Windows Into Heaven

Enjoy a side order of history along with Greek specialties at festival this weekend.

Kate S. Peabody
kpeabody@pnj.com

When the 48th annual Greek Festival begins today, it will be one of the highlights of this Veterans Day weekend.

Once again, thousands of people are expected to swarm the grounds of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on West Garden Street. Local residents and visitors from as far away as Alabama and Panama City will stand in long lines to sample mounds of mouth-watering authentic Greek cuisine and enjoy traditional Greek entertainment.

But food, music and dance are not the sole attractions at the three-day festival, which ends on Sunday.

Organizers also plan to treat festival-goers to daily tours of this large Byzantine-style church.

And it’s easy to see why.

For 20 minutes at a time, visitors will get a glimpse of the church’s unique architecture and its spectacular decor of Biblical figures, embellished in an array of vibrant colors of gold, blue and red. They’ll also get a chance to learn a little about the Orthodox faith and its culture.

“People come to enjoy the food, but it is truly an experience to walk through and see the iconography in the church,” said Vangie Anastopoulo, choir director.

Just what is she talking about?

They are the ornamental designs of images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and other saints, which adorn the ceiling, the walls and stained-glass windows throughout the church.

“Icons for us serve as a window into heaven,” said Father Peter Papanikolaou. “They represent our Lord and savior and saints.”

Dating back thousands of years, the images were used to help the congregation understand the gospel.

“It’s a visual story of the lives of the saints,” Papanikolaou said. In ancient days, many people were illiterate, and so the Fathers used the icons to tell the stories in the Bible.”

The pictures were drawn to demonstrate the passages and teach the scripture.

Each icon is strategically positioned in the church, starting with Christ at the highest point in the Orthodox Church.

Here, his image is placed squarely in the center of the ceiling.

This is symbolic of Christ looking down as the congregation offers up prayers to him, Papanikolaou said. Other prominent evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the Virgin Mary, are placed in specific positions.

Like other Greek Orthodox churches, the construction of this church is made up of three parts: The Narthex, at the entrance, is where worshipers give reverence to the saints. In the center is the Nave, which symbolizes Noah’s Ark. In the church, this is where the congregation sits. If you take a moment and look up at the design of the ceiling above, and imagine flipping it over, you’ll see the Ark, the vessel that brought God’s faithful through the floods, Papanikolaou said.

The third segment, the altar, which faces the east, is symbolic of the resurrection of Christ.

“This (altar) is the place where heaven touches upon Earth,” Papanikolaou said. “The altar table is symbolic as the throne of God, as well as the burial slab of Jesus Christ.”

Since the early 1900s, this church has had a presence in Pensacola, when the first Greek immigrants arrived. Papanikolaou, who recently became the new parish priest in October, leads a congregation of about 240 families.

First situated on Wright Street, the church moved to its current location more than 50 years ago.

Papanikolaou, attending his first Greek Fest here, said, the tour would offer a window into Orthodoxy. Visitors will be given a mini-history lesson of the Orthodox faith, and will get a chance to hear the choir perform a selection of Byzantine hymns.

Among them is the glorious Seimnoumen hymn, which is sung in Greek.

It’s been a special favorite of tour-goers over the years, Anastopoulo said.

You don’t have to understand a word of the language to enjoy the melody.

“This is just one of those things that takes your breath away and makes you go, ‘wow’—— it’s beautiful and will give you chills,” Anastopoulo said.

Maria Weisnicht, a transplant from Baton Rouge, La., got married in the church about 24 years ago. She has seen the festival draw up to 10,000 people or more each year. And believes that at least 10 percent to 15 percent of those visitors make their way through the church each year.

“I think it is worthwhile for people to make the effort to see it, because it gives you a little flavor of the Greek Orthodox Church,” said Weisnicht, a small business owner. “It is something unique that is right here in Pensacola —— you don’t have to go to Greece or Europe to learn something new.”

Tommy Morres, 85, grew up in the church. He has missed the Greek Fest only once or twice, due to illness. He remembers when the first church tours began in the early 1980s.

The tours have helped clear up some myths for people who were unaware of the Orthodox faith and culture.

“A lot of people think we worship icons, but that’s not true,” Morres said. “These people were like family that went ahead of us and sacrificed for us. We have to keep remembering what they did for us and following their examples.”

But little by little, he said, people have come through to see the décor and have changed their views.

There also is some confusion about the differences between the churches, Morres said.

“Most people ask if I am Jewish,” Morres said, pointing out that people commonly mistake his church for the Orthodox Jewish synagogue, also in Pensacola.

The tour offers a great opportunity for people to glean some insight into the Orthodox faith.

“We don’t proselytize — it is anti-Biblical to do that,” he said. “We just want people to come and see and listen, and if they are interested, they can learn more.”

Thank you to Kate Peabody with the Pensacola News Journal for this lovely article on November 12, 2007