At its inception, in the founding and development of the Saint George Parish, the modern spirit of the relocation of people from cities to their suburbs played a very important role. Even before the decade of 1960, people began moving into suburbs where they felt life was safer and where the raising of the children was easier. In the mid-1960’s the Washington Metropolitan area experienced an exodus of its citizens from the nation’s capital to its suburbs. This relocation of the population created the need for the building of schools, churches, libraries and other institutions to better serve the people. Among the thousands of citizens who left the city of Washington to relocate to the suburbs were many Greek Orthodox Christians who found themselves distanced from their church communities. Attending services became difficult, the number of participants in the evening activities of the city congregations, especially of the youth, was declining. People who moved to Washington from other areas of the country also settled in the suburbs and many of them found that it was inconvenient to become members of the city congregations. Local clergy and lay leaders were reluctant to address the need of establishing new parishes in the suburbs to serve the people who lived there from fear that such an attempt would weaken the city churches in members and financial resources.
Early in the 1960’s the Greek Orthodox of Northern Virginia were able to unite in the creation of a new parish. In spite of stiff opposition from the mother parishes in Washington of Saints Constantine and Helen and Saint Sophia, they established a new parish in Falls Church, Virginia that they named Saint Katherine. The success of St. Katherine encouraged the Greek Orthodox of the Maryland suburbs to begin a similar movement in Montgomery County. The opposition from the two mother churches was even stronger to the Maryland suburbs than it was in Virginia. Although several private discussions had taken place in 1964, the first public meeting for the purpose of forming a Greek Orthodox parish in Montgomery County was held on Friday evening, March 12th, 1965, at the Davis Memorial Library in Bethesda, Maryland.
Heading the group were four leaders of deep faith and strong convictions. They first injected their enthusiasm into the hearts of those in attendance and then helped translate the dream of establishing a church community. Those four pioneers in the movement were William Condrell, Pete Collis, John Glakas and George Seymore. Chairing the meeting was William Condrell who would emerge as the leader of the movement and serve as the parish’s first president. The twelfth of March meeting was held in an atmosphere of Christian fellowship and great anticipation. Not all in attendance were in favor of establishing a new parish. Some opposed the endeavor out of genuine concern that the new parish could not be sustained financially; others felt that it would financially hurt the two city churches.
The vast majority of those who attended the meeting, however, supported the movement and committed themselves to help bring it to fruition. There was this burning desire in their hearts to establish a local church community that would be relevant to their spiritual and cultural needs. A community church would help them perpetuate for themselves, their children and the generations that would follow them, the faith, the sacred traditions, the values and the customs of their rich heritage. One must be reminded that, the vast majority of those who came together on March 12, 1965 to discuss and decide the founding of a new parish, were not affluent people but young families in their formative years. There were no prospective great donors and contributors among them, however, all of them expressed their enthusiasm and the willingness to sacrifice.
A few days later, Jimmie G. Deoudes, a native Washingtonian made an offer that was too generous to refuse. He and his wife Thelma owned a magnificent five-acre piece of property on Bradley Boulevard, next to the Bethesda Country Club. On the property there was a White House where Jimmie and Thelma had raised their three children. The price was $100,000. The community could occupy the property almost immediately and not make any payments for three years. The announcement of the offer raised the enthusiasm of the participants to the highest possible level. The Jimmie Deoudes offer served as a catalyst to the movement. Jimmie expressed only one wish that the group was happy to accept and honor, his wish was that the church to be built on the grounds of the property be named Saint George.
On March 12, 28 families signed the charter membership roll. A motion to obtain a charter and proceed with the establishment of a church community was passed by those attending the meeting. Seventeen people were chosen to serve on the Executive Committee to advance the decisions of the assembly. They were William K. Condrell, Chairman, John T. Glakas, Vice Chairman, George Seymore, Treasurer, Rosemary Manis, Secretary; Nicholas J. Albanes, Pete J. Collis, Marie Chaconas, Jimmie G. Deoudes, Kay Koutsandreas, Gus Levathes, Louis P. Maniatis, Peter Panarites, Dino G. Pappas, Bradley A. Peavy, Agamemnon P. Perros, Dr. Andrew Tegeris and Dr. Anastasios Tousimis.
The Committee began its work almost immediately. In a letter addressed “To All Members of the Greek Orthodox Faith Living in Suburban Maryland,” it announced the formation of the group with the goal of establishing a church in Montgomery County. The letter invited them to attend the next meeting to be held on March 29, at the Davis Memorial Library, in Bethesda. The letter mentioned the acquisition of the property: “We are happy to announce that a group formed on March 12 to establish a Greek Orthodox Community in the Maryland suburbs, has acquired five acres of conveniently located land on Bradley Boulevard upon which a new Greek Orthodox Church will be erected in the foreseeable future. There is a great opportunity for your participation.” The letter was followed with a personal campaign headed by two sisters, Rosemary Manis and Becky Levathes. The campaign was necessary to fulfill the basic requirements set by the Archdiocese for recognition of a new parish and the granting of the charter. Those two requirements were: 50 new families who before joining the group were not members of any of the area churches and fifty thousand dollars in the bank to assure that the new parish had the strength to support itself.
As the movement was gaining strength, the opposition from the city churches was getting stronger. The movement for a church in Montgomery County was called schismatic. These claims and accusations prompted Father George Bacopoulos, Chancellor of the Archdiocese, to pay a visit to Washington to ascertain that the procedures set for the establishment of a new parish were followed faithfully. In the meantime the new community, though not yet recognized by the Archdiocese and without an assigned priest, began to function as a regular community. On May 13, 1965, about 300 people attended an open house to view the newly acquired property and the first picnic of members was held on July 4 on the site under a staggering 106-degree temperature. In October 1965, the Educational Program was initiated. About 50 children enrolled in the Saturday School where they were taught lessons in religion and culture and participated in athletic events. This proved successful in every respect and continued each week as the community grew and prospered.
The Archdiocese took notice of the community’s progress and on March 15, 1966, Archbishop Iakovos came to Washington to meet with the priests and parish councils of Saints Constantine and Helen and Saint Sophia Cathedral as well as the Executive Committee of the new community in Bethesda. The Archbishop rejected the opposing claims of the local churches saying, “You are concerned about the reduction of your numbers in members and finances,” and then pointing to the Bethesda delegation, he said: “I am concerned about these people and their children who wish to go to church and practice their religion”. Being encouraged by the words of the Archbishop, the Executive Committee intensified its efforts to meet the requirements for the recognition and looked toward the future.
Nicholas Andris, a prominent businessman, was asked and accepted the task to chair the Building Fund Committee and coordinate the efforts of the community to construct a building that would house the religious, educational, cultural and social activities. The first meeting of the Committee was held on November 21, 1966, and laid the ground for a new campaign. On May 10, 1967, the new community reached its milestone. The requirements for the granting of the Charter were met. On that date funds in excess of $50,900 were placed in escrow and the number of members had reached 134 families.
Finally, on June 12, 1967 the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America officially welcomed Saint George as one of its parishes. Father Theodore Chelpon, representing His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos, and His Grace Bishop Silas, the presiding Bishop of the first Archdiocesan District, explained to the Assembly the responsibilities of the new parish and presented a set of the by-laws according to which the new parish was to be governed. On September 12, 1967, Fr. Dean Timothy Andrews was assigned by the Archdiocese as the first priest of Saint George. He officiated at the first Divine Liturgy of the new parish on Sunday, September 17, 1967 at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda. Father Andrews, a librarian, was then on leave from Holy Cross Theological School and was working in the Library of Congress. He was to serve temporarily in Bethesda until a permanent priest was assigned. Father Andrews was a learned and kind man who provided pastoral love and guidance. He helped organize the Sunday School, Greek School and Jr. G.O.Y.A..
In May 1968, Father Steven J. Vlahos was assigned as pastor of Saint George’s Parish. He was young, vigorous and very talented. He was a good organizer. Under his leadership the community grew in numbers and programs. He initiated congregational singing and worked together with George Seymore, choir director, and Dino Pappas, organist to develop a beautiful choir. With the addition of Nicholas Despotides, chanter, Saint George provided an inspirational atmosphere of worship. In May 1969, the Ladies Auxiliary became the Philoptochos Society, joining all the other Philoptochos chapters in the country. Helen Todorovic was elected its first president.
Father Steven was instrumental in helping the parish adopt a very successful pledge system of supporting the church, which proved to be most beneficial. He also helped in organizing a Boy Scout Troop in June of 1969. The greatest accomplishment of the Community of Saint George was the construction of a beautiful building large enough to serve the religious, educational, cultural, and other needs of the Church for more than a decade. Bishop Silas visited the Parish in early June of 1970 to celebrate the Liturgy and preside at the groundbreaking ceremonies. The plans for the building had been completed, and approved by the Archdiocese and the construction loan had been obtained from the bank.
The Building Committee under the leadership of Nicholas Andris and Pete Collis did a marvelous job. The design of the building was going to bring beauty to the neighborhood. It was of Mediterranean style with a roof covered with ceramic tile. The architect, William Procopiow, had captured the imagination of the parishioners. It was in the midst of the construction that the Parish received the first major donation. The Gregory family from Chicago, Illinois donated two properties valued at eighty thousand dollars. Aliki and Bill Bryant, their daughter and son-in-law, made the donation possible.
On June of 1970 Bishop Silas returned again to Saint George for the laying of the cornerstone and on March 21, he returned to lead the parishioners in the celebration of the opening of the new edifice. The Divine Liturgy was held in the hall of the new building, which was to serve as a church until a permanent house of worship was built. It was named Founders’ Hall in honor of those who had the vision to establish a Greek Orthodox community in the suburbs of Washington. On Saturday, June 19, 1971 His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos visited Bethesda and on the next day celebrated the Divine Liturgy. It was a day of spiritual exaltation. It was Father’s Day and the Archbishop spoke as a loving father to the congregation praising his children for their accomplishments. The thrilling effect continued in the evening with the Grand Banquet held at Bethesda Country Club. Unfortunately the joy of that celebration did not last long. Differences in the philosophy between the priest and the lay leadership began to divide the community. In October 1971, the Greek Archdiocese decided to transfer Father Vlahos to Saint Thomas in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and appointed in his place Father George Papaioannou, Dean of Saint George Cathedral in Manchester, New Hampshire.