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With the acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1763, Europeans began migrating to the New World to seek freedom from political turmoil and hoping to start new lives. A Scottish doctor, Andrew Turnbull, gathered a group of 1400 men and women from Greece, Italy, and Spain who joined him on his voyage to America, landing in Florida in 1768. A colony was established and named New Smyrna Beach after the birthplace of Turnbull’s Greek wife. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, immigrants, from the villages of Peloponnesus, the Aegean Islands, from Asia Minor, Cyprus and the Greek Diaspora in the Caribbean, Cuba, Panama and Argentina, came to make their homes in America. With the industrialization of the nation’s labor force, and the need for workers, more than a millions immigrants were admitted to the United States through Ellis Island, from its opening in 1892 to its height of operation in 1907.
Early immigrants were predominantly single men who set about finding work in order to send money back to villages to help family establish a dowry to unwed sisters or to enable young brides to join their husbands in the new land. Greeks settling in the eastern states found compatriots in the cities with whom to share housing and establish a network to help new immigrants get settled. In contrast, Greek immigrants who went to the western states were dispersed within vast territories. Western states had not achieved statehood when the first Greeks settled here. California joined the union in 1876 and Utah in 1896. Immigrants settling in western states were initially employed as laborers in mines and on the railroads until they could establish their own enterprises and communities. They were pioneers who contributed to the building of new states in the western territories.
Work was harsh for the new immigrant – often working long hours in the coal mines, washing dishes, shining shoes, laying railroad tracks, and all the while learning the language and planning to improve his economic status.
In 1996 fate, in the form of a single orange blossom mailed in a letter to financier Henry Flagler, by Julia Tuttle, a local Miami homesteader, asking him to extend the new Florida East Coast railroad from West Palm Beach south to Miami, intervened in the lives of Greek immigrants who had largely settled in the industrial cities of the North. Warm climate, sunny skies, and promises of employment lured them to Florida and eventually to Miami. Here they settled, found work, and began raising families. With their language and culture as a common bond, the families lived close together, shared their Greek customs, and began planning for a Greek Orthodox Community Church in Miami.
From meeting held in homes of these early Greek arrivals in Miami in 1896, to the present Cathedral on Coral Way, lies a tale of love and commitment to the Orthodox faith. The Greeks needed a house of worship, and where Greek Orthodox Religion, language, customs and culture could be taught to their children. However, before they could purchase property, church services were held at various locations. The Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Biscayne Bay at 464 N.E. 16tg Street, Miami, at one time generously offered the Greek Community the temporary use of its elegant church for services. On November 15, 1925, a meeting was held at the home of Stavros Petros to formulate plans for the legal establishment of the Greek Orthodox Community. Funds were raised and a committee was named to draft a constitution and to find a suitable church. The priest that serve the community in 1927-1928 was Fr. Chrysanthos Kaplanis. In the following two years, under the chairmanship and leadership of I.G. Delyannis, our Greek Orthodox Community was organized into a functional entity. In 1927, a constitution was adopted, and an election of the first parish council was held with Achileas Zapetis elected as its first president. A small church was purchased at 1501 NE 1st Avenue, and named Saint Sophia, which served the needs of the community for the next 20 years. The 15th street site today is a parking lot for Miami-Dade County Public School employees who work in the downtown administration offices.
These two decades saw the completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928, connecting Miami with Florida’s west coast. In 1930, the Great Depression took its relentless toll on our community. The Greek School and Ladies Philoptochos were established in the 1930’s, serving the young people and other members of the parish. The priest that served our community from 1929-1931 was Fr. Karapiperis. A new airline named Eastern, run by Eddie Rickenbacker, began the first passenger service between South Florida and the North. The priest that was serving the needs of our community from 1932-1933 was Fr. Daniel Scarpas. In 1933, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Miami, where an assassination attempt on his life failed. In 1936, the first Orange Bowl Parade marched through downtown Miami.
Our town showed signs of recovery from the depression as the number of tourists increased, including many from Latin America. In the small Saint Sophia Greek community, customs and traditions from the old country dominated daily life. Easter services, family gatherings, a reverence for the music and food of Greece, together with the language, forged a bound among the immigrants and their first generation offspring. In Miami, Greeks were particularly noted for excellence in food preparation with the Presto-Restaurant, the Seven Seas Restaurant, the Paramount Soda Shop in downtown Miami, as well as the S & S restaurant and the Lighthouse restaurant, a fixture of Haulover Beach, enjoying popularity. Only the S & S restaurant is still in operation at its N.E. Second Avenue site, as others have been replaced by new buildings. The priests that served our community from 1934 to 1944 were Fr. Germanos Papanagiotou, Fr. Tjomanis, and Fr. Georgios Thalassitis.
In order to meet the needs of a growing community, a major decision was made in 1941 to purchase a new site and construct a new church and community center. A committee was formed under the leadership of President John Colozoff which included such members as Peter Vamvaks and George Karnegis and others, jointly and severally assumed this responsibility and did in fact purchase the land where the beautiful Cathedral now stands.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941, our community weathered the difficult days of World War II as many of our young men left home to serve our country both in Europe and the Pacific theater of war.
From its inception, the Saint Sophia community was blessed with the services of twelve priests, each of which brought their special gifts and talents in ministering to the parishioners. Among them was, Father Methodios Phousianis, who served from 1944-1949, during the height of the construction of the new Cathedral. In 1944, the Rev. Demosthenes Mekras assisted Fr. Phousianis and later assumed the spiritual leadership of Saint Sophia, a post he led with wisdom and dedication for 43 years. In the early years of his tenure, Fr. Mekras ministered to an Orthodox population covering almost half of Florida from points south of Tarpon Springs and Jacksonville all the way to and including the Caribbean.
The cornerstone of the new Saint Sophia was laid on March 7, 1948, with His Grace Bishop Germanos officiating. The parish council retained the services of famed architect Christoforos P. Kantianis to design and supervise the construction of a Byzantine Saint Sophia church, in addition to a community center, which housed an auditorium/gymnasium and several classrooms. The buildings were completed and the doors were opened in the year 1950. A native of Greece, and an honor graduate of the University of Syracuse, Mr. Kantianis also designed and supervised construction of other Greek Churches in the United States notably Charlotte, North Carolina and Worcester, Massachusetts. Marble for the church entrance, the chanter stand, the Bishop’s throne and the altar was brought from Pentele, Greece which is famous for its quarries. Later, the iconostasi was completed in Italy. The mosaic icons as well as the iconography were the creation of the well known iconographer Stelios Maris. The beautiful stained glass windows were produced in Miami by Southern Glass. Up to a few years ago, Saint Sophia was a regular stop for tour buses who brought visitors to the cathedral to light candles and view the imported marbles and breathtaking interior of the Cathedral.
The first liturgy service was celebrated on August 15, 1949 by Archbishop Micheal with Fr. Mekras assisting. Miami continued to enjoy a postwar boom with the servicemen who trained in Miami and returned to settle here, doubling the population. In 1952, Saint Sophia’s community center building was completed up the presidency of George Karnegis, a great benefactor of St. Sophia, for whom the community center would be named in 1994. A highlight in the history of the church was the consecration of Saint Sophia Cathedral with the relics of Saints Andrew, Nestor and Haralambos by His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos on November 25, 1973. It was the culmination of nearly 50 years of dedicated effort and service crystallizing the faith and ideals of Orthodoxy and Hellenism in Miami.