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Greek Orthodoxy in Mormon Zion

Generations of Greek-Americans preserve culture and faith

text and photographs by Cody Christopulos

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From the summit of Ensign Peak in Utah, a mountain Mormons believe sacred, the visitor takes in a panoramic view of the rugged but splendid geography of this unique southwestern American state. To the west, one glimpses the Great Salt Lake and desert; to the south, one looks down upon the Salt Lake Valley, which cradles the state capital, Salt Lake City, and its sprawling suburbs; and to the east, one’s vision is blocked by the Wasatch Mountains, a forbidding, craggy wall towering thousands of feet above the valley. It was through these mountains that the Latter-day Saints first entered the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847 after their long, difficult flight from religious persecution across America’s heartland. Mexican territory at the time, they and their followers nonetheless adopted the valley as their homeland, referring to it as “Mormon Zion,” and began settling what is today Salt Lake City.

A half-century later, the first Greek immigrants arrived in Salt Lake City. They did not come by handcart and oxen-pulled wagons, as did the original settlers, but by railroads built with immigrant labor in the decades before their arrival. Attracted to Utah with promises of jobs on the railroads, most of these Greeks soon began laying railroad tracks themselves.

One man in particular, known as the “Tsar of the Greeks,” is largely responsible for this early Greek immigration. An immigrant himself, Leonidas Skliris learned railroad construction while working on a railroad gang in the Middle West. As construction extended westward, he saw an economic opportunity in recruiting the needed labor. Through the efforts of “the tsar,” a steady stream of young Greek men began flowing to the Salt Lake Valley, where the discovery of valuable minerals led to the opening of several coal mines and a copper production plant — industries needing extensive railway networks to be built by thousands of men.

Lured by dreams of plentiful work and easy money, many of these Greeks expected they would save money and return to their homeland within a few years. Some did return home, but the vast majority stayed, persevering against economic hardship and discrimination.

“There were some hard times,” says Constantine Skedros, the son of Greek immigrants and a local church historian. “The first Greek immigrants came here because their families were desperately poor. They probably never intended to stay. They thought they’d send some money home, perhaps help pay for a dowry so their sister could marry or tide the family over in a year when the crops had failed. When they realized they would stay, they knew they would need to make the observances of their faith.”

By the early 1900’s, thousands of Greek immigrants were living in the Salt Lake Valley. A two-block area in downtown Salt Lake City, known as Greek Town, became the hub of the city’s Hellenic community. In 1905, hundreds of families pooled their money to build Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, with Archimandrite Parthenos Lymberopoulos serving as the parish’s first pastor.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Immigration Orthodox Church of Greece Utah