For many people, the last four months of being socially isolated has meant working on projects they’ve put off for years. For Christopher Efthymiades, these months in solitude have given him time to work on a project that has been decades in the making. He’s writing a booklet about the history of the Greek community — his community — in Lancaster County. Efthymiades is hoping to finish “The Greeks of the Garden Spot, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,” in time to distribute it next year for an important anniversary in his community.
In 1921, 100 years ago next year, the first Greek Orthodox church in the county was established in downtown Lancaster. It still exists as the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Hershey Avenue.
Speaking on the porch of his East Hempfield Township home, Efthymiades says this venture really began 30 to 40 years ago, in his talks with older members of the community.
“I was able to speak both languages (English and Greek), and I got in touch with (some of) the first immigrants that came here,” Efthymiades, 83, says. “Some were speaking English and some were not. They started telling me their stories. And they were very fascinating to me. And I did some research work. ... I’m a history buff.”
Many of those people have since died after suggesting that he preserve their stories.
“They asked me to write something, and I said OK,” Efthymiades says. “Now that there’s the coronavirus, and the isolation by myself, I have a chance to put everything together,” he says.
Efthymiades’ wife of more than 50 years, Mary, died last year, survived by their three grown children — one of whom lives out of state.
“Thank God I have my two daughters,” he says. “They keep my refrigerator full.”
With food in the house, and surrounded by the stories,
newspaper clippings, church bulletins, photos, copies of legal documents and other memorabilia he has collected over the past few decades, Efthymiades is writing his booklet.
He has found someone to help do the typing and has a cover for the booklet that was created by a graphic designer in Elizabethtown.
Efthymiades says he is structuring his book using a question-and-answer format.
“First of all, I have five or six questions,” he says. “Who are the Greeks? Where did they come from? Why did they come to Lancaster? What were their problems? What were their customs? ... What are their achievements and failures?
“What is their entertainment,” he asks. “Dancing. Music. Singing. It’s in the Greek DNA. There are different dances, and every dance has a reason.”
Finally, he adds, what is the future of the Greek community in Lancaster County. “Where do we go from here?”
He plans to answer all these questions in his booklet.
“The short definition of a Greek is anybody who speaks Greek,” he says. “But the official definition ... is anyone who went through Greek education is Greek — regardless of where you were born.”
And those birthplaces of the Greek families who settled in Lancaster County have been varied, he says.
Many came from the islands of Chios and Kos. Others originally came from Istanbul — “they were Turkish nationals, but their ethnicity was Greek ... and they (spoke Greek and) called themselves Greeks.”
Efthymiades, himself, came from Ioannina, a mountainous area in northwestern Greece.
The Greek community became established in Lancaster County because immigrants came here for opportunity, he says.
“One reason was to leave Turkey, to get away from terrible living conditions,” he says. “Immigration was freedom. A second reason was many of the people were entrepreneurs. They wanted to come to Lancaster to ... work hard and achieve.”
Efthymiades cites the example of Evstratios G. Stephanis, who came to Marietta and established the popular Marietta Candy Shoppe back in the 1930s — a place for teens to buy candy, get a treat at the soda foundation and dance and play pool. Stephanis died in 1988.
“He came to small river town,” Efthymiades says. “Why didn’t he go to New York? He wanted to come to be independent here. ... And he was part of the community. He wanted to work hard and live the American dream.
“Having the spirit of entrepreneurs, Greeks started small businesses like shoe shine, cleaning clothes and food businesses,” he says. “They became leaders in the restaurant business in Lancaster County,” starting by celebrating their culture by serving Greek food.
“Then, the new generation of immigrants, they got into the food business, and it was the fast-food industry,” he says. “Pizza. Steak shops. Diners.
“Greeks are very resilient, and hard-working, in their professions,” Efthymiades says. “They were able to excel in every field,” from business to education to the legal profession, in Lancaster County.
“I first came here as a student, back in 1963,” Efthymiades says. “sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee, because I was an interpreter in Greece for the MCC.
“A friend of mine had a car, and took me to a restaurant. I was happy to hear people speaking Greek,” he says, recalling some of those first Greeks he met were older people who came from Istanbul.
After graduating in business and history in 1969 from Franklin & Marshall College, Efthymiades became a cost analyst for Hamilton Watch, and then as an accountant for Lancaster County Motors.
But he wanted to start his own business, so he founded House of Souvlaki, at Vine and South Queen streets, in the early 1970s (not related to the Souvlaki Boys restaurant at Queen and James streets).
“I broke the hamburger habit,” Efthymiades says, “Everyone was into hamburgers, and then, for the first time in Lancaster,” people were eating gyros.
After closing that business, he eventually opened Chris’s Buy & Sell, which he ran for more than 37 years on West King Street in Lancaster, before retiring in 2015.
‘Gift to community’
Efthymiades says he is creating the booklet “as a gift to my community. I don’t want to make any money from it.”
He plans to publish “The Greeks of the Garden Spot” himself, adding that some people have offered donations to support the publication; he says other donations to the project, and “comments for the betterment (of the booklet) and any ideas, are welcome.
“This is a gift, also, and enlightenment, for the new generation” of the Greek community, Efthymiades says. “It’s also a gift to the younger generation — to learn about their roots, their ancestors, their beautiful heritage.”
Last year, Efthymiades worked with a restorer to resurrect part of an iconostasis — the screen holding icons such as paintings of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist and archangels — that stood in both the original Annunciation church on Queen Street, and the current building on Hershey Avenue until 1974.
Efthymiades did the restoration as another gift to the community — to donate the iconostasis to the church in observance of the 100th anniversary.
The history booklet will be another gift.
“I want this to be an asset to the community,” he says. “It is written to commemorate the 100th anniversary ... and to honor its legacy. ... It is also written to inform (Greeks), and enrich their knowledge, about their splendid heritage.”
Efthymiades can be emailed at email@example.com.