ONE of Savannah’s favorite annual events is the Greek Festival, put on each year by the congregation of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church.
The vast majority of those who enjoy the Savannah Greek Festival year after year go for one or both of these reasons:
• The Food. Ranging from baked chicken to gyros to dolmades to baklava, the fare at the Greek Festival is a bounty of tasty Mediterranean delights.
• The Culture. Besides the food, folks come for the Greek music, the Greek dancing, the overall festive and upbeat mood, and the sheer love of life.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with those reasons, and if that’s why you go, no one will argue.
However, at the core of the Festival is the effort of a church, and the inarguable fact that the Eastern Orthodox faith is inextricably entwined with the story of the modern Greek people.
“It takes an entire church to make this happen. People come out of the woodwork to help in their own ways . The whole event touches on old-time culture, and a community of everyone getting together to put on the Festival,” says Laura Little Sherman.
With no family roots in Greece, Sherman is among the growing number of converts to the Eastern Orthodox faith. While Savannah’s Greek population is still sizeable, the number of Greek congregants at St. Paul’s is dwindling as the older generation — personified by the beloved yia-yias, or grandmothers —passes on.
In their place come recent immigrants from traditionally Eastern Orthodox countries like Russia, Serbia, and Romania.
And converts like Laura and her husband Brad Sherman, who have no cultural or family ties to the religion but were attracted to it for a variety of reasons.
“We both grew up Protestant. When I first met an Orthodox priest, I’d never heard about the Eastern Orthodox Church before. It’s still hidden from most of the world,” says Laura.
“History is written by the victors,” jokes Brad.
“The internationalism of the church is awesome,” says Laura. “We’ve got Romanians, Russians, Ukrainians —they come from all over. We all converge and it’s really beautiful.”
The couple converted in 2007 after a spiritual search many families will recognize.
“When we decided to start another family, we wanted to know people who knew Christ and what really happened then, translated on down into the modern world. That’s the Orthodox Church.”
The ancient liturgies of the Orthodox Church are based on the very first Christian ceremonies, so old that in many cases they date to a time before Christians even identified as such. With the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire centered in Greece kept Christianity alive – the reason the Orthodox faith is centered in Greece, Russia, and Eastern Europe today.
“When you read Russian literature, you’re actually reading about the Orthodox Church,” says Brad. “When I first read Russian literature in school, I had no idea what I was reading.”
The parish priest of St. Paul’s is Father Vasile Mihai, an amiable native of Romania who is the first non-Greek in the position in the century-plus history of the Savannah congregation.
“Father Vasile literally knows which of Christ’s apostles he can trace the lineage of his ordainment to,” says Laura. “I think that’s pretty amazing.”
In addition to the food and fun, if you’re so inclined you can take tours of the church sanctuary, across Anderson Street from the Hellenic Center, where the actual Festival takes place.
While Laura and Brad go to St. Paul’s for reasons of faith, they—like everyone who comes to the Greek Festival — have become enamored of the Greek culture and people who are still the heart and soul of St. Paul’s.
“We love their passion, we love their joy in family —and we love the yia-yias!” says Laura.