate the incomparable menu of the Greek festival.  Each weekend different teams consisting of about 20 people assemble to tackle the preparation of different food items, with various committee chairs assembling together the teams.

Heading up the organizational network that diligently attends to the numerous details that make this celebration possible are David Nichols, now in his second year as Festival Chairman; and Mark Legner, who has worked closely with the festival for over 20 years – both men focused upon sculpting the contours and architecture of the festival so that it continues to draw commitment and support from future generations.

Journey Through the Past

A philosophy professor at SVSU, David Nichols views this 40th Anniversary Celebration of The Greek Festival as much more than a mere means for the church to make money and also re-invest it back into the community.

“Not only is this the 40th year of the festival, but St. Demetrios parish has been in existence for 80 years and it has also been about 100 years since Greek Americans started settling in Saginaw, so we think this is an important year – a time to celebrate and remember the self-realization of the Greek-American Community, which is a great American story – an important story about the culture and faith of an immigrant group working together to accomplish something not only for their community, but  for the generations coming after them,” reflects Nichols.

By the year 1920 Saginaw had as many as 75 Greek immigrants, most of them young men desperate for opportunities in the new world. They often took work at restaurants and several Greek American families began meeting in the upper room of the Vlassis Brothers Restaurant at 411 Court Street. In 1931 they made plans to organize a Greek Orthodox parish named after the patron soldier-martyr Saint Demetrios.

In 1940 the parish purchased its first church building on 120 S. Fifth St and had its own priest sent from Greece, appointed by the Archbishop in New York. Tragically, a decade later the church building burned down; and as its tearful priest, Father Daregas, emerged from the flames, he was clutching the parish Gospels in his arms – the only relic he could salvage.

Undeterred, the parish had a new church building built on the same site while members worshipped in the basement. Then in 1971 St. Demetrios parish laid the cornerstone for what would be their third building – a much larger structure, in Byzantine style – at the corner of Mackinaw and McCarty roads in Saginaw Township.

The Greek Festival began in July 1979 as an effort by parishioners to share their Greek culture or ‘Hellenism’ with the wider Tri-City community. They transformed the church grounds into a miniature Greek village with vintage wine and ouzo available at the tavern, artifacts from the old country sold at the emporium, and music and dance at the theater.

Dr. Lou Economou was a pivotal figure in devising the Greek Festival since its inception; and he still recalls the origins in vivid detail.  “In 1978 I said to a bunch of friends, why don’t we do a festival?”  Other Greek festivals were held throughout the country, so I thought why can’t we set one up here in Saginaw,” he explains. “It took a year to prepare and I became the first Chairman of the festival, which officially began in 1979.”

Economou says one of the primary reasons for having the festival is because church members feel it’s important to spread their culture. “We wanted to introduce people living in our region to our culture and our religion,” he explains. “So often people drive by the church and see our dome and think it’s a temple or a mosque; but many still don’t realize the Orthodox Church is the first Christian religion – really, where it all started in that area of the world, so we had definite goals for conducting the festival, with the last being to raise money.”

At that inaugural festival, a musician from the silver screen classic Zorba the Greek gave a guest performance, lamb roasted on spits, guests tasted recipes from the old country and watched millennia old-folk dances from the islands, the church opened for tours with the parish priest; and from the outset, the festival committee resolved to share proceeds with the poor. In that spirit, for four decades, the Festival has contributed to local organizations, charities, and individuals in need.

In recent years, St. Demetrios parish has grown into a multi-ethnic community, with Eastern Orthodox believers of Russian, Ukranian, Georgian, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, and Ethiopian descent. Many converts have also come looking for an authentic experience of the historic Church, rich with liturgy, chant and iconography. While the Greeks are still present, fiercely proud of what their forbearers have accomplished; the parish and the Greek Festival continue to play an important role in both the spiritual and historical identity of Saginaw.

Celebration of the Future

To help set the tone for this 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Greek Festival, a special State of Michigan Tribute Proclamation will be presented by State Senators Ken Horn and James Stamos on the first day of the festival and presented onstage to the original festival committee members.

Additionally, Chairman Nichols points out that the layout of the festival will also be evolving and changing this year, including a much larger Kids Zone that will feature two bounce houses, an obstacle course, face painting, and many other activities, with children getting free admission and access. Sparky the Fire Dog will also be there on Saturday from noon to 2 pm, plus the Michigan State Police will be on hand Saturday to take fingerprint ID’s of children in the pastry tent. Additionally, the festival will feature face painting for kids on all three days and Senior Citizens age 65 and up will receive free admission on Friday from Noon to 5 pm.

“Another change that I am proud of is the fact we will be offering several different craft beers at this year’s festival, notes Nichols. “People can still get the old Bud and Bud Light, but we’ll be offering Oberon and two other craft beers on tap.  We’ll also be offering a better salad, as we’ve replaced the iceberg lettuce with improved greens; but apart from that, we’ll be retaining the classic Greek menu and dessert items, will be featuring the same quality music and ethnic dancing, and have also created a more efficient layout and use of space on the grounds.”

Attendance to the Greek Festival usually averages around 20,000 per year, although according to co-chairman Mark Legner, last year was not as good as prior years largely due to the weather. Three years ago, however, attendance was the highest ever and last year they went through 65 gyro cones.  Making the various authentic Greek desserts served at the festival is a process that begins in February, considering that with the Baklava alone, an amazing number of 46 sheet pans need to be baked.

According to Art Tselepis, “Many of the cookies we offer take three days to make.  It takes one day to roll and deep fry the dough; then they need to be wrapped in paper towels, which often takes several days to drain off the oil; and then we soak them in honey syrups, which the dough also needs to absorb. After that we sprinkle them with nuts, so as you see, it’s quite a project.”

The dessert crew will make anywhere from 1500 to 2000 of these particular cookies and sell out every one of them.  “We freeze these cookies,” continues Art, “so they stay fresh for the festival. One of our church members left a generous endowment to the church 20 years ago, which we were truly blessed with. This helped up purchase all the freezers we require for storage.”

We’ve been baking the same ones for 35 years and these recipes don’t change,” reflects Art. “We’ve tried to streamline approaches with them, but that doesn’t work either.  It’s funny because actually they are very simple recipes, but their taste and quality come from all the handwork and care that you put into them. You’ve got to really work the dough. And as my Mother used to say, “it’s not the recipe honey, it’s the love.”

Given that it is only Chairman David Nichols second year at the helm, how has he weathered the transition period, especially in this pivotal 40th Anniversary year?  “The first year it was like being baptized by fire,” he laughs, “as I’d never been involved with such a massive operation, but more importantly I feel it’s time to make the festival equipped for the next generation, which is why we’re making it more kid friendly and includes aiming the target demographic at families in the 20-30 and 40-year old age group This is also why we’re adding the craft beers, yet retaining all the classic, historic and best elements of the festival.”

Nichols says the most challenging component, and one shared with previous chairmen of the festival, is securing new young blood into the nuts-and-bolts of the operation. “You always have to be looking for newer young volunteers to bring into this organization; and you’ll never have enough, no matter how successful you are, but I feel we’ve made some good headway,” he explains. “We’ve reached out to young folks and have a lot of first time volunteers that are coming in; and God bless those elder Greek ladies working the kitchen – they need some help – and that’s the biggest challenge to keep the festival going – finding people willing to take on greater responsibilities with more authority to delegate, although I suppose that is true with most community service organizations.”

“My favorite time at last year’s festival was the Thursday night just before our opening day on Friday,” reflects Nichols. “It was the calm before the storm and I was walking through the festival grounds, which was like this Ghost Town, making sure everything was ready, all the tables were properly covered, chairs set up, all the ovens in place, and it was uncommonly quiet and for me a very contemplative moment in time.  It was like I was listening to the ghosts of the past and suddenly I felt strongly that I knew what this Festival was truly all about, which is continuing this important legacy for this Greek American community and how I get to be a part of this tradition and carry it forward a little longer. It’s very amazing and humbling when you think about the totality of this event and where this community has come in one hundred years.”

“Many festivals have closed, but this is now the oldest Greek Festival in the State of Michigan and we get visitors from all over the state and Canada, which is pretty amazing,” concludes David.

“Now all we need is to bring on the good weather!”, notes former chair Chris Psetas. One of the oldest members currently serving on the Board, he recalls one year when the festival was hit with severe rain and yet the parking lot was still full of cars, many of them stuck in the mud.   “I had an epiphany when I caught a glimpse and realized how popular this festival is when you see more wreckers than cars in the parking lot!  Inside there were 100 people lined up for Gyros with 16 vertical fryers going attempting to keep up with the demand.”

“You can’t put a price tag on those types of experiences and moments.”

Greek Festival XL • A Taste of Greece takes place June 15-17th at St. Demetrios Church Grounds, 4970 Mackinaw at McCarty in Saginaw. Admission is only $3.00 with Children 12 and Under Free. The Festival is open at noon everyday with free parking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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