This Chicago parish may be small, but its dedicated community has kept it going through fires, and more, for the past 90 years. Learn more about St. Basil Church.
St. Basil Church: 90 years of faith
Chicago’s West Side parish. St. Basil Church, will celebrate its 90th anniversary with a gala celebration on November 12. Learn more about this small but mighty community, that’s kept it going for nearly a century, despite many challenges.
Early days of St. Basil Church
St. Basil Church’s early days are not well-documented. George Zimbrakos, a lifelong parishioner whose family was among the first members of the parish, shared some of the history. He said that the founders of St. Basil originally attended Holy Trinity Church, which was then-located on Peoria Street, in the heart of The Delta, Chicago’s original Greektown.
“Most of Holy Trinity parishioners were from the Peloponnese, and were supporters of Greece’s king. These Royalists often clashed with Cretan immigrants, who were followers of Eleftherios Venizelos.”
As in many Greek communities around the world, these rifts of Royalists vs. Venizelists led to many parishes splitting to create new communities of like-minded individuals. In 1927, the Cretan Venizelists from Holy Trinity decided to start their own parish.
“My papou told me that the founders met in the Cretan coffee house on Blue Island Avenue in Greektown. When they established the community, they didn’t yet have a building. A priest from Crete visited there and celebrated the first liturgy”.
Soon, members of the community learned that a building, the former Anshe Sholom Synagogue, located at 733 S. Ashland Avenue — not far from Greektown — was for sale. That congregation’s members had moved out of the neighborhood, and so they decided to relocate their house of worship as well. The fledgling St. Basil community rallied together to purchase the Greek Revival-style temple. The building, designed by architect Alexander Levy, was quickly transformed into a Greek Orthodox Church.
St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church was dedicated on April 9, 1927. The Greek newspaper, Saloniki, noted that more than 2000 Greeks participated, and hundreds had to stand in the aisles. Bishop Philaretos, the first bishop in Chicago, designated St. Basil Church as first the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Chicago. The first priest was Father Eirenaios Tsourounakes.
Progress and tragedy
In 1942, the parish lost its status as a cathedral, when Annunciation, Chicago’s very first Greek Orthodox community, was designated as the Diocesan Cathedral. In 1947, construction of the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) forced many families to leave the area, and the community shrank. The first of three fires in the parish’s history took place in the 1950s. Parishioners worked hard to restore their church.
Many older people will remember wedding receptions and many community events that took place in the hall in the basement of St. Basil.
In the early 1960s, the Greektown neighborhood, stretching south from Harrison to Taylor, and west from Halsted to Racine, was demolished to build the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, displacing countless families. More urban renewal projects and the creation of the Illinois Medical District also claimed more homes. Most of St. Basil Church’s parishioners moved out of the area and membership declined significantly. However, a core group of dedicated parishioners — some descended from the founding families — continued to attend and supported the parish through some very lean years. There were several times that the church came close to closing. George recalled a time when the community only had a dozen members.
“At that time, the parish council president and the 12 members paid all the church’s expenses. They were determined to keep the doors open.”
Just when the little-parish-that-could seemed to be gaining traction, tragedy struck again. In 1977, the second fire in the parish’s history caused extensive damage. The remaining members rallied donations and contributed their own money. Along with insurance proceeds, the church was repaired and renovated.
During the parish’s first 61 years, it was served by several priests, including Father Konstantinos Chatzidemetriou, Father Konstantinos Charvalas, Father Ioannes Papadopoulos, Father Antonios Iatrides, Father Basil Vryniotes, Father Archimandrite Ioakeim Gialoures, Father Nikolaos Voukanos, and Father Spyridon Kavvadias.
In 1981, Metropolitan Iakovos, of blessed memory, asked Father Chris Kerhoulas to lead the Diocese Youth Office, and St. Basil Church. At that time, the community had dwindled to 40 families. Father Chris recalled the great task at hand.
“The challenge was to base the Youth Office there, and integrate that program with the ever-growing inner city renaissance.”
A man of great charisma, Father Chris brought many people into the community, which soon grew to 240 families. The church drew young professionals, and became known as a “young people’s parish”. It became home to a growing youth movement that began in Chicago in the 1980s, and led to the establishment of the Young Adult League (YAL). Father Chris quickly became known as “The Man Who Saved St. Basil”. George elaborated.
“Things really turned around. We’ve always been a friendly church — there’s no pretension here. And with a young and dynamic priest, it was a winning combination.”
In 1989, Father Chris resigned from the Youth Office to give give his full-time attention to the parish. Along with dedicated board members and an enthusiastic community, St. Basil continued to flourish. Renovations were made to the aging building. New iconography by the renowned Athanasios Clark, and maginifience stained glass windows replacing the yellow and blue plastic ones added after the 1977 fire, were installed. Under Father Chris, many programs were instituted, and a Greek festival brought many people back to the area. Nationally, the parish was a shining example of the resurrection of an inner city parish.
In 1999, Father Chris, his youth ministry, and St. Basil were immortalized in the film, Do You Wanna Dance?, written, produced, and starring Robert Krantz. In the film, a priest named Father Chris helps a young man who lost his way. Robert noted that the film was inspired by his friendship with Father Chris. Some of the film’s scenes were shot in and around the church.
When Father Chris retired in 2010, Father Panteleimon Dalianis was assigned to St. Basil. Father Panteleimon remembered the warmth he encountered when we arrived.
“St. Basil is a small community, but so hospitable. This is one of our greatest strengths. People often remark that when they go to a large church, no one knows who they are. But that doesn’t happen here. Welcoming our visitors and new parishioners is a top priority. We want them to feel like they belong.”
Father said that being a city church with no “neighborhood” community has its challenges.
“Our parishioners don’t live close by. So we don’t have a 7-day-a-week reality here. We host our programs on the weekends.”
Tragedy struck again in 2013, when the building caught fire for the third time. Quick responding firefighters saved the entire building from being destroyed. The resilient community fought back. After making it successfully through years that brought them close to closing its doors many times, this resilient community knew they could overcome this tragedy. Services, and all programs took place in the Philoptochos Hall in the basement, until the church was completely renovated and the newly plated dome was installed.
Father Panteleimon said that the most active ministries at St. Basil are the Ladies Philoptochos, which has been a backbone for this community throughout its history, and GOYA. There is also a very active Prison Ministry, which includes a small team that ministers to prisoners. They coordinate correspondence with inmates and send them books and other items of need. There is also a very active Girls’ Ministry.
“Since they can’t serve in the altar, we’ve given them a unique place in the church. Once in the fall and in the spring, they take over the Pangari. They also pass trays, and they take over some roles in the parish council. They also have learn to make kolyva.”
There’s also an Altar Boy ministry, Sunday School, and Bible Study. Lack of classroom and meeting space has limited the programs they can host.
“After the fire, our Greek school moved to the National Hellenic Museum.”
Celebrating 90 years of faith
The community of St. Basil Church will celebrate their 90th anniversary on November 12 at Galleria Marchetti in Chicago. Purchase tickets here.
Learn about other historic Chicago parish communities: