During the late 1890s and early 1900s, many immigrants from Greece and other parts of eastern and southern Europe came to the United States in search of a better life. A majority settled in the industrially developed northwestern United States and worked in mines and factories. Some migrated south, seeking greater opportunities.
In 1896 Constantine (Gus) Vurnakes was among the first Greek immigrants to arrive in Raleigh. He found the capital of North Carolina to be a segregated yet thriving town of approximately 13,000 people and part of the developing New South. Vurnakes made his living by selling fresh fruit. As a modest and young entrepreneur (26 years old), he was the proprietor of the California Fruit Stand located on the first block of Fayetteville Street. In 1898, he became an American citizen.
During the first decade of the 1900s, other Greek immigrants soon joined Gus in Raleigh. Nearly all self-employed, they settled into Raleigh’s business district and residential neighborhoods and formed an incipient Greek American community. An album commemorating the first fifty years of Raleigh’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church names a number of these early settlers: “Gus’ brothers Leo and Alex; Gus, Nick, and Harry Russos; Pete Davis, George Bougades; the Masouras brothers, Constantine and Bill; Pete and Jim Stathacos, Mike Thevis, John Economy, Jim Theorodakakas, Pete Gournas, George Lambros, Nick and George Charles; three Saparilas brothers, Nick, Charles, and Andrew; Harry Costa, George Vallas, Jim Heonis, Pete Vournakes (Gus’ son), and Pete Kamitches.”
Although the community adapted to singularly American ways, it also maintained the Greek Orthodox faith. In 1924 the Greek origin families of Raleigh decided to retain a visiting Orthodox priest to hold services, as well as to establish the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox parish that would in time build or buy a church building and retain a permanent priest. Over the next decade, visiting clergymen conducted services in rented premises, in the vicinity of Salisbury and South Blount Streets, in downtown Raleigh.
The economic depression of the 1930s slowed the collection of funds for the new church building. Nevertheless, in 1935, Reverend Elias Skipetarey became the first resident priest. On November 30, 1937, the parishioners’ hard work and planning bore fruit; according to the commemorative album, they laid the cornerstone for the new church building, in the presence of His Grace Archbisop Athenagoras and many American friends, including “…the governor of North Carolina, Mr. Clyde R. Hoey, Attorney General A. A. Seawell, the Honorable Mayor of the city, Mr. George A. Iseley.”
The first Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church building, located in the 200 block of Pearson Street, was completed in April 1938. The parishioners, guided by Reverend George Stefanis, who served from 1942 through 1962, completed its interior, including a beautifully hand carved Iconostasis, that in Orthodox churches traditionally divides the altar area from the main part of the church and is enriched with icons.
By the 1960s, the Holy Trinity parish had outgrown the Pearson Street church building. While successive site selection committees were looking for a suitable place to build a larger church building, as well as an education wing and a community hall, parishioners George and Pota Vallas and Steve Serletis donated to the church land located on Leadmine Road and French Drive in northern Raleigh. On this land, between 1974 and 1983, the parishioners built the new Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church complex.
An architectural gem, the new structure is modern in design and function. The holy altar fashioned in marble, the hand carved Iconostasis, and other church furnishing were transferred from the Pearson Street churchbuilding to the new one. A sizeable education wing houses numerous Sunday school and catechism classes, meeting rooms, and a library. The social hall, with its fully equipped kitchen, is used weekly for hospitality after Sunday services and for preparing food for the annual Greek Festival. (Holy Trinity parishioners organize the Festival, but the event is held each year at the Raleigh Fair Grounds to accommodate the expected crowd.)
Presently, over 425 Orthodox families count themselves as parishioners of Holy Trinity. Although many members are of Greek heritage, Pan-Orthodox members and converts to the Eastern Orthodox faith also comprise the parish. The church is engaged in significant outreach programs for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox charities and missions. For example, parishioners have built three homes for Habitat for Humanity, and the Wehbie M. Wehbie Outreach Fund assists people in need in Wake County. Holy Trinity Philoptochos (Ladies Auxiliary) also supports numerous charities and mission programs, such as the Helping Hand Mission, the OCMC (Orthodox Christian Mission Center) and the IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities). The present parish priest and spiritual head of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Raleigh is the Reverend Protopresbyter Father Paul A. Kaplanis.
In the United States, parishes of the Greek Orthodox Church are organized into Metropolises. Each Metropolis is headed by a Metropolitan. Raleigh’s Holy Trinity and other parishes in a four state area are guided by Metropolitan Alexios of the Metropolis of Atlanta. Greek Orthodox Church Metropolises throughout the United States form the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, headquartered in New York, New York, and accept as their spiritual and administrative head His Grace Archbishop Demetrios.
Diakonia; Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta, http://www.atlanta.goarch.org (accessed June 1, 2006); Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, http://www.holytrinityraleigh.org (accessed June 1, 2006); Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church: A Fifty-Year History, 1937-1987 (Raleigh, 1987); The Orthodox Observer.