The 38th Annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival

A Bountiful Celebration of Culture & Community

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 828   By: Robert E Martin

09th June, 2016     0

Summer Festival season in the Great Lakes Bay Region kicks off once again with the annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival, which runs Father’s Day weekend this year from June 17-18-19th and will mark the 38th year of providing ethnic music, dance, and the finest variety of authentic & sumptuous Greek cuisine to the tri-city region and beyond.

The origins and levels of community involvement and reciprocation generated by this annual gathering on the church grounds of St. Demetrios church, which is located at 4970 Mackinaw, epitomizes what both a church and community are capable of achieving, having grown consistently to a point where it not only brings friends & family together, but draws in tens of thousands of patrons from all regions of the state, eager to indulge themselves with the many flavors & components of Greek culture

Opening at noon each day of the festival, 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 origins of this celebration date back thousands of year to ancient Greece, when cities and villages would celebrate Thesmophoria, to honor the goddess Demeter, who taught mankind to tend the soil.  According to Greek legend, Demeter also gave mankind the gift of agriculture, so the festival began as a means to offer praise to the bounty of harvest.

But the true heroes of this annual celebration are the members of St. Demetrios Church, who gather together every weekend beginning in February to bake and prepare the many delectable items that populate the incomparable menu of the Greek festival. Each weekend different teams consisting of 20-40 people assemble to tackle the preparation of different items, with various committee chairs assembling the teams.

Heading up the organizational network that diligently structures the architectural teamwork together that makes this ambitious celebration possible are 2016 festival co-chairman Mark Legner and Kevin Kato. Mark has been involved with the festival for 19 years, while Kevin’s involvement spans 12 years, with this marking his second year as festival Chairman.

“One of the new features we are introducing into the festival this year is the acceptance of credit cards at the Gyro station,” states Kevin. “We’ve never taken them before, so this is a pilot program we’re testing out with one of our vendors.”

Last year also witnessed the introduction of the Michigan craft brew Oberon into the beer tent, which will be making a return appearance at this year’s festival. “Oberon worked out well for us last year, only we had to work with Fabiano to get us more on Saturday, as we had already sold out initial order on Friday,” notes Kevin. “This year we will also be introducing My Father’s Root Beer into the mix.”

Mark & Kevin are also both pleased with the process of enlisting newer & younger volunteers into the considerable effort involved with staging this ambitious festival. “It’s a slow process but we are getting younger people to volunteer; and right now we average about 150 people volunteering to work for each day of the festival,” explains Kevin. “It does take a lot of people and effort to get this ramped up properly.”

“Not all of our volunteers are church members, but many are friends of committee members,” he continues. “The Dance Troupes that perform start as young as age 4 and go up to age 18 and young adulthood; and the dancers have been practicing since December.  Many volunteers are often here from 9 am to 11:30 at night, so it is definitely a commitment.”

And whether you’re a church member or a fan of the festival that would like to lend a helping hand, there is plenty to involve and immerse oneself in, whether its assembling, preparing and baking 2500 pieces of katiaifi, which is an art in itself involving over 140 pounds of shredded dough and 2000 cloves, with the desert broken down in pans; or baking Baklava and Spinach Pie – there is indeed a place for you on any one of the 18-people teams that prepare all the food items served at the festival fresh from scratch, religiously following home-prepared authentic recipes handed down over the generations.

Raffles will be conducted throughout the 3-day festival for the chance to win a 60-inch Flat Screen TV that will be awarded on Father’s Day, June 19th, along with various cash prizes, which Mark says will consist of a $750 first prize, a $500 second prize, and a $250 third prize offering. Raffle tickets can be purchased along with pre-sale admission tickets and will also be on sale all three days of the festival for only $1.00 per ticket.

Additionally, Sparky the Fire Dog will also be there on Saturday from noon to 2:00 PM; and the Michigan State Police will also be on hand Saturday to take fingerprint ID’s of children in the pastry tent, plus the festival will feature face painting for kids on all three days. Senior Citizens age 55 and UP will also receive free admission on Friday from Noon to 4:00 PM.

“We will also be offering samples of Festival Founder Lou Economou’s roasted lamb,” notes Mark. “When this Festival was first started by Lou Economou and others, his Dad was the Priest here at the church, and they started this tradition of slow-roasting a lamb at the festival, which disappeared for several years.  Lou started doing this again two years ago and we’ll be giving people a little taste in a small container for all three days of the festival because it goes over so well.  We will also be offering cooking demonstrations this year.”

Although an inventory of food items is taken each year, its very easy for the festival to run out of high demand items by Sunday, although this is something the team diligently works to address.  “We take an inventory of all our food items each year, but its very easy to run out of various items,” notes Kevin.

“We’re working closely with Gordon’s to narrow it down so we don’t have to make three trips a day to re-stock on items, but its always difficult to gauge.  Our pries are also staying pretty much the same this year. Last year we had to adjust prices with the recipes that took hamburger because the price of beef was so high, as were walnuts; but this year both of those items have come down in price, so we’re sitting much better on that front.”

Friday & Saturday are usually the busiest nights of the festival, with Saturday slightly more bustling. With an average of 40,000 people attending the three-day festival, its easy to sell out of items. “Last year we sold all our gyro meat Saturday night so I had to go down to Detroit on Sunday morning, get on the road by 5 AM, and drive to this bleak warehouse.  I couldn’t see out the back of my car window because it was totally loaded with lamb and cases of pita, which was definitely interesting,” laughs Kevin. “Last year was a very good year for the festival.”

In addition to the many culinary specialties and favorites of Greek cuisine, this year The Levandes will once again return to perform Greek music with colorful dance troupes spinning and cascading like floral petals in the wind to entertain patrons. “Generally we bring in a professional group of dancers,” explains Chris Psetas “and then we also want our young children to meet others within our culture, so we open it up to other groups in the Midwest and Canada, offering to put them up in area hotels and feed them.  Now we bring in four or five different dance groups, primarily featuring the Kyklos Dance Troupe.”

St. Demetrios Church is always focused on giving back to the community with many of the proceeds they raise from the Greek Festival.  This year they donated 900 cases of water to the City of Flint and are also donating to the Heritage High School Pom Pom Team.  “They’re coming to help us work the festival this year and we are giving them new uniforms in exchange for their efforts,” notes Kevin. “We’re also giving to The Explorers, which is a program developed by the Saginaw Township Police Department for young people; and have also donated for a young man from Arthur Hill to go to the Pinewood Derby down in Ohio, seeing as he made it to the nationals.”

The St. Demetrios Greek Festival was also voted ‘Best Festival’ in this year’s latest ‘Best of the Best’ poll staged by The Saginaw News.  When asked why they feel the festival is so popular, Mark points out how this is one of the biggest ethnic festivals in the State of Michigan and its also the first big festival to kick off the summer festival season in the region.  “People have been in the house for so long it’s the first time they have a good opportunity to get out of the house and enjoy the weather.”

“Our word of mouth is great and people keep telling their friend to attend,” adds Kevin. “The public likes coming out and enjoying each other’s company year after year, and we definitely appreciate it!”

Given that Kevin has served as Chairman of the festival for two years and worked the festival for 12-years now, how much time does it eat out of his busy day?  “Usually during my lunch break I’m making calls or preparing paperwork,” he explains, “and on the actual days of the festival I probably walk between 8 – 12 miles just around the property here at St. Demetrios.”

“I arrive at 8 am and get out at 10 pm, so I’m usually spending an average of 12-hours a day at the festival running to get supplies or assisting wherever I’m needed. But its all worthwhile because it helps both the community and the church and its work done for the right reasons.”

In 1978 I said to a bunch of friends, why don’t we do a festival?” explains Dr. Economu about the origins of Saginaw’s Greek Fest. “Other Greek festivals were held throughout the country, so I thought why couldn’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.”

When the festival began back in 1979, St. Demetrios Church member and one of the pivotal originators of the festival, Dr. Lou Economu, explains how one of the primary reasons for staging the festival is because of the importance church members share about the need 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.”

The fact that this vision has endured, evolved and expanded throughout the state of Michigan is a testament not only to the membership of the church, but to the spirit of the Great Lakes Bay region that has adopted it as a signature emblem of community fellowship.


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