Family history research gives us an opportunity to learn more about our ancestors’ experiences in their communities. The histories of buildings and institutions can help provide context for the lives of those who built and used them. When it comes to understanding the stories of Greek immigrants to United States, it can be helpful to turn to the histories of Greek Orthodox churches in America. Tracing the history of a Greek Orthodox church can help paint a picture of the activities of its individual parishioners and the community as whole.
Let’s look at the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Assumption in Price, Carbon County, Utah as an example. Jobs in the coal mines attracted Greek men to Carbon County at the turn of the twentieth century. Helen Zeese Papanikolas, a Greek American historian and native of Carbon County, writes:
“The newest Greek arrivals heard of the coal mines in Carbon County and, by 1905, there were Greeks in Castle Gate, Spring Canyon, Hiawatha, Sunnyside, Black Hawk, Helper, Winter Quarters, Scofield, and Price. New coal veins were constantly being opened and the young Greeks wrote back to their villages that there was work for all in the mines.”1
Hundreds more soon followed, including some of my ancestors.
A quick search of the Carbon County Property Details webpage yields the warranty deed for the church property, which was purchased from Lars and Sadie Gunderson for $800.00 on February 4, 1916.2 The 1920 census lists Lars Gunderson as a contractor and house builder. The nomination form for the church’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places notes that Lars submitted the lowest bid for construction of the site.3 The nomination form, the church’s website, and Papanikolas’ account list three primary leaders in the development of the sanctuary: Gust Pappas, Stylian Staes, and Emmanuel Salevurakis.4
A local newspaper article in 1921, just five years after the church’s founding, notes that around eight hundred guests attended Emmanuel Salevurakis’ funeral—“probably the largest attendance ever gathered for a funeral in Carbon county.”5 The article provides clues as to what attributes made this immigrant man an esteemed citizen in the eyes of other Americans, noting Salevurakis’ business activities, prominence within his Greek community, role in spearheading the foundation of the church, and status as a naturalized U.S. citizen. Joseph Salevurakis, a brother listed in Emmanuel’s probate records,6 is also named as one of the witnesses on the marriage certificate of my great-great-grandparents, Steve and Argero (Miheloudakis) Kalikakis, who were married at the church.7
Kent Powell, the preservationist historian who prepared the parish’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form, makes the following note about the church’s construction:
“The church was very important to the Greek population of the county. It gave them a sense of security and stood as a symbol that they had made a permanent settlement. This encouraged the Greek men to send for their wives or, for the majority who were single, to request that Greek girls be sent over for them to marry.”8
This sentiment tracks with the story of my great-great-grandparents. Their marriage record indicates that the sacrament was officiated by Fr. Mark E. Petrakis (the first priest of the church) on August 6, 1917, almost exactly one year after its consecration.9 The 1920 census indicates that Argero immigrated in 1916.10
The 1920 census also shows that my great-grandparents housed nine boarders from Greece in their home in nearby Sunnyside, UT. All the boarders were men who worked in the mines, and they all had distinct last names. Back in Price proper, the Salevurakis brothers were hosting twelve roomers (including one listed as a cousin). By this time, Greeks had entered Carbon County en masse, seeking out others from their homeland for shelter and support. Their local Greek Orthodox church was a major center for their new community.
In 2020, I had the opportunity to briefly visit the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Assumption in Price. To stand outside a building that brought together not only my ancestors, but an entire community of Greeks looking for a better life, was awe-inspiring. Record by record, town by town, I continue to unpack the stories of Greek immigrants to the United States, learning the ways they shaped this country and each other.
1 Helen Zeese Papanikolas, “The Greeks of Carbon County,” Utah Historical Quarterly XXII (1954): 145. https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s69g5m5q
2 “Entry 14804 – (B 5E / P 639) on 10/4/1916 – KOI 060,” accessed June 10, 2023, https://onbase21.carbon.utah.gov/AppNet_16/docpop/docpop.aspx.
3 “NPGallery Asset Detail,” accessed June 10, 2023, https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/73001861.
4 “History,” Assumption Church Greek Orthodox Church, accessed March 29, 2022, https://agoc.ut.goarch.org/about-us/history.
5 “Funeral Services for an Esteemed Citizen,” The Sun-Advocate , April 8, 1921, https://www.newspapers.com/image/681945237/.
6 “Utah, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1800-1985,” accessed June 10, 2023, https://www.ancestry.com.
7 “Utah, County Marriages, 1871-1941,” accessed June 10, 2023, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:9396-3XGV-M?cc=1803977.
8 “NPGallery Asset Detail.”
9 “Utah, County Marriages, 1871-1941.”
10 “1920 United States Federal Census,” accessed June 10, 2023, www.ancestry.com.