For 22 years, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church has offered a taste of Greek food and a glimpse of Greek culture.
But the church’s history in Augusta goes back further. The congregation celebrates its 100th anniversary as it kicks off the 22nd annual Greek Festival at 11 a.m. Friday.
The three-day celebration at the church on Telfair Street attracts upwards of 20,000 visitors each year, said the Rev. Vasile Bitere, the priest of Holy Trinity. Many come to try Greek delicacies, making the festival a popular lunch- or dinner-time stop. But that’s not all there is to the festival, he said.
The event includes traditional Greek dancing, tours of the church and an iconography workshop. Last year, the workshop was so popular, it’s been brought back for a second year. It’s noon to 7 p.m. Saturday and taught by the Rev. Anthony Salzman, who was a parishioner at Holy Trinity before he became a priest.
“It’s great Greek food, great Greek dancing, great Greek entertainment,” Bitere said. “It’s an opportunity for the entire community to join us in our celebration.”
Church members met last weekend for a centennial celebration, including a banquet and service where church leaders presented a holy relic of St. Alexander, the fourth century saint of Constantinople.
“This is a historical event,” Bitere said. “We are celebrating this year with a string of events. It culminated with the banquet and, now, with the festival, we get to share all our joy with the community.”
The events are dedicated to the church’s founders, Bitere said.
“They put in such hard work to build this community 100 years ago,” he said.
Greeks first arrived in Augusta in 1877, according to a church history. By 1911, a community of 162 Greek immigrants had formed. Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church received its charter later that year.
Today, the church has 180 families from a variety of backgrounds.
“We say the Lord’s Prayer in 11 different languages,” said Penny Ballas, a member of the church for 57 years.
On Sundays, the prayer is said first in English, then Greek, and then finally with each speaker in his or her native tongue.
“We have Serbians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Palestinians, Russians, Egyptians, Hispanics, Georgians, Armenians,” Ballas said.
Church members begin working on the festival months ahead of time. With Greece as the featured country at Arts in the Heart last month, some have been working in the kitchen for weeks.
“We’re a small community. It’s all volunteers,” said Cindy Ledbetter, a former Southern Baptist who joined the church 2½ years ago. “I always used to come here for fun. It’s only now that I see how much work goes into it.”
Esther Parrish doesn’t mind.
She has been a member of the church for 66 years and says it’s worth the effort.
“Celebrating this anniversary, it’s a once in a life event for most of us,” she said. “It’s free to attend. The entertainment is free. The food is affordable. We’re glad people come.”
So is Bitere.
“The festival has become an event of the city. It’s not just our event anymore,” he said. “It makes us very proud.”