The parishioners at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Schenectady stay true to the roots of the church, which was founded by three Greek immigrants 95 years ago.
Services and songs are performed in Greek. Younger parishioners belong to a Greek dance group, and their mothers make traditional Greek costumes for them to wear.
So when the church holds its Greek Festival every year, it’s not simply indulging its history for a weekend. It’s sharing with the community the food and customs that are near and dear to parishioners’ hearts.
We don’t just say, ‘Let’s make ourselves very Greek,’ festival co-chairman Evan Euripidou said. `This is our culture, and we want you to see how much we love it and why we love it.`
Church members held their first festival more than 30 years ago. The 34th annual Greek Festival is Friday to Sunday, Sept. 11 to 13, at the Hellenic Center, 510 Liberty St., Schenectady.
You don’t have to be Greek to enjoy the festival ` or even St. George’s. Olga Delorey is Ukranian and was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. But when she was a girl growing up in Schenectady, there were no Russian Orthodox churches in the city. Delorey’s family didn’t have a car, so they took the bus downtown and attended St. George’s.
Orthodox churches are essentially same except for their cultural roots, she said: `It’s the religion that is the common denominator.`
It was around 1960 that Delorey’s family joined the church. When she got older, she still attended, but not as frequently. Then one of her parents died, and she became a more regular attendee at the church. By this point, of course, Delorey had a car and could have easily sought out a Russian Orthodox church, but she cherished the familiarity of St. George’s.
`It was like coming home again,` she said.
She still sees families at church who attended when she was a kid. And she’s always felt fully comfortable at St. George’s despite her different ethnic background.
`I feel like I’m adopted Greek,` she said.
In fact, even though Delorey doesn’t speak or understand Greek, she is director of the church choir, which sings in Greek. She learns her parts phonetically.
When it comes to the festival, Delorey doesn’t have the expertise other church members have when it comes to making Greek dishes and desserts. So she helps in other ways, serving as the festival’s publicity and advertising co-chair. And she does lend a hand in the kitchen ` one year, when some women from the church were making the spinach pie known as spanakopita, Delorey stood over the stove, melting the butter the women spread on each layer of the pie.
`I’d bring the butter and forth and they’d spread it on the filo,` Delorey said.
The next year, Delorey added another task when the women taught her how to make the layers of the pie.
Delorey is grateful to be included in such traditions, because she sees a lot of people falling away from their cultures.
`Maintaining ethnic roots is very important,` she said. `I think it’s very important to maintain those ties.`
Euripidou said St. George’s prides itself on having such a strong ethnic aspect to the festival. In addition to offering people a good time and good food, the festival is truly an educational opportunity, he said.
To that end, people who attend the festival can take guided tours of the church, which will spotlight its architecture and painted religious images known as Byzantine iconography.
There will be a band from Syracuse performing live Greek music, and parishioners will show off traditional Greek dances.
`It’s very authentic,` Euripidou said of the dancing. `It’s really very lively. They put on a very action-packed performance.`
There will be less formal dances, too, when anyone who attends is welcome on the dance floor.
`When the band starts and the music starts, everyone just gets up and dances,` Delorey said. `Everybody has fun.`
With all the festival offers, the food is the biggest draw. Euripidou’s brother, Chris, is the chef at Farmer Boy Diner and Restaurant in Albany and is in charge of the kitchen at the festival. It’s no small job; Euripidou said the event will feature 400 pounds of lamb shanks, 400 roasted chickens and 32 pans of moussaka, which is layers of eggplant, potato and ground beef topped with cream sauce.
That’s just a small sampling of the offerings. New this year is a pork stew served in a red wine sauce with pearl onions. The stew is often made with rabbit or other meats, Chris Euripidou said. There will also be a salad bar with dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), pastitsio (seasoned ground beef with pasta and grated cheese, topped with cream sauce) and horsellenic salata (Greek salad). Outside, a barbecue area will serve gyros, along with souvlaki.
`It’s basically skewered meat,` Euripidou said of the souvlaki, noting that `souvla` refers to large pieces of meat on large skewers. Adding `-aki` to a Greek word `means the small version,` Euripidou said, so the souvlaki will be small pieces meat on wooden skewers.
Diners will want to leave room for dessert. `We have a lot of pastries, which are always a big hit,` Euripidou said. Those pastries include baklava (chopped walnuts in layers of filo dough and honey syrup), kourambiethes (sweet butter cookies dusted with powdered sugar) and loukoumades, which Euripidou described as fried dough balls served with syrup.
`They’re nice and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside,` he said, calling the festival’s loukoumades the best he’s ever had.
Like his brother, Euripidou traced the success of the festival and its food to the fact it’s steeped in Greek history. The women who make much of the food `have a system they have been using for years,` he said. `These are recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.`
In years past, the festival has been successful to the tune of about 15,000 people and a gross income of $100,000. Evan Euripidou said that as costs have risen in recent years, the church’s profit margin has slipped a little, but the festival still brings in enough money to cover more than half of the church’s operating budget for the year.
`It is the biggest fundraising event we do,` Delorey said. `It’s critical to keeping the doors of the church open. Without it, I don’t know if financially the church would be able to survive.`
That may be why almost all of the church’s 145 families help with the festival in some way, whether it’s cooking, cleaning or setting up.
`It’s a very tight-knit community,` Delorey said. `It’s very warm. It’s not a large parish, so it’s very homey.`
She hopes, she said, that people will turn out this weekend to share in that spirit of community.
Admission to the festival is free. Hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.