Cemeteries of St. John Church in Pueblo, Colorado


by Antonis H. Diamataris

Published in The National Herald, February 9, 2007 Issue


I am excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 


Beginning in the 1880*s, just as Greektowns were being established all across North America, the new immigrants also immediately sought out graveyards. Upon reflection, the fact that Greeks collectively purchased entire blocks of cemetery sites, often long before churches were physically built, should come as no surprise. Life in the ksentia was long understood to be dangerous, and by the standards of the day, Ameriki was especially so.

While it is fairly easy to learn about the histories of Greektowns all across North America, locating documentation on the history of Greek American graveyards is more difficult to systematically acquire. That's why we need to pay more attention to grave sites, especially with the shrinking of the Greek American community and the closing of parishes all across the country, particularly in the American West.

The historic Saint John the Baptist Greek Orthodox community of Pueblo, Colorado recently observed its 100th anniversary. Greeks began arriving in Colorado in the 1880's to labor in the mines, work as smelters, and to help build the ever-expanding railroads. The Sante Fe and the Missouri Pacific railroads both had section gangs of Greeks who would winter in Pueblo. The Greek settlement in Pueblo was due principally to Minnequa Metal Works (later the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company), which soon became the largest complex of smelters west of the Mississippi. By 1903, the claim was made that 1,500 Greeks lived and worked year-round in Pueblo, with another 1,500 or more who would winter there when the mines and the railroads closed down for the season.

Saint John the Baptist parish first opened its doors in 1907. As news of the new church spread among Greeks in the West, the regularly attending communicants of Saint John's Sunday and holiday services soon began to arrive from hamlets, small towns and cities located just south of Denver all the way to Taos, New Mexico. Individual Greeks, as well as entire families, traveled from as far east as Garden City, Kansas. The western boundaries of Saint John parishioners extended to Grand Junction, Colorado.

Over the course of 100 years, this unique geographic dispersal eventually led to the situation where the majority of parishioners no longer hail exclusively from the city of Pueblo itself. As documents, community memories and present circumstances all report, Saint John's Church in Pueblo has always been a multi-community parish. A partial list of these other locations for regularly attending parishioners includes (but was not limited to) Alamosa, Aspen, Canon City, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, La Junta, Lamar, Leadville, Salida, Trinidad and Walsenburg, Colorado; Garden City, Kansas; Questa and Raton, New Mexico; and a host of other small towns in the region. So those with memories of the Greek community in Pueblo, and who regularly attended church services there, have never all been exclusively from that city.

This unique situation resulted in the Pueblo parish drawing its congregation from roughly 87,000 square miles. Due to the wide geographic dispersal of its parishioners, Saint John's Church unintentionally became, strictly in terms of geographic dispersal, the largest Greek Orthodox community in the country, and its multi-community base has never fundamentally changed. This parish has never moved from its original location, and has the distinction of being the oldest Greek Orthodox community to continuously observe services in the same edifice west of the Mississippi.

The immigrant founders of the Pueblo parish were men who faced the daily realities of hard work and life head-on. All available documents and most community memories agree. The foundation of church and the establishment of a cemetery were simultaneous. The first article of the parish constitution, based on a longstanding oral tradition, was finally put into print by the 1920's.  As, the Greek people of Pueblo, having come together, formed a community under the name, Greek Orthodox Community of Colorado in Pueblo, whose purpose will be the erection of a church, the purchase of a cemetery, and the maintenance of them both.  Nothing could be clearer.

Hard-pressed by grueling physical labor, these men were under no illusions. Directly involved in the industrialization of the American West, these Greek laborers, by firsthand experience, had to live with the appalling work conditions of the smelters, mines and railroad gangs every day. Company doctors were to be avoided at all costs, as they were paid a set fee for amputating limbs rather than healing injured men.

Living harshly frugal lives, these early Greek pioneers sent the vast majority of their wages home. Seeing fellow workers die or immigrants being abused or severely harassed for no reason by "native-born" Americans, these Greek laborers quickly realized what options were open to them. They knew very well that life changes with every breath. The harsh reality of daily life naturally linked the needs of both the living and dead.

Just as in other areas of community life, in matters of the dead, the Pueblo parish has never simply served a congregation based solely in the city of Pueblo. Gravesites in La Junta, Trinidad, Salida, Rocky Forge, Canon City and elsewhere in southern Colorado are as fundamentally part of this Greek community as any found in the city of Pueblo's own Roselawn Cemetery. Ongoing efforts by the Saint John's parish council are directed to literally locating and identifying all known Greek gravesites throughout Colorado.

Having recognized the church's multi-community base, even in terms of cemeteries, within the city of Pueblo, the very first church committee purchased burial plots in Roselawn. Greek graves can be found there in Sections 18, 23 and 68. Section 23, between Circle and Lilac Avenues, holds some of the earliest Greek graves, and is especially representative of the early community. Reflecting the history and demographic size of the Saint John community today, more than 260 Greek graves can be found in throughout Roselawn Cemetery.

The uniqueness of the St. John the Baptist parish does not simply end with its historic church structure. The Greek American community is only just starting to become aware of the manner in which historical landmarks directly shape their collective history. Cemeteries, as part of the general impact of Greeks on the American landscape, have seen increasing attention in the Greek American press.

"Gone But Not Forgotten: A Definitive History of the Greek Section at Woodlawn Cemetery"  by Nicholas M. Prevas, for example, deals with the origins and subsequent events surrounding the acquisition of cemetery lots for the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore (Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, Baltimore: 2001). The enduring contributions evident within Mr. Prevas' book will unquestionably stand the test of time.

The significance of this study extends well beyond Baltimore, given that 90 years have passed since the Annunciation parishioners decided to establish a cemetery.

As Mr. Prevas notes at the very beginning of this volume, to secure a cemetery for the Orthodox faithful of Baltimore, only three short years after incorporating with a charter, is noteworthy for various reasons. A church cemetery was not typical for the Greek immigrant colonies in America. It illustrates the progressive thinking of the early parish leaders. And most importantly, it helped solidify the decision that Baltimore, for the majority of parishioners, was to be their new permanent home.

Having said that, the St. John's community of Pueblo had already made provisions for providing for the death of community members, first in 1903 and then within their first incorporation papers of 1905, cemetery lots were purchased. No matter how one cares to date the beginning of Saint John's parish in Pueblo, efforts at securing cemetery lots predates the Baltimore parish by more than four years.

The first photographs shown anyone inquiring about the history of SAINT John's Church are those from what can only be called "death photographs".  Studio photographers were hired to take a posed 8.5×10 black-and-white photograph for each early funeral. Always taken in front of the church, these photographs, over time, developed a standardized pose. A Greek immigrant man in an open coffin is at the center, and around him, the mourners are gathered, as the priest stands behind the deceased.

Few women are seen in any of these early photographs. This absence underscores the very early nature of these images, as it emphasizes the large number of bachelors in Pueblo's Greek community. Occasionally, one will see men with musical instruments in these early photographs, as well. Their presence bespeaks of an older, now abandoned, funeral custom wherein musicians would lead the funeral to the graveyard, playing as they led the procession.

As community memories recall, following the centuries-old folk customs of rural Greece, many of these men were buried by their compatriots as if they were bridegrooms. The deceased was dressed in the best suit available, a wedding crown on his head, a ring on his right hand, and a sprig of basil on his lapel. Not infrequently, even a small amulet of Greek soil was draped around the bridegroom*#8217;s neck. Having failed (however unwittingly) to fulfill their societal roles as men, those who died unmarried were said to be wedded to death.

In George Drosinis (1859-1951) poem, The Soil of Greece, we hear of these earthly amulets: I will hang you as an amulet on my breast/and when my heart wears you as an amulet she will take courage/be helped by you/and will not be bewitched by other foreign beauties/Your grace will give me strength/Wherever I turn, wherever I stand/You will kindle in me only one desire: to return to Greece.

As with other communities of Greeks, during this same time period, the Greeks of Pueblo insisted on these quite expensive photographs, so that they would serve as evidence to the family back in Greece that their lost loved ones had received a proper Greek Orthodox funeral.

Ongoing concern for these men continues to be demonstrated in a touching manner. Nearly every visitor who demonstrates an interest in the history of Saint John the Baptist Church in Pueblo is shown several of these photographs, which are kept with the church's records.

Unfortunately, the names of many of the earliest pioneers have been lost over time. These photographs are brought out, and the visitor is asked if they can identify anyone in the photograph. Deep respect for these men overrides any embarrassment. A keen sense that no one in the Saint John's community is ever to be forgotten is at the heart of every such request for further information.

Note:  There is a note at the bottom of the article referencing Steve Frangos as someone who could be contacted for further information.