When Greeks first began to settle in Memphis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they transplanted with them many of their traditional values: importance of family, friendship and hospitality, success through hard work and education, civic participation, duty to country and philanthropy. Like Greek immigrants throughout America, Greeks in Memphis recognized that survival of these values would depend upon establishing some institution that would preserve their ethnic and religious roots. At first, the unstructured “institution” was their Kinotis or Community of all Greeks in the area. Soon this Kinotis assumed more structure in the form of an official, Tennessee, state-licensed organization, the Society of Megali Elada, or “Great Greece,” a confederation formed at the Hotel Cochran by about twenty-five Greek Memphians. On the heels of the formation of this cultural organization, however, was the formation of the institution that was to become most central to, and constant in, the lives of the Greek American Memphians: their Greek Orthodox Church.
In the early 1900’s, there were very few Greek immigrants in Memphis (about twenty in 1906)—not enough to support the establishment of a Church with its own priest. During these years, Greek Memphians called upon Greek Orthodox priests from larger Greek communities to travel to Memphis to officiate at weddings, funerals and baptisms that were customarily held in their homes. They worshiped in rented space, first in a building located on the present site of the Falls Building on Front Street, then in a more northerly Front Street location, and finally at 46 North Second St. Around 1909, Greek Memphians realized that they needed their own spiritual leadership, even if they did not yet have a church facility, so they arranged to bring their first priest from Greece to serve their Memphis community, Father Angelopoulos.
This small but progressive Greek community soon recognized that rented space for worship was neither a worthy representation of their profound religious commitment, nor of the important social and cultural role that the Church was assuming in their immigrant lives. They felt that their next step had to be the acquisition of their own Church edifice, and in 1916, they gathered enough money to purchase a ”field” near the intersection of Poplar Avenue and Third Street. The cornerstone was laid in 1920, and the parish, led by Father Theodosiou, moved into their first permanent church in January 1921, the site they would occupy until their move to their current location in 1955.
The period at the Third and Poplar location was marked by the birth of multiple Church-affiliated organizations. The community then viewed its mission as helping “to reinforce and preserve the religion, nationality and culture” of its parishioners. During this time, a school teaching Greek language and matters of faith and heritage was formed (1922), as was its Chapter of AHEPA, seventh in the country, in 1923 and the “Ladies’ and Young Ladies’ Friends of Education Society (1924), which eventually evolved into the Annunciation’s Elpis Chapter of the National Philoptochos Society.
As time went on, the needs of the parish grew, and in 1947, there was discussion about whether to expand the Church at the Third and Poplar location, or whether to move to a new location altogether. A parishioner’s gift of the property on Highland Street influenced the issue, and Father Nicholas Vieron conducted the first service in the new Church in August 1955. The Highland Street period marks an evolution in the Annunciation parish—not in its theology, of course, but rather in the composition of the parish and in how the Church interfaced both with its parishioners and with the Memphis community at large. By this time, there was little immigration from Greece to Memphis. Rather, there were many more marriages between Greeks and non-Greeks and an infusion into the parish of eastern orthodox Christians of other national ethnic groups. There were more and more converts from other faiths, as well. Nationally, and locally, in Memphis, more of the Liturgy and its hymnology were translated into English. Greek language school was changed from six days a week in the mid-‘20’s to five times a week in the ‘30’s, to a twice a week schedule today. Furthermore, during this period, the Church found new ways to interact with fellow Memphians—their annual Festival and Greek Nights were significant additions to the Church’s activities.
Mirroring the growth and evolution of many other Greek Orthodox parishes in the United States, the Annunciation has grown from a church of approximately 150 ethnic Greek families in the ‘40’s, to a church in the year 2000 comprising about 250 families, many of whom have no connection with the Greek culture. Today, led by Father Paul Christy, it is truly a diverse community of “liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God and who find their perfection and self-fulfillment in worship.”
Excerpted from Annunciation Church History:
Beyond Ellis Island:
The Greeks of Memphis: Their Faith and Heritage