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Harry Papadakes, Church Founder

The Interview Series

One of the original founders of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox church, Harry Papadakes, is also an American Army veteran, who followed a similar path to the United States, paved by his father. It was 1955, when twenty year old Harry Papadakes arrived in New York City. The twelve day journey on the Queen Frederika, brought him from the village Elika, in the region of Laconia, Greece.

Eager to work, his relatives gave him a job in the restaurant business, where he washed dishes and bussed tables. Papadakes saved his money and dreamed of attending textile school. That plan was cut short when he was drafted by the United States Army. Following basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, he served his new country during the Cold War in Toul, France. After his two years of service, instead of returning to the United States, he went home to Greece, where he married his sweetheart Panayota.

His father had made a similar journey to the United States in 1910. He worked briefly, then left to fight in the Balkan wars, before returning to the United States. In 1918, he joined the Army during World War I, served stateside before being discharged and then left for Greece, never to return.

But that’s where Harry Papadakes and his father’s journey’s differ. Harry was raised in war torn Greece during World War II. He saw how his family struggled during the war and returning to Greece to be married, he witnessed the devastation to his country post the Greek Civil War. Those three years, 1955 to 1958, away from Greece, had given Papadakes a better perspective on life. He realized that America was a land of opportunity.

In 1958, Papadakes returned to America for the second time. However, this time he had a new bride. He settled briefly in Jersey City, where his wife gave birth to their daughter, Sofia. He worked as a bartender and waiter, saving every penny. Eventually an opportunity knocked at his door. A relative in Norristown Pennsylvania, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

His uncle, who owned a restaurant on Main Street, called the “Montgomery Lunch,” wanted to retire from the food business and wanted to sell it to a family member. The restaurant was well established and famous for it’s “Texas Hot Weiners.” Norristown was a trendy suburb of Philadelphia, with a growing community. With the help of his uncle and with his savings, he took the leap and moved to the suburban blue-collar town.

He and his family quickly embedded themselves into the community. Long hours, and hard work kept Papadakes busy. His effort payed off. He quickly became an established businessman. Other Greeks settled in the neighborhood that had arrived around the same time. In 1958, a new group had formed from the community. That organization was composed of about 25 members. They would congregate on weekends in people’s homes, stores and apartment building as they started dreaming about having their own church. From the 60’s through the 70’s, a large wave of Greek immigrants came to the Philadelphia area. The Norristown Greek community had grown, and now began hosting fundraisers and social affairs on weekends, with the intention of having their own church. Retired Priest, Father Katerlis, then of St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Philadelphia, and other priests, began to come out to Norristown once a month to conduct service. “Eventually our Association bought an apartment building and converted one of the stores into a culture center, church and Greek school,” said Papadakes.

Eventually, the Hellenic Civic Association bought a Pentecostal church (approximately 1978-1979) in downtown Norristown and converted it to a Greek Orthodox church. “But we still had no name for our church,” said Papadakes. A few years later, In 1980-81 with about 80 families, and with the permission of Bishop Silas, the Hellenic Civic Association was dissolved. “We became The Greek Orthodox Community of Norristown, Pennsylvania, and I was voted in as the first President of the church,” said Papadakes. They hosted fundraising events, party nights, and church liturgy services on Sundays. They were assigned their first regular priest, Father Andrews in the late 1980’s. Now they had a church, and continued to grow. Months later, a bidding-auction was held to choose the name of the church. Of course, making names were being considered, and anyone who had the money could bid. The final bidder was parishioner Ms. Kelis. President Harry Papadakes, watched as the bidding went on live and he gave the final bid over the phone for Mrs. Kelis of $37,000. And that’s how St. Sophia got her name. The parishioners held onto the church for seven years before eventually making their next move to Trooper Road, near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

In 1992 after several real estate deals, they broke ground and built the church hall, that doubled as a church. It still stands today, but it takes a back seat to the devotion and effort of these parishioners. “We wanted to make another church, and we had the funds,” said Papadakes.

Once again, the community was asked to sacrifice. Another building fund and a little faith paid off. “The entire community deserves credit for making this church come to life,” commented Papadakes.

Finally it happened. “We broke ground in 2012 for this new church and completed it in 2013. Today it is the jewel of the community, and I couldn’t be prouder” says Papadakes. The community center that doubled as a church still stands, but know as a place to celebrate and share coffee after liturgy service in the new Byzantine style church.

When asked about the journey of his life, he reflects on being a witness and founder of St. Sophia. “I still can’t believe that I’m here and we did it,” said Papadakes. When asked about the future, a great sense of pride overcomes Papadakes. “My family attends church here and my granddaughter is growing up in the church that I helped build. I’m very happy.” Today, Papadakes spends his Sundays at church singing in the church choir and giving his time.

Originally published on Cosmos Philly by Eleftherios Kostans. Video by Vasilis Keisoglou.