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Celebrating Orthodox Easter / Ritual and pageantry mark the Eastern Rite Christian holiday

Today is Easter for the world's Greek Orthodox and other

Christians who follow the Eastern rite.

In Queens, many will worship at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church,

one of two churches of that denomination serving the substantial Greek

population of northern Queens. The other is Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in

Whitestone.

Approximately 50 percent of the estimated 75,000 Greeks in the borough live

in northern Queens: Flushing, Bayside, Whitestone, Malba, Douglaston, Little

Neck and Beechhurst, said Nikki Stephanopoulos, a spokeswoman for the Greek

Orthodox Archdiocese of America (and mother of George Stephanopoulos, who

anchors ABC-TV's "This Week").

However, unlike the nearby community of Astoria, where the considerable

Greek presence is evident, there are not many obvious signs of their presence.

Not a gyro or souvlaki stand in sight. The Greeks who live in the pricey,

one-family homes in these neighborhoods are mostly second-generation, educated

professionals who donate generously to their church.

St. Nicholas moved to its present location at 196-10 Northern Blvd. in

Flushing in 1972. From 1955 until the move, the congregation had worshiped in

much smaller quarters on 147th Street in Flushing. The church relocated to

better accommodate the burgeoning Greek population in the area.

The 2,000-member church seats more than 5,000 people. "We are the largest

Greek church in terms of membership, in the U.S.," said the Rev. Paul Palesty,

pastor of St. Nicholas since 1977 and a former altar boy at the church.

And just this month, the church purchased the last property needed for the

future parish center, a project estimated at $4 million. The adjoining center

will house community activities including the Greek afternoon school, Sunday

School, Boy Scouts and athletics.

"St. Nicholas has, for the past 30 years, been able to build and expand

based on the generosity of parishioners who care and love this parish," said

Manny Kratsios, president of the parish council.

In fact, donations helped to build the magnificent St. Nicholas church. At

a cost of more than $3 million, about $1 million was spent on the Byzantine

iconography that adorns the walls and ceilings and depicts the life of Christ.

Painted by a Greek artist named Nick Brisnovalis, the artwork took eight years

to complete and was finished in 1987. Italian artisans imported and installed

marble for the altar and the reliquary, which holds sacred relics.

St. Nicholas operates its own school, from pre-kindergarten to eighth

grade. Students must have at least one parent of the Greek Orthodox faith.

"Both my children have gone to St. Nicholas School, beginning with pre-K,"

said Roula Dallis, who works at the Greek-owned Atlantic Bank across the street

from the church. "They have grown up proud of their heritage and religion and

that has a lot to do with it."

Eastern Rite Christians follow a different calendar for celebrating

religious holidays.

"Easter is the most important holy day in the Orthodox Church," Palesty

explained. "For the 40 days of Lent which lead up to Holy Week, the Orthodox

abstain from meat and dairy products, fasting the entire day before receiving

Communion, in order to symbolically cleanse themselves."

The holiday conjures up strong childhood memories for Jimmy Hartofilis, a

parishioner who lives in Flushing.

"I remember, as a child, not only fasting, but having to tell my parents

that I was sorry for any bad behavior, before we went to church to receive

Communion," he said.

The days leading up to this holiest of religious holidays are observed by

the Greek community in daily services.

"This year we will offer special prayers of Thanksgiving for the four young

men, members of our parish, returning home from the war in Iraq," Palesty said.

Holy Week began a week ago with the "Saturday of Lazarus," which

commemorates Jesus raising Lazarus from death.

The next day, Palm Sunday, priests offered five services, preaching in

Greek and English. On Holy Tuesday, the evening service of the nymphios (the

bridegroom) signifies the marriage between Christ and the church.

Thursday night found the priests and parishioners solemnly re-enacting the

Passion of Christ (crucifixion) in a service officiated by Greek Orthodox

Archbishop of America Demetrios. The worshipers sang mournful hymns, after

which the priest read the Twelve Lessons of the Gospel.

Then, at the conclusion of the liturgy on Friday evening, the worshipers

participated in the Procession of the Epitaphios (the burial of Christ).

Four men selected by the parish council acted as pallbearers, carrying the

epitaphios - woven cloth representing Christ's body - in a small replica of a

crypt adorned with flowers. A priest followed, leading the choir, which sang

hymns as the parishioners join the procession.

Many of the faithful kissed the symbolic body of Christ as the pallbearers

carried the crypt reverently through the streets. The procession mades its way

down Northern Boulevard to Francis Lewis Boulevard and back around a few blocks

to the front of the church.

For John Sofolarides, the son of a founding member of the church, this is

the 47th year he has carried the crypt in the procession. "It is an honor to

be chosen. I feel that by carrying it, I enjoy good health for the year," he

said.

"God will be with him and if God blesses him, it will rub off on me," his

wife, Helen added with a smile.

Following the Thursday and Saturday morning religious services, church

members stand in line for up to an hour to receive Holy Communion.

Saturday at midnight, more than 5,000 people fill the sanctuary and the

grounds for the Resurrection Service, Anastasis. After the congregation

celebrates the liturgy, all lights are turned off. Only a solitary vigil light

flickers.

From this symbolic representation of Christ, the priest and some assistants

light several candles. They then light the candles of parishioners in the

front row from those candles. Each parishioner in turn then lights a candle

from the nearest candle. This action symbolizes the unfading light, a symbol of

the Resurrection. Several candles are kept lit on the altar for 40 days until

the Feast of the Ascension.

The congregation then joins as one in the chanting of "Christos Anesti"

(Christ has risen). Using their candles, the worshipers make the sign of the

cross three times.

The next morning at 10:30, the glorious service heralding Easter begins.

Parishioners dressed in their finery, candles in hand, fill the church pews for

the agape service. The service is one of forgiveness, Palesty said.

"In light of Christ's resurrection, we are called to love one another," he

said. At the conclusion, strangers become friends as they embrace. With this

action they forgive fellow Christians their transgressions. The symbolic action

also displays a shared faith, and their love of Christ, family and community.

Later in the day at home, worshipers will enjoy an Easter repast with

friends and family. The meal is replete with symbolism and tradition. Lamb,

which is associated with Christ's sacrifice, is served as the main dish and the

table is filled with homemade Greek specialties.

Hard-boiled eggs dyed scarlet red signify the blood of Christ.

Following tradition, dinner guests tap their eggs against one another's,

signifying the opening of Christ's tomb. The owner of the last egg left

unbroken is said to look forward to a year of blessings.

Holy Cross church in Whitestone is the other church serving the Greek

communities in northern Queens and, like St. Nicholas, offered a full schedule

of services for Holy Week.

Originally a Protestant church, the modest, white wood structure was

re-christened in 1975 and has grown from 50 original members to 560.

This growth is evidenced in the October opening of a new community center

across the street. The structure houses the Greek afternoon school, Sunday

School, PTA, sports program and the Philoptochos Society, a women's

organization that helps the needy.

This year, most of the Holy Week services will take place in the community

center to accommodate as many people as possible, said Argie Giampilis, a

parish council member.

"We usually have 4,000 people attend our Resurrection Service," explained

the Rev. Nickolaos Kouvaris, pastor of Holy Cross for the past five years.

The service spills out onto the street. "It is a lovely sight," said

parishioner Joanna Phillips. "The service is broadcast over a loudspeaker, and

the streets are blocked off by the local police."

Family and church are at the center of the parishioners' lives. "It is

mostly the young teens, 14 and 15, who go to confession regularly and encourage

their parents to attend church services with them on Sunday," Giampilis noted.

"While many other young people lose their heritage, most Greek youth retain

it by attending Greek school for language and cultural purposes," she said.

According to Kouvaris, "The youth prefer to hear the religious services in

Greek. Something is lost in the English translation."

Phillips' son, Peter, 15, a Bronx High School of Science student and a

member of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Youth Association, agrees. "Translating

the sermons into English takes away from the original meaning."

As Kouvaris explained, "The Orthodox Church is a very traditional church,

and I believe that we must keep the traditional teachings. Otherwise, we would

lose our unique identity."

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