St. Nicholas Church is a thriving parish, serving Chicago’s South Side Greeks since 1927. Learn about the parish’s history, its rare designation, and the upcoming 90th anniversary celebration.
St. Nicholas Church: commemorating 90 years of faith
St. Nicholas Church of Oak Lawn, IL will celebrate its 90th anniversary on September 24, 2017.
The parish was founded in May 1927 by a most dynamic leader, Father Daniel Gambrilis. Father Daniel helped found several other parishes in the area, including All Saints Church in Joliet, IL; Annunciation Church in Kankakee, IL; and St. Spyridon Church, then-located in Pullman, IL, and currently located in Palos Heights, IL.
Let’s learn about Father Daniel, and take a look back at the history of St. Nicholas Church.
Father Daniel: founder of St. Nicholas Church
Father Daniel was born Nicholas Gambrilis in historic Distomo, Greece, in 1885. His brother, Michael Oikonomos, was a monk at the Monastery of Osios Loukas. At the age of 5, young Nicholas was dedicated to the monastery, where he was set on his spiritual path. There, he was schooled in Christian principles by his mentor, Daniel Kinias. While attending high school in Patras, Nicholas was recalled to the monastery to be tonsured a monk. According to custom, his name was changed to Daniel.
By September 1912, Monk Daniel was ordained a deacon, and served as Archdeacon at the Cathedral for two years. After, he was appointed Counselor to Osios Loukas, and returned to the place where he began his pious walk. In 1918, he was ordained as a priest, and by 1918, was appointed pastor of the Church of Evangelist Luke in Patras, Greece. The Very Reverend Father Daniel served this parish until 1921, when he was selected by the Greek Premier Demetrios Gounaris for an important mission in the U.S. After this task was complete, Father Daniel wished to stay in the U.S. Since clergy were in demand, he was able to remain here.
His first assignment was at All Saints Church in Joliet, IL. Nearby Kankakee did not have a church or priest at the time, so Father Daniel would minister to them as well. He successfully garnered support to built the Annunciation Church in Kankakee, and started a Greek School there, where he taught for many years.
Establishing St. Nicholas Church
Holy Trinity Church in Chicago wished to serve its members on the southern end of Chicago. In early 1927, they purchased a Protestant church, located at 60th and Peoria Streets in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, to convert into an Orthodox church. After 6 years in Joliet, in May 1927, Father Daniel was called to establish the community, and be its first priest. It is said that the church was named St. Nicholas because that is Father Daniel’s baptismal name. Also, the very first parish council president was Nicholas Kokinis.
Father Daniel was known as someone who could overcome challenges. He had an uncanny ability to assemble a group of dedicated and faithful to help in this task. Under his leadership and guidance, in the 1930s, the group was able to transform the old building into a true Byzantine Orthodox Church.
He then established a Greek School, which grew to 150 students each year. He served the school for 20 years. To teach the tenets of the Orthodox Faith, Father Daniel also launched a Sunday School program. He earned many accolades and titles for his work.
The purchase of the school building, in the late 1940s, is among his greatest achievements. He explained the need to parishioners, and launched a plan to raise the necessary funds. He kicked it off with his own $2000 donation. Inspired by his actions, people enthusiastically joined the cause, donating $55,000 within 24 hours. This unprecedented action resulted in a swift purchase of the building, which was dedicated as Homer Greek School.
In the early years, Father Daniel was assisted by several priests, including Father Peter Rexinis, Father James D. Treantafiles, and Father Basilios Pantazopoulos.
Women and youth in service
Next, it was time for Father Daniel to engage the women of the parish in service. He founded the Philoptochos Society, the Ladies Auxiliary, and the Society of the Young Ladies Zoodochos Pighe. The choir was established, and was considered one of the best in Chicago. Father Daniel also mobilized the youth with the “Holy Flame” Youth Society. As the parishioner and there needs grew, many other ministries followed.
In recognition of his 50th anniversary in the priesthood, on October 23, 1961, Father Daniel was conferred an Abbot, and the church designated as the St. Nicholas Patriarchal Shrine established in the church, by His Eminence Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. He was the first abbot in the Western Hemisphere. As Abbot, one degree below a bishop, he wore a mandia (cloak), and carries a crozier (staff), symbols of his rank. Tina Savas, a member of the parish her entire life, explained the church’s rare designation.
“Because of Father Daniel’s work, and becoming an Abbott, the Patriarch re-dedicated our parish as Patriarchal Shrine. It’s the only such shrine in the U.S. This designation also placed the parish under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate, though because of the way the parish was set-up, we do report to the Metropolis of Chicago.”
The community continued to grow, and in the early 1960s, purchased the land in Oak Lawn, IL where the church now stands. Father Daniel, who became further known for his humanitarian efforts for Greece in World War II, as well as for his home village, retired in 1962. For his work. King Paul of Greece bestowed upon him the rare title of Golden Cross of the Tagmatos of George I. He passed away in 1964. Tina has fond memories of Father Daniel.
“He was a humble man. He’d help if anyone needed anything — a home, money, whatever, he helped. He started a Red Cross chapter, and sent bandages and supplies all over Europe, as well as the U.S. He was a vibrant person. I’ll never forget how he helped my dad by co-signing for a business loan. My father never forgot his assistance.”
Under the guidance of Father Louis T. Greanias, the gymnasium and multipurpose room (now known as the Dr. Mary Dochios Kamberos Community Center, named for the parish’s late benefactor), were quickly constructed. Divine Liturgy was held in these buildings until the new church was completed. The new church was completed in the 1970s and consecrated by His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos in July 1974. The monumental occasion was listed in the World Book Encyclopedia 1974 Yearbook as an important day in the history of the world.
During his tenure from 1961-1968, Father Louis was assisted by Father Polycarpus Gryfakis, Father Panagiotis Mitsis, and Father Dan Assimakidis.In 1968, Father Constantine Bithos was assigned to St. Nicholas. He continued Father Louis’ work, assisted by Father Dennis P. Strouzas, Father Chris P. Kerhulas, and Father Constantine T. Dimas.
1980s and into the next Millennium
Then, Father George Massouras, assisted by Father Constantine T. Dimas (1979-1981); and Father Dennis Strouzas, assisted by Father Theodore Stoupis (1981-1984), led the community into the next decade, with ongoing fundraising efforts to pay off the mortgage. A grand celebration commemorated the retirement of the mortgage. The community continued to beautify and upgrade their parish.
The Very Reverend Father Gabriel J. Karambis was assigned to St. Nicholas in 1984. Assistant Priest Father Nikiforos Tzerdimos served during this time.
Under the direction of Father Timothy Bakakos (1997-2006), the community began its iconography project. Several phases continue, as the faithful look to further beautify as well as maintain their beloved church. Father Timothy was assisted by Father Haralambos Kladis, Father Alexander Prodes, and Father Peter Georgacakes.
In 2001, the parish was honored to host the National Oratorical Festival. The community of St. Nicholas welcome visitors from all over the U.S., as well as a special visit from His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios.
Father John Artemas served the parish from 2006-2010, followed by Father Michael. N. Constantinides. The Very Reverend Christodoulos Margellos was assigned to the community in 2015.
St. Nicholas Church today
Before there were other parishes on the south side, St. Nicholas Church served more than 700 families. Today, as the faithful choose to attend church closer to home, the parish serves more than 300 families. At Homer Greek School, Greek kids — many 2nd and 3rd generation students — learn Greek language and culture..
Spiritual life at St. Nicholas is complemented and enhanced by many active and growing ministries. From active youth groups, to adult religious education, there are programs to serve all ages and needs. The parish’s popular Greek festival takes place every Father’s Day weekend. Many social events, like the Apokreatiko Glendi, Super Bowl Parties, and Greektoberfest, bring many people together for fellowship. The community is dedicated to keeping the spiritual as well as the social aspects of parish life alive and well. Look for many fun upcoming activities.
90th anniversary celebration
The community of St. Nicholas and friends will celebrate “Reflections of the St. Nicholas 90th anniversary” on September 24, 2017 at Tuscany Falls Banquets, 9425 W. 121st Avenue in Mokena, IL. MC is TV and Radio Personality Jane Monzures. Entertainment provided by DJ John Grammatis. Join the celebration. For tickets, call 708.636.5460.
St. Nicholas Commemorative album, 1973
Read more about Chicago’s Greek Orthodox Churches: