Millions of people worldwide, and a few thousand in the New Orleans area, will be celebrating Easter this Sunday. They are Orthodox Christians.
The date that Easter is celebrated in Orthodox churches sometimes falls on the same Sunday that most Western Christians celebrate it. But in other years, including this year, Orthodox Easter can be as much as five weeks later than Easter in the West.
In a deeply Catholic area like southern Louisiana, it’s easy to forget the role New Orleans played in the history of the Greek Orthodox Church in North America. And in an area that emphasizes its French, Cajun, Irish, German, Italian, African and Caribbean roots, we may also forget that some of this city’s early inhabitants were Greeks and people from the Middle East.
A group of Greek merchants in New Orleans made up the first Greek Orthodox community in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. In 1866, Holy Trinity Church was built at 1222 N. Dorgenois St., and it’s considered the first Greek Orthodox church in North America.
I grew up within walking distance of that church. I’m neither Greek nor Orthodox, so I never set foot inside, but I passed by it often.
It turns out I grew up in what was the heart of Greek New Orleans, according to Richard Campanella, a New Orleans author and geographer. By 1930, 200 people of Greek heritage, about half of the city’s total Greek population, lived within a mile of the church, Campanella said in his book “Geographies of New Orleans.” The Ideal Bakery, on Ursulines Avenue and on the way to and from the school I attended, was run by a Greek family, a fact that was lost on me as a kid, though it was a frequent afternoon stop for me.
Another rarely mentioned population group in the city is often referred to as “Syrians,” but actually they came from a larger area that included the current nation of Syria and present-day Lebanon. The Orthodox church on Dorgenois also served that group of Middle-Eastern Christians, as well as small groups of Russians and Slavs in the city.
It’s a common pattern in New Orleans to see predominantly white denominations eventually leave their churches (and sometimes even synagogues) in the city and have predominantly African-American congregations move into the same building. The same was true of Holy Trinity, which sold its Dorgenois Street church, now occupied by the predominantly African-American St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
The Greek Orthodox congregation moved into its gleaming complex on Bayou St. John and Robert E. Lee Boulevard in the 1980s. (I did have the opportunity to go inside that amazing church, during one Greek Festival, which is held at the end of every May.) Another Orthodox church, St. Basil’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, opened in Metairie in the late 1970s. It membership is made up of people with roots in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia and Greece, among others.
Despite our cultural differences, it’s surprising to often find out we celebrate in similar ways. In Greece and in other Orthodox communities around the world, people share a loaf of “St. Basil’s bread” each New Year’s Day. It has one coin baked inside, and the person who gets the coin is said to be blessed for the entire year.
Sound familiar, New Orleans? And no, I doubt they make a version with cream-cheese filling and purple, green and gold icing.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.