August 2016 Centennial Celebration - Greek Orthodox Church, Price, Utah

Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Price, UT


Published in The National Herald, August 27-28, 2016 Issue
Authored by TNH Staff


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PRICE, UT – The men arrived first, seeking work in Carbon County's coal mines. Their wives soon followed, setting up homes and traditions from the old country, spending time chatting in their native language with shopkeepers along Price's Main Street. Before long, kids were marching to after-school language and religion lessons in blue-and-white uniforms. 

In the early 20th century, these transplants created a thriving Greek enclave in the center of the Beehive State. And the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church was at the community's core.

"I attended Greek school and Sunday school there, served as an altar boy for many years, and celebrated many a baptism, wedding and Greek holiday in its hall," says Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas. "It is no exaggeration to say the church was and remains a key component of my life."

Now based in Salt Lake City, the jurist plans to join more than 300 former parishioners from Florida to California this week in Price for a three-day commemoration of the church's 100th birthday. Metropolitan Isaiah of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver will be on hand to celebrate services with other priests who have served in the central Utah parish. 

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the tiny Assumption Church was the 13th Greek Orthodox Church to be built in the United States. It also is believed to be the oldest Greek Orthodox Church in continuous use west of the Mississippi River

At the church's Aug. 15, 1916, dedication, Carbon's Greek population was pegged at about 3,000. Today, about 120 Greek families see Assumption as their spiritual home. 

Mining first attracted the Greek men, but it was hardly their only option. Some miners left to become shepherds and farmers, says lifelong Price resident Terry Bikakis. "Others opened restaurants. Still others became merchants and businessmen. Mining was a hard, hazardous occupation; therefore, parents encouraged their children to seek an education which would enable them to get other employment and have a better life than that of their parents." 

Bikakis drew an identity and community from his church participation.

In the small east-central Utah town, Greek Orthodox coexisted with all faiths, including the Mormon majority as well as Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists and nondenominational Christians. 

When the Castle Gate mine explosion took the lives of 172 miners in 1924, 50 of them were Greek. The death toll was so steep, in fact, that the combined Greek funeral services had to be held in a public hall and the whole town mourned. 

But the bond with fellow Greeks was almost tribal. 

"When Greek groups came in, they would stay with us," Bikakis recalls, "and whenever we went other places like Vegas, they'd house us."

The former Orthodox altar boy says his father and a priest created the area's first Greek Festival, modeled after the popular event in Salt Lake City. Now, every July 7 and 8, the Price church stages similar festivities, complete with baklava, gyros and imported dancers from Utah's capital. 

Penny Sampinos, another lifelong Price resident, describes a sense of dual citizenship. 

"We were patriotic Americans, but we thought we were Greek," says Sampinos, who in 1971 became the first woman to serve on the parish council. "We felt allegiance to a country we had never been to." 

Pamela Kandaris Cha remembers Price as a place of family — "all of the older Greeks were Nona, Theo, Thea [names for aunts and uncles] or godparents." She adds: "I raised my kids that way, too."

While her mother worked, Cha spent a lot of time with her immigrant grandparents, who lived across the street from the church. 

She went to Greek school during the week to learn the language and fundamentals of orthodoxy, she says. These days the school is gone and services are largely in English, but the beliefs remain the same. 

"Even the music is translated into English, making it more accessible," Cha says. "Greek is beautiful, but it's like listening to opera in Italian." 

The congregation, she says, "has had so many ups and downs over the century, but the church, as a fully functioning parish, has survived through all of it." 

The church's milestone is reason to "celebrate," Cha says. It's a chance to honor a community gem that, even in Utah's rust belt, never lost its shine.