41st Annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival • A Landmark Year

Four Decades of Connecting Culture & Community Together

Posted In: Culture, ,   From Issue 880   By: Robert E Martin

05th June, 2019     0

As longer evenings 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 14-15-16th, this year will also mark the 41st 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.

Live entertainment will include music from the Levendes Greek Band, plus Brad DeRouche from Saginaw Valley State University will perform a classical guitar medley based on Byzantine folk songs. Folk dances will be offered by various dance groups and audience members are encouraged to join the dancing on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The hours of the festival will be Friday, noon to 11 PM; Saturday noon to 11 PM, and Sunday noon to 5 PM. Children 12 and under enter the festival free and guests over 65 enter the festival free on Friday between noon and 5 PM.

This year the Greek Festival will also bring back two old menu favorites: calamari (fried squid) and souvlaki (shish-kabob); plus the festival will expand its baklava options to three: traditional, baklava roll, and baklava sundae.

Also returning this year will be popular Kids’ Zone, which was re-introduced and expanded at the Festival last year. Featuring bounce houses and an obstacle course by Bouncing Bellas, the Kids’ Play Zone includes the Township Fire Truck, State Trooper Humvee, face paints, and Sparky the Fire Dog robot. All Kids’ Play Zone activities are free and the festival will also offer Greek recipe teaching demos for both adults and kids.

The Greek Festival continues to contribute proceeds to local organizations and charities and in 2018 donated to more than 20 organizations, including Bayside Lodge Clubhouse, Emmaus House of Saginaw, Families Against Narcotics, Good Neighbor’s Mission, Good Samaritan Rescue Mission of Bay City, Hidden Harvest, Midland Community Former Offenders Advocacy & Rehabilitations, Nouvel Catholic Central, One Week, One Street - Loving Our Neighbors, Pregnancy Resource Center of Mid-Michigan and Shelterhouse Midland. The Festival also contributed to the local arts last year, making donations to Bay City Players, Pit & Balcony Theatre and The Saginaw Art Museum.

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.

Journey through the Past

The Greek Festival began back in 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.  At the heart of it lies an important American immigrant story about culture, community and faith.

Greek immigrants began settling in Saginaw over a century ago and St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church is now 83 years-old. 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.

At the inaugural festival in 1979 a musician from the silver screen classic Zorba the Greek gave a guest performance, while lamb roasted on spits and 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 was 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

Heading up the organizational network that diligently attends to the numerous details that make this celebration possible are David Nichols, now in his third year as Festival Chairman, who recently sat down with Committee members Alexia Houpis (her father Lou Economou was the first Chairman for the Greek Festival) and Chris Psetas, whom has also devoted time and energy on the Festival Board for over 35 years, to discuss the ways they are focused upon shaping the contours and architecture of the festival so that it continues to draw commitment and support from future generations.

“Fortunately the weather was nice for us last year and attendance was up, which I thought it might be seeing as last year marked our 40th anniversary,” reflects Alexia about the success of last year’s festival. “We also introduced new craft beer to the Beer Tent, and expanded activities for children, so consequently attracted a lot more family goers, which I feel is very important.”

“One of our main goals is to expand our festival demographic to embrace family age adults in their 30s and 40s with children, so they can bring the kids and give them plenty of things to do while they enjoy themselves for a few hours at the festival,” confirms David.

As for the delicious homemade flavor found in the wide array of menu items available at the Greek Festival, the big news for this year is the return of calamari (fried squid) and souvlaki (shish-ka-bob). “This year we’re bringing the souvlaki back a little differently,” explains Alexia. “They won’t be served as the traditional sandwich but more as an appetizer stick. People were upset when we pulled these items last year, but squid is becoming increasingly expensive and the souvlaki is quite time-consuming to prepare properly.”

“Additionally, we’ll be serving another form of baklava in addition to the traditional variety everybody loves,” she continues. “This year we’ll be adding baklava rolls, which looks like a cannoli, only without the filling and a smaller amount of nuts and chocolate drizzle. A lot of Greek families make this, but it’s also very time-consuming and a difficult process to make.”

According to David, the biggest challenge and top-priority for the Greek Festival Committee is gathering and equipping a new generation of volunteers to donate their time. Indeed, anybody interested in assisting their endeavors is encouraged to contact the church if they would like to help work at this year’s festival.  There is no minimum time requirement and people can work as long as they wish to stay.\

“People that join our parish feel a strong sense of community,” states David, “and this festival is a large thing for us to run for one weekend.  It’s really the area kick-off for Summer in many ways and an important way this community hands itself down from one generation to another. Last year my boy danced for his first time in the festival and in many ways the festival serves as mirror to the community. But without a doubt, people absolutely love the food. Last year we sold over 10,000 gyros non-stop over the three days of the festival, creating three assembly lines to serve them faster.”

“Apart from the food, music, dancing, and fellowship, people also want to know where their money is going,” concludes David. “Last year we made donations to over 20 different recipients not just in Saginaw, but also in Bay and Midland counties. Plus, we’ve extended our contributions to the Arts in the region, which I’m really proud about. It’s important for us to tell our own story, but it’s not just about getting a sandwich and having fun - it’s about putting money into our community. It’s a festival by the community and for the community and a way for us all to help our region. We made one of the first donations to build the Center Courts along with one of the first donations to build the Soccer Complex.”

“A Festival needs to be a celebration of something and the fact it began with an immigrant experience sharing a common ethnic background that built a church is a good American story. Eventually a festival came out of that and through the extensions and monetary contributions - in that reverberation we’ve created and evolved something that people can be proud of - something that anyone should be able to appreciate is now a big part of Saginaw’s story.”

Chris Psetas echoes this sentiment. “Years ago our Priest Father John stated it best when he said we don’t have this festival just for money. We have it to show our culture to people in the area and bring us all together for a common goal. That was true then and it’s still true today.”

Greek Festival XLI • A Taste of Greece takes place June 14-15-16h 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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