Saint John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church

by Tim Gilmore, 11/29/2020

1. New Directions for Ancient Traditions

He was a young architect whose parents had immigrated from Greece and he’d been chosen to design Jacksonville’s new Greek Orthodox sanctuary. It was 1968. It was Ted Pappas’s first solo commission.

St. John the Divine’s former sanctuary, with its three crosses and two fish scale-patterned stamped-metal onion domes rising over Union and Laura Streets downtown, had been built in 1902 as Congregation Ahavath Chesed Synagogue. When St. John moved in 1968, the older structure stood exotic and byzantine another 12 years until First Baptist Church demolished it for a parking garage.

original sanctuary, early 1970s, photograph by Virginia King, from The Mad Atlas of Virginia King by Tim Gilmore

Pappas, then in his early 30s, wanted to blend two ancient traditions and make them contemporary. On a warm November morning half a century later, we’re standing before the soaring columns and barrel vaults of that design on Atlantic Boulevard.

“If you look at the immigrant Greeks who came to the United States,” Pappas says, “they took as their pride not only the Byzantine heritage, which is early Christian, but also their Ancient Greek heritage. Here, I was trying to combine the two.”

Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and having worked with legendary Midcentury Modern architects Robert Broward and Taylor Hardwick, Pappas reinterpreted ancient ideas. With traffic roaring behind us, he indicates how the façade emphasizes the vertical, with its high steps and tall columns, a contemporary expression of a classical Greek temple. Meanwhile, the church, having given up two onion domes downtown, wanted a central dome on the new sanctuary, but couldn’t afford it. So Pappas made Roman barrel vaults modern by using reinforced concrete and cantilevering them over the entrance.

The building committee wanted the structure close to the road for visibility. “But I said it needs to stand back if you want it to be seen,” says Pappas. “So we pushed the building back and we decided to elevate it 12 feet above the crown of Atlantic Boulevard.”

Ted Pappas, December 1980, photo by Gary Parker accompanying story about Pappas’s design for Mary L. Singleton Senior Center, courtesy Florida TimesUnion

Orthodox churches are supposed to face east, just as mosques are aligned with the qibla, meaning toward the Kaaba in Mecca. As St. John of Damascus wrote in the ninth century, “Since God is spiritual light and Christ is called in the Scriptures ‘Sun of Righteousness’ and ‘Dayspring,’ the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship.” But the church had bought a north-south lot.

Most of the congregation embraced the new design, but a couple of Jacksonville’s original Greek immigrants resisted the new direction. Pappas remembers one church elder, who’d donated the organ, always faced east when he stood during services. “He believed the church was going to collapse because it wasn’t facing east.”

2. Colors of the Islands

“Ted” can be a nickname for two traditional Greek names, Theodoros / Θεόδωρος —meaning “gift” (dóros) “of God”—and Eleftherios / ἐλεύθερος—meaning “free man.”

Ted Pappas, December 1980, photo by Gary Parker accompanying story about Pappas’s design for Mary L. Singleton Senior Center, courtesy Florida TimesUnion

Ted was born Eleftherios Pappas. His mother Fifika came from the Greek island Samos, birthplace of Pythagoras, and his father Phillip grew up on the island of Marmara, named for its famous marble quarries. After population exchanges between Greece and Turkey following World War I, Marmara’s native Greeks dispersed to the Greek mainland, Thessaloniki and the United States. Centuries before, the island had been almost entirely Greek Orthodox. Today, Marmara is Turkish, close to Istanbul, long ago Constantinople, the Rome of the Orthodox Church. In Jacksonville, Florida, a little more than a century ago, Phillip met Fifika.

Now I’m having black coffee and spanakopita at Athens Café on St. Augustine Road with Ted and Mark Pappas, father and son. Our waiter’s name is Herakles. He says it’s a big name to live up to, jokes that he doesn’t have a gym membership. Classical Greek names like Helen, even Aphrodite, are still common, Ted says.

Pappas’s childhood home on Ernest Street

Ted grew up on Ernest Street in North Riverside. The original immigrant community in Jacksonville lived either in Springfield, just north of downtown, or in lovely modest Riverside houses along Ernest, Gilmore and Dellwood Streets between Stockton and Margaret. “That’s where you came when you first arrived in the States.” he says.

Greek was his first language, but as the youngest child, he grew up speaking Greek with his parents and English with siblings. He worked on the yearbook staff at Robert E. Lee High School and wore one of those old leather helmets that looked like aviator caps to play football. The old oaks and camphors on Ernest Street sheltered his childhood landscape.

As for the blue and white of St. John the Divine’s interior, blue light coming through the tint of tall windows on blue flooring and the marble white icon screen, Pappas says that while the newer church building now being built on Beach Boulevard is using red for the blood of Christ, for this design, this son of two Greek islanders chose the colors of a Greek island church.

3. Heaven in a Bleak and Brutal World

In an Orthodox church, the sanctuary is considered heaven on earth. Inside, the icon for the Archangel Michael swings back on a door and Ted Pappas goes behind the icon screen. From behind he opens the central door and the altar comes into view.

The icon screen, or iconostasis, the tall wall that separates the inner sanctum from the nave where worshipers stand, the most important interior architectural element of an Orthodox church, reflects the ancient as much as Pappas’s design reflects its own moment in time.

When the congregation moved from Downtown in 1968, the icon screen, built by woodworker and cabinetmaker George Doro, came with it. A half century ago, the Greek Orthodox church in Jacksonville was half a century old. The icon screen is as old as the congregation.

Top and center of the screen a single eye stares out over the congregation from beneath a small cross. That eye is George Doro’s signature. Doro is best remembered now for the George Doro Fixture Company Building, built downtown in 1904, which the City and private interests decided, against community outrage, earlier this year to demolish. St. John’s icon screen may be the most prominent example of Doro’s artistry surviving.

Father E.B. Papazisis in the original sanctuary, 1950s, courtesy Mary Roman

Pappas points to the lifesize icons of archangels and saints in the screen. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world,” he says. “Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, if you go into an Orthodox church, you will always have the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ on the left and Christ, fully grown, by himself, on the right.” While Roman Catholic art sometimes depicts the Virgin Mary by herself, in Orthodox churches, she always appears with the infant Christ. Martyrs stand depicted in the stained glass windows along both sides of the nave.

The altar is visible between them through the open door. While services are now conducted in English, a Greek Bible remains on the altar. It’s the language, of course, in which the New Testament was written.

Above the screen, the smooth concrete barrel vaults that cantilever over the entrance out front continue across the ceiling toward mirrors whose reflections make the vaults seem to tunnel high over the altar toward infinity.

Behind the screen, Mark Pappas stands by the incense holders, which altar boys sway back and forth on chains briefly during services. “When I was an altar boy, this was one of my worst challenges. If you put in too much incense,” he says, laughing, “you’d smoke out the priest.”

While not as devoutly religious as he was growing up, Mark loves the pageantry and mysticism of the Orthodox faith. He loves the atmospherics of incense and blue light, of the Good Friday processions around the church outside, of Resurrection services on Easter Sunday, when the lights swing and the chandelier above the solea shakes back and forth representing the earthquake sprung by the Crucifixion.

He points out that long before theatre and art were their own secular cultural realms, art and theatre were the province of religion.

“In the years of the early church and in medieval times,” Mark says, “people lived a bleak life, no color, full of death. Then you went to church and there was stained glass and gold and this mesmerizing experience. It was a heavenly experience in a bleak and brutal world.”

4. Saviors

“If you had to ask me the best quality of this church I would say it’s the quality of intimacy,” Ted Pappas says. I’m sitting in the balcony with architect and son in this otherwise empty sanctuary. “One of the same principles used in designing restaurants works here,” he says. In restaurants, full tables in small spaces convey a different message and psychological setting than cavernous rooms sparsely populated at mostly empty tables. A church is a community, and Pappas’s design reflects the historic closeness and fullness of the Greek community in Jacksonville.

So it was when the first Greek immigrants to Jacksonville held religious services in 1907 and when 49 Greek Americans of nine families and 36 single men attended Orthodox services at St. John Episcopal Cathedral downtown in 1912. So it was when Father Michael Sarris prayed at funerals for victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic and Father E.B. Papazisis performed weddings in 1956.

So it was when parishioner Tom Christon spent five years copying the Bible by hand in Greek in the 1930s, then donated the leather-bound volume to the church. So it was when Mary Roman compiled a 300-page church history in 2016.

Father Michael Sarris, late 19-teens, courtesy Mary Roman

So it was when James Kalogerakos, having immigrated from his home village south of Sparta to New York in 1888, came to Jacksonville in 1901. So it was when he opened Riverside Fish and Oyster House at 510 Riverside Avenue in 1910 and brought his arranged bride Angeliki from Greece. So it was when, living above the fish market, they had five daughters and one son. So it was when by 1930 they’d migrated to West Sixth Street in Springfield and moved the fish market to Julia and State Streets downtown. So it was when James Kalogerakos, the oldest living parishioner, cut the ribbon at opening ceremonies for the new church in 1968. So it was when he died, 100 years old, in 1973.

James Kalogarikos at his fish market, 1940s, courtesy Mary Roman

St. John the Divine will hold its last services in the church Ted Pappas designed in two weeks, in early December. Just before Christmas, the congregation will meet in its new megachurch campus on Beach Boulevard. Services now are in English. The new priest is Palestinian, though Ted Pappas says, “Father Nick Louh speaks Greek better than the Greeks.” The church is diverse now—Russian, Ethiopian, Arabic. While mainline congregations shrink, St. John is growing.

While dedicated to moving to the larger space, church members worried about what might happen to the sanctuary Pappas designed, church home for half a century. Would the church stand empty? Would a developer demolish it to build anonymous and poorly constructed apartments? Would it meet the same fate as the church’s last sanctuary?

original sanctuary, from Historic American Buildings Survey, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Ahavath Chesed, the oldest Jewish congregation in Jacksonville, formed at Laura and Union Streets downtown in 1882. When the Great Fire of 1901 consumed the synagogue, architect J.H.W. Hawkins’s design rose on the same spot the next year. In 1908, however, the Jewish congregation moved and the church became Christian Scientist.

original sanctuary, courtesy Mary Roman

When St. John the Divine, having met for 12 years in private homes, purchased the building in 1919, Henry John Klutho, the city’s most historically famous architect, converted it. When St. John left for Pappas’s new design on Atlantic Boulevard in 1968, Metropolitan Community Church of Jacksonville, which The Jacksonville Journal called “a church for homosexuals ostracized by other congregations,” moved in. When First Baptist Church bought the newly declared historic landmark and demolished it for parking in 1980, architect Taylor Hardwick saved the onion domes. In a photo accompanying a February 11, 1980 Journal article, a dome sits on the ground and Hardwick and two other people stand beside it. What happened to those domes afterwards is a mystery.

photo by Frank Smith, from The Jacksonville Journal, February 11, 1980

In the nick of time, at the end of 2020, unlikely saviors come forward to save Eleftherios Pappas’s church. New worshipers will find it a holy space. This postmodern design, in which the son of immigrants made two ancient Greek traditions, the Byzantine basilica and the Ancient Greek temple, contemporary in North Florida, has been saved by a new congregation of Chinese Baptists. It’s an appropriate next chapter in a trajectory that began with the city’s first synagogue the century before last. This is not the end of this story.

1968, before wing additions, courtesy Mark Pappas