Greek America’s Liturgical Language Crisis of 1970

by Alexander Kitroeff


Beginning in the 1930s, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, a hemispheric organization, began establishing its hegemony over Greek American community life. Its predominance continued in the post–World War II era, and by the 1960s the Archdiocese felt emboldened to introduce a key change to address the needs of the Americanized second- and third-generation Greek Americans. This led Archbishop Iakovos to propose that parish priests be allowed to hold the Sunday liturgy in English, where appropriate. This triggered a sharp reaction by the Greek-language media and organizations predominantly headed by immigrant Greek Americans that were mostly concentrated in New York City and along the East Coast. What amounted to a small-scale revolt against the Archbishop led to the intervention of the “Mother Church,” the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Ultimately, Iakovos had to tactically retreat so that he could counter attack later more effectively. But the fact that he suffered the only setback, albeit temporary, in his almost forty-year tenure as the head of the Archdiocese illustrates the resonance and significance of the Greek language in the ways many defined Greek American identity, and the ways language can be used as a tool to challenge even the strongest ethnoreligious institutions. But is also telling of the considerable political skills of Archbishop Iakovos who ultimately managed to weather the challenge.


At the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s Clergy–Laity Congress of 1970 in New York City, Archbishop Iakovos stated that priests would be allowed to deliver the Sunday liturgy in English if they considered it appropriate for their parish. No other statement by an Archbishop has caused a bigger furor in the history of the Greek American community. There was an immediate sharp protest by a group of community leaders accusing Iakovos of undermining the future of the Greek language. Decades earlier, the Archdiocese, the governing body of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, had taken on the responsibility of administering Greek-language education through parish-based schools. This move, taken in the early 1930s, had ushered in an era in which Greek Americans regarded the church as the repository of Greek culture in the United States and it had also helped the church become the predominant Greek American ethnic institution. But now this was no longer the case, at least in the eyes of some Greek Americans. The Archbishop’s critics viewed the introduction of English in the Sunday liturgy as a sign that the church was now less committed to language preservation. They did not cite any proof of this, nor did they make that claim consistently. Nonetheless, the fact it was raised speaks to the concerns the critics had about preserving Greek language in both the liturgy and by extension in the life of the community including its schools. The protests quickly escalated into a campaign designed to topple Iakovos and it involved the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Greek government. It was a precarious few months for the Archdiocese and a time of deep division among the Greek Orthodox in America. It pitted a range of mostly Greek-born Greek Americans, many of them leaders of ethnic associations in New York City and Chicago, along with the Greek-language press against the Archdiocese and the American-born communicants of the church. The divisions in the community were almost as deep as those during what historian Theodore Saloutos called “the civil war in the church” – the clashes between the pro-monarchists and the Venizelists in the 1920s (Saloutos 1964, 281–309). What made the conflict in 1970 relatively more contained was that the Archbishop’s critics were a minority, while the old monarchist-venizelist rivalry had split the Greek American community down the middle. Opposing Iakovos were Greek-born Greek Americans who had arrived in the United States after 1950. But thanks to the revival of ethnicity that emerged during the wake of the civil rights movements, the Greek-born felt entitled to speak out in the name of preserving the Greek aspects of the church. The crisis dragged on for several months until the Archdiocese’s “mother church,” the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, intervened to resolve the dispute.

The role of language in European “white” ethnic groups including the Greek Americans has been studied primarily for its position in ethnic schools, and less so in terms of its significance for the group’s identity. Immigration historians, in the few cases they have focused on this issue, have shown how language has been considered the embodiment of identity both by those outside the group who were applying pressures on it to “Americanize” and those within the group who were working toward preserving its ethnic identity (Carnevale 2009). The implied understanding of language as a means to negotiate power relations both outside and inside a particular ethnic group echoes the work of Joshua A. Fishman (1989). One of the themes of his prolific output on the sociology of language among Jewish Americans and other European immigrants was that language was a marker for the determination of ethnic identity and a group’s attitudes toward assimilation (Fishman 1966). Studies on the Greek American experience have not followed in the same direction, focusing instead only on the dynamics of Greek-language education practices. What historical accounts exist of the Greeks in the United States do not delve in any great depth into the ways disputes over language divided the community. And yet, it is known that the pro-assimilationist American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, known by its acronym AHEPA, experienced considerable internal strife over a suggestion that it ban the official use of Greek in the 1920s. This article examines the liturgical language crisis Greek America endured in 1970 and tries to understand its deeper implications in terms of the ethnic group’s attitudes toward the pressures of assimilation. The paper argues that the crisis demonstrates the significance of language to Greek American identity and the different views of Greek immigrants and American-born Greek Americans over the significance of language for the church’s identity, and also the political acumen of Archbishop Iakovos, who confronted the crisis in a way that enabled him to marshal the institutional weight and strength of the church and its allies to deflect an opposition movement that tried to use the issue of liturgical language to weaken the dominant position of the Archdiocese in Greek American community life. The Archdiocese, at the time, also held jurisdiction over Greek Orthodoxy in Canada as well as in Central and South America, but the controversy did not unfold with similar intensity in those regions.

The Archbishop and several other leading members of the Archdiocese had prepared the ground for the announcement at the 1970 Clergy­­–Laity Congress but nonetheless it somehow represented a tipping point that unleashed a wave of protests in defense of the Greek language. There had been only limited dissent when the 1964 Clergy–Laity Congress at Denver recommended that certain readings and prayers for the Liturgy be repeated in English for the benefit of the non-Greek speaking congregation. At that Congress, Archbishop Iakovos had stated that the Greek Orthodox Church was no longer an immigrant church and had to take steps to adapt to the American environment. Iakovos and other leaders of the church were keenly aware of the transformation of Catholicism in America which underscored the need for Eastern Orthodoxy to carefully consider its own position. At the time, the Second Vatican Council, which took place between 1962 and 1965, was engaged in fashioning Catholicism’s response to modernity and the Catholic Church’s role in facilitating an understanding of itself in the world. It was a significant event that profoundly changed the contours of Catholicism in the United States because one theme that was addressed was the phasing out of Latin in Catholic masses and the use of the vernacular (Wolfe 2005, 10–12). Although Iakovos never stated it as such explicitly, another reason that motivated his push for allowing priests to use English wherever and whenever they saw fit was the fear that the Greek Americans who were becoming more and more integrated into American society would be influenced by the liberal trend toward secularization that was pronounced in the America of the 1960s. Iakovos made mention of that concern in several Clergy–Laity Congresses during that decade. Ensuring that the assimilating Greek Americans would not be put off but instead be attracted by the language used at the liturgy was an obvious way to retain their allegiance to the church.

Even before the 1964 Congress, many priests, responding to parishioners’ requests, had begun to use the English version of the services and the Archdiocese did not openly challenge that practice, but the Congress’s decisions were a turning point. There was wide acceptance of its decisions and there was no debate on the topic of the language used in the liturgy or the sermons at the Clergy–Laity Conferences in Montreal, Canada, in 1966 and Athens, Greece, in 1968. But in 1968, two Greek American academics, James Counelis and Andrew Kopan, coauthored an article they published in Logos, a journal focused on Eastern Christianity, in which they expressed their attachment to the Greek language but called for a greater use of English because Orthodoxy’s teachings could be expressed “in all tongues of man” and that the Orthodox Church could never exert social, moral, and religious influence in the New World without becoming a part of its culture (Counelis and Kopan 1968, 7). The article itself would not have circulated widely in the community, but both Counelis and Kopan were active in their churches in San Francisco and Chicago respectively.

Six months before the 1970 Congress, Iakovos told the Archdiocese’s Council that the church would have to tackle the language question, namely, the use of English in the liturgy in the coming decade, because of a number of changes Greek America was experiencing. There was the emergence of two American-born generations, an increase in mixed marriages, what he described as the “indigenization” of the church as well as the limited academic education in Greek of the priests. All these factors demanded a reevaluation of the insistence on the use of Greek (Papaioannou 1985, 452). Days before the Congress convened, the Archdiocesan-sponsored newspaper, the Orthodox Observer, featured an article proclaiming that the church needed to change and align itself with contemporary American society and that Greek Orthodoxy had emerged from its adolescence and was facing a hopeful and painful adulthood (Patrinacos 1970a). It did not refer to language explicitly, but its message was clear.

The article in the Orthodox Observer was written by its editor, Nicon Patrinacos (1970b), who was the intellectual author of the shift toward the English language. Unlike most who agreed with the need to be more flexible with the use of English, Patrinacos had been born in Greece and received his diploma from the School of Theology of the University of Athens. After earning a doctorate in psychology at Oxford University in 1950, he moved to the United States where he was assigned as pastor of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in St. Louis. In 1953 Patrinacos was appointed Dean of the Archdiocese’s Greek Orthodox Theological School, Holy Cross, in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was from that vantage point, of training the young American-born who would serve as priests in parishes across the United States, that Patrinacos gained an appreciation of the growing use of English in church life. It had been three decades since the arrival of new immigrants from Greece had been limited to a trickle, and in the meantime the Greek-born immigrants had faced pressures to assimilate and Americanize. And of course, by the early 1950s, a new American-born generation of Greek Americans was reaching adulthood. Patrinacos, who had followed up his theological degree he gained at Athens University by earning a doctorate in psychology in Australia, was therefore more positively disposed toward English than most other Greek Orthodox theologians.

Patrinacos viewed the so-called language question as part of a much broader set of needs the Greek Orthodox Church had to satisfy in order to remain relevant in the America of the 1970s. He outlined those needs in a book entitled The Individual and his Orthodox Church, which was addressed to the American born “who now comprise the bulk and make up the strength of the Orthodox parish in the New World” and to men and women “who are Orthodox by baptism and outward conformity but scarcely so by inward choice” (Patrinacos 1970a, vii). Patrinacos carefully avoided the term “Greek Orthodoxy” throughout the book. His purpose was to argue for the need for Greek Orthodoxy to adapt to America. He explained the religious content of Orthodoxy and how it could be practiced in present-day America, arguing that in its present state the practice of Orthodoxy did not entail the conscious participation of individuals who embraced the essence of Orthodoxy but rather participation in its culturally determined rituals. The division of the Orthodox Church along ethnic lines, and by extension the use of different cultural practices and languages, was becoming outdated in his opinion. “For the American born Orthodox,” he wrote, “the existing liturgical and cultural diversity is something they cannot comprehend and a definite impediment toward having a unified Orthodox congregation that could be at home in any Orthodox church” (Patrinacos 1970a, 117–18). Patrinacos’s mention of the prospect of a unified Orthodox Church was nothing less than a nascent expression of the calls for a pan-Orthodox movement that would presuppose the deethnization of the eastern Orthodox Churches in the United States. It echoed a concept that was dear to him and also to Iakovos, but was still in a nascent phase. In 1960 the Archbishop had led eleven Orthodox Churches in America to form the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America, widely known as SCOBA, its acronym. But SCOBA’s activities since then had been limited, and it was only in 1970, two months before the Clergy–Laity Congress, that it had issued a call for a pan-Orthodox conference to be held in the America to consider forming a provisional synod which would be a first step toward creating an American Orthodox Church (Eggebroten 1970, 30).

As the 1970 Congress approached, on the instructions of Archbishop Iakovos, Patrinacos and others on the Archdiocese’s staff prepared a “Delegates Workbook” designed to inform delegates of all the issues to be discussed in New York. It included advance notice of the proposed permission to use English in the Sacraments of Baptism, Marriage, Penance, Holy Unction and Holy Communion, and it explained “the Archdiocese does not rule out this eventual changing from one language to the other” but qualified this by mentioning the need for an appropriate translation, aimed “at rendering our ritual not only understandable but forceful and effective enough so as to elicit, and even inwardly compel, a true liturgical participation on the part of our people during common worship…” (Papaioannou 1985, 453–54). There were distinct echoes of Patrinacos’s ideas but also an evident unwillingness to make the use of English a rushed, overnight affair. Reinforcing the attempt of the Archdiocese to maintain a position of moderation, its chief secretary and advisor to Iakovos, Basil G. Vasiliades issued a statement to be included in the materials distributed to all delegates. It reiterated that the Archdiocese was proceeding with prudence, allowing both English and Greek, and that the use of English should be adopted for the purpose of “the retention of the Greek Orthodox nature and character of our Church” (Papaioannou 1985, 455).1 Thus, Iakovos had done all he could to smooth the way for the optional use of English in Greek Orthodox life. Now he had to persuade the Clergy–Laity Congress to approve the measure.

But all the preparations and publicity had caused rumblings of public discontent among the Greek-born Greek Americans. In a twist of history, the numbers of Greek-born Greek Americans were increasing rather than decreasing because the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965 led to a steep increase in the number of immigrants arriving from Greece. The act abolished the basis of selecting immigrants according to country of origin, which had been the principle on which Greek immigration had come to a virtual standstill in 1924. The combined effects of the act were to create an influx of Greek immigrants that was significant compared to other European groups and compared to the size of the Greek American community. If we also bear in mind that the previous years had witnessed a steady trickle of Greek arrivals thanks to special loopholes in U.S. immigration restrictions, such as the postwar acceptance of “Displaced Persons” and refugees, and if we also include a considerable number of Greek seamen who jumped ship and entered the United States illegally, we arrive at a figure of about 120,000 Greek-born joining the community from the end of World War II through the eve of the 1970 Clergy–Laity Congress (Moskos 1989, 54–55).

These “new Greeks” represented about twenty percent of the total Greek presence in the United States but with the guidance of the Greek-language press they coalesced into a powerful internal lobby opposed to any retreat from the community’s longstanding commitment to preserve the Greek language. They were able to do so because they remained distinct from the Greek Americans whose parents had arrived before 1924 and were now Americanized. The new immigrants had strong ties to the Greek homeland and an ambivalent relationship to the ethnic associations they encountered, including the church. They tended not to mix with the older established Greeks, and they settled together in urban centers creating Greektowns—in New York and in Chicago or smaller Greek ethnic neighborhoods such as Upper Darby in Philadelphia. They shunned the well-established ethnic associations such as AHEPA and gravitated mostly to the topika somateia, fraternities whose members came from the same region or island in Greece and which were by definition more oriented toward the homeland. Charles Moskos describes differences in attitude among the old and new Greeks: “the newcomers did not always meld easily into the Greek American community … some tended to view the Greeks already established in America as boorish and uncultivated.” Meanwhile, the older Greeks saw the newcomers as averse to the hardships and unwilling to dutifully play by the American rules that characterized the pioneer immigrants (Moskos 1989, 59–60). Anna Karpathakis’s research on the Greeks of New York confirms these conflicting perspectives. She notes that “The sense of being an ‘outsider,’ of ‘never really being able to become fully accepted as Americans,’ was prevalent among the immigrants and even extended to the American born growing up in the working-class immigrant communities of Astoria and Brooklyn” (Karpathakis 1999, 71).

The new Greeks also had an ambivalent relationship with the Archdiocese. Patrinacos, writing in 1982, was remarkably explicit in describing the differences between the new and the old Greek immigrants. He believed the newcomers lacked a religiously formed character and that their piety was superficial. Although they would turn to the church for the sacraments and other religious services “that answer to their religious fear and the need for a form of pseudo-piety which they have retained from childhood, their conscious attitude toward the Church is anticlerical and anti-ecclesiastical.” He ascribed this to the failure of the church of Greece to win over the educated class, “whose members by personal philosophy consider themselves superior to clergymen and who still bear an intellectual allegiance to the credos of the French revolution” and to the low level of education of the clergy in Greece and the scandalous lives of some of the leading clergymen” (Patrinacos 1982, 132). Patrinacos may have been overestimating the philosophical moorings of the secularism of the incoming Greeks but he was right to point out their relationship to Greek Orthodoxy that was shaped by increasing cynicism toward the church in Greece.

For the new Greeks, language rather than religion functioned as a marker of their ethnic identity, and it also distinguished them from the older Greek immigrants. The erosion of the use of Greek among the older established Greek Americans counted against them. Moskos noted, “the recent arrivals were perhaps too quick to contrast their good Greek with the deteriorated Greek—which in any event was less polished to begin with—spoken by most of the old-timers” (Moskos 1989, 59). Language thus became a badge of honor that distinguished the new Greeks. They took pride in using Greek in the ethnic organizations they participated in, and their social gatherings. Their high concentration in certain neighborhoods such as Astoria in New York and Upper Darby in Philadelphia reinforced the ethnic and linguistic enclave they lived at least the first years of their stay in the United States. There was nothing explicitly philosophical about their association of language with their Greekness. There was an assumption that Greek language was part of Greek identity, but beyond that there was no attempt to invoke the writing of Greek thinkers such as Korais or more contemporary intellectual production on the issue of language and Greekness. And their investment in this identity marker would be strong enough to lead them to mount a challenge to the Archbishop’s authority, which had remained unquestioned in the post–World War II era. It is unlikely that any of the Archbishop’s opponents would have been motivated by prosecularist or antireligious sentiment. A percentage of the new arrivals from Greece were politically left-wing, and chose to emigrate because Greece was ruled by a right-wing dictatorship beginning in 1967. But they, on the whole, were not active in the local parishes or other voluntary organizations partially at least because as in the case of all new arrivals, time and money were very short (Moskos 1989, 60). Many of them so no point in trying to change the conservative culture of most Greek American organizations. With most major such organizations actively or tacitly supporting the colonels’ regime, radical Greek Americans turned away from those organizations and chose instead to undertake spontaneous initiatives that spawned small but active anti-junta committees. (Georgakas 1986, 11).

The new Greek influx was a boon to the surviving Greek-language newspapers, especially the New York–based dailies, the Atlantis and the Ethnikos Kyrix. The language controversy of 1970 gave them a cause they could rally around and enhance their standing as institutions defending the community’s Greek identity and of course increase their circulation. The editors-in-chief of both papers were Greek born and only eager to take up the cudgels in defense of the Greek language. Panayotis Gazouleas of the Atlantis had worked as a journalist in Greece for six years before he, at age thirty, arrived in New York in 1957 to work as a reporter for the newspaper where he soon became editor-in-chief. His counterpart at the Ethnikos Kiryx, Babis Marketos had become the West Coast correspondent of the Ethnikos Kiryx during World War II and replaced the owner and editor Basil Vlavianos during his travels in Europe. Vlavianos sold the newspaper to Marketos in March 1947. When it became apparent that Iakovos was going to allow for the use of English in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, both Gazouleas and Marketos turned against the Archbishop, even before the Clergy–Laity Congress.

The Ethnikos Kyrix and the Atlantis led the campaign against the use of English in the liturgy, and in the wake of the Congress’s decisions, the Federation of Hellenic Societies of New York also joined in, along with its constituent organizations, the federations of topika somateia, for example, the province of Epirus or the island of Crete. Forty such organizations came out publicly against the Congress decision to permit the use of English. Most of those organizations were based in New York, specifically in Astoria and Queens where there were big concentrations of Greek-born immigrants. This was also the case with two ad hoc committees, both based in Queens, that came out against the use of English. The Archdiocese also received the signatures of 187 parishioners who declared they would be withholding their membership dues in protest against the Congress’s decisions. But it was the two newspapers that remained at the forefront of the campaign. As the Atlantis noted in an editorial in late July 1970, “the Greek language press remains the bastion of support for the preservation of the Greek language” (Atlantis 1970, July 27). But this also meant that the campaign was limited in many ways. Demographically it involved Greek-born Greek Americans and was geographically limited to Astoria and Queens, as well as to Chicago. Only a few organizations and parishes from the rest of the country registered their displeasure with messages to the Archdiocese or public announcements in the Greek-language press.2 At no point did the campaign manage to attract any academics or intellectuals or even any well-known entrepreneurs. This would limit the power of its discourse, in the sense that it repeated the view that Greek Orthodoxy could only be expressed through the Greek language but without elaborating on that assertion on theological or philosophical grounds. This may not have been a critical factor in the effectiveness of the movement against Iakovos, but it helps illustrate its somewhat narrow focus on the emotional and symbolic aspects of using Greek in the liturgy.

Well aware of the brewing controversy over his proposals about using English in the liturgy, the Archbishop sought to have as open a dialogue as possible among delegates. Addressing a record number of 1,000 delegates, Iakovos urged the adoption of English, explaining this proposal as a way of ensuring greater and more meaningful participation of the congregation in the liturgy. Iakovos said that the Archdiocese should secure an accurate translation that would do justice to the liturgy and the needs of the faithful but temporarily at least there was a draft translation produced by Patrinacos. Iakovos elaborated on the need to ensure greater participation by making two points. The first was that the minimal participation of the Greek Orthodox community due to their decreasing comprehension of Greek would soon lead to their alienation and the spiritual death of Orthodoxy in America. The other point was that language reform would make Orthodoxy widely accessible in America:

the greatest mystery which God has revealed to the Orthodox Christian in America, is the fact that Orthodoxy is not exclusively the religion of the Hellenes, but the religion of all those who, as a result of mixed marriages or contact and study of Orthodoxy, have come to know and relate to it and therefore that Orthodoxy has already found its place and mission in the Western Hemisphere (Archbishop Iakovos 1970, 11).

The Archbishop qualified his proposal by reassuring the delegates that this was not a repudiation of the Greek language: “nothing in this report is to be interpreted as a repudiation or denial of the Greek language in the ecclesiastical services of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.” He reminded his audience that there had been a limited authorization of languages other than Greek at the 1964 Clergy–Laity Congress held in Denver. He went on to explain he was responding to an existing situation in allowing a wider use of other languages because a committee of the Archdiocese had found out that “languages other than Greek are in fact being used in various parishes throughout the Archdiocesan districts to meet specific local situations.” The last phrase meant of course those parishes “where most congregants could not understand or use the Greek language” (Archbishop Iakovos 1970, 55).

The recommendation that the Archdiocese permit the use of the “vernacular” (i.e., English) language as needed in the church services based on the judgment of the priest, was enthusiastically adopted by an overwhelming majority of the 1,000 delegates but it also triggered a wave of sharp protests spearheaded by the Greek-language press. Clergy–Laity conferences rarely even questioned proposals by the Archdiocese, so the vote on the floor and the wide margin of approval is not surprising. Although Iakovos encouraged much more debate at these gatherings compared to his predecessors, Clergy–Laity Congresses were organized as top-down affairs, with Archdiocese-appointed committees of leading clerics and parishioners presenting their deliberations and recommendations to the delegates who were rarely in possession of the data or information required to critique a committee’s findings. And in any case, the delegates, clerical and lay parish leaders, were predisposed to accept the Archbishop’s word—Greek Orthodoxy was not a breeding ground of radicals or persons opposed to hierarchical structures—quite the opposite. What is startling is the vehemence of the reaction from the traditionalists in the community in 1970. A short-lived organization calling itself the Panhellenic Fellowship based in Queens, New York, which was dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Greek language, organized a demonstration outside the Archdiocese’s offices on 79th street in Manhattan. About one hundred persons participated, and their president Michael Halkias said they were opposed to the use of English and went as far as accusing Archbishop Iakovos of wanting to establish an independent church (New York Times 1970a). The Greek-language press seized on the idea that Iakovos was “breaking away” from the Old World church, giving their opposition to the Archbishop a sharper edge. But it also reflected a rejection of his authority and his vision of a Greek Orthodox Church that would accommodate the Americanized Greek Americans.3

On July 20, 1970, a group of Greek-born Greek Americans who had been active over the issue of the liturgical language convened the “Pan-American Conference for the Preservation of the Greek Language and the Greek Orthodox Church” in New York. The meeting issued a manifesto against Iakovos and his policies. It appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras to dismiss Iakovos and appoint a new Archbishop, and it initiated a stream of letters and pamphlets to parishes and Greek American organizations urging them to turn against the Archbishop. The Greek-language press continued its own assault on the Archdiocese. Gazouleas, the editor of the Atlantis newspaper, resorted to Biblical imagery, claiming “the glorious Greek language is driven to Golgotha” (Papaioannou 1985, 462–63). Meanwhile protests from Greek American organizations, mainly topika somateia in the metropolitan New York area, poured into the Archdiocese’s headquarters.

The conflict elevated the Greek language as a contested symbol of Greek identity. Ironically, the actual language employed in the liturgy was an archaic form of the Greek that the immigrants actually spoke among themselves. The version employed in the liturgy was old form of Greek and closer to the formal katharevousa Greek that was familiar only to those who would have completed higher education in Greece. In contrast, the sermon was usually in a mixture of the formal katharevousa and the vernacular demotiki and much easier to understand. The majority of Iakovos’s opponents spoke demotiki but would have had difficulty with the katharevousa and even greater trouble understanding the liturgical language. Moreover, katharevousa was taught in only a few existing Greek parochial high schools in the United States, while the many more language only afternoon schools taught demotiki. The Greek American press adopted a mixture of the two versions of Greek. So relatively few Greek Americans would have been able to follow the liturgy word-for-word. But there were important reasons for retaining the old version of Greek used in the liturgy. The liturgy itself was a reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a cornerstone of Orthodox belief, and therefore possessed a powerful symbolic character. This symbolism was conveyed through a set of ritualistic practices that served, along with the chanting that was part of the service, as a venue of continuity between the world of Greece the immigrants had left behind and their lives in America. This church attendance on Sunday mornings was a form of spiritual but also mental return to the homeland. And this gave the language of the liturgy a powerful emotional weight in the minds of parishioners. Germanos Polizoides, a senior and well-respected bishop of the church in America, sought to explain the significance of the liturgical language in a short book about Orthodoxy addressed to the younger and American-born members of the church. The book, published in 1961, was written in a question-and-answer format, and in response to the question why the church retained the old language in the liturgy, Polyzoides’ explanation was threefold: “1) This language became respectable for its antiquity since it was used even during the Apostolic times, 2) it is sacred as long as it is not the common language of the street and 3) it always remains the same” (Metropolitan Polizoides 1961, 58).

In the meantime, Iakovos had traveled to Greece on business and it was from there that he issued a stream of encyclicals and statements explaining that the Congress had only voted to permit the use of English, not to abolish the use of Greek, and that it was vitally concerned in the ways it could attract the younger, English-speaking Greek Americans (New York Times 1970b). He received little support from the government in Greece which called for the end of the feuding within the community but came out in support of the “preservation” of the Greek language. And in Constantinople, Patriarch Athenagoras, who had to approve of the Congress’s decisions, adopted a wait-and-see attitude, not wishing to alienate the traditionalists and strangely insensitive to the need to attract the English-speaking Greek Americans to the church.

Athenagoras eventually sided with the traditionalists, upholding the function of the Greek Orthodox Church in America in its dual preservation of religion and ethnic identity. His official letter to Iakovos conveying the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s view praised Iakovos and expressed his full confidence in him, but it made clear it did not favor the liturgical and linguistic reforms. The letter referred to the Archdiocese’s constitution where it was stated that Greek was the language of the Archdiocese and that the Archdiocese’s purpose was to preserve the ethnic identity of its people and to teach the original language of the Gospel, meaning Greek. The Patriarch also addressed a letter to the Greek Orthodox in America where he expressed his sorrow at the divisions and strife and called on them to remain united because he believed the language controversy had simply been a misunderstanding. Athenagoras described the crisis as a “misunderstanding” and praised the Archbishop and even suggested that some good had come out of the affair because the community had the opportunity to affirm its attachment to its ethnic identity (Fitzgerald 1995, 106–8).

At this point, Iakovos’s opponents thought they had won; but if they had scored a victory, it was a pyrrhic one. Yes, they had reversed a major policy move by the Archbishop, an unprecedented achievement for a group that was not even formally identified as belonging to the church’s laity. But all the Archbishop had done was to retreat in order to strike back more effectively. He affirmed the principle that Greek was the Archdiocese’s official language, and tolerated if not encouraged the increasing use of English in parishes, which had begun long before the 1970 Congress and was gradually spreading throughout the country. When his opponents launched a petition demanding his dismissal, the Archbishop’s supporters rallied to his side. Harris P. Jameson, a columnist for Boston’s English language Hellenic Chronicle noted there was a petition being circulated by those opposing the use of English addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarch demanding the ouster of the Archbishop, and added, “the men behind the petition are fanatical ethnocentrics who are barking up the wrong tree: this is America we are living in, not a Greek colony within America” (Jameson 1972). Jameson blamed the Greek-language press for distorting the Archbishop’s message by claiming he wanted to replace Greek with English immediately. The petition drive lost momentum in the face of uncertainty over whether the laity even had the right to make such claims on the church. For its part, the Ethnikos Kyrix carefully distinguished between its opposition to replacing Greek and its attitude toward the Archbishop, whom it still continued to consider the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church and deserving respect (Ethnikos Kyrix 1972). The newspaper’s backpedaling was realistic, both the Archdiocese and the Ethnikos Kyrix spoke to the same Greek American constituency and the office of the Archbishop was too strong and widely respected to allow any Greek American media outlet to adopt a permanently combative position against the church without risking a backlash form at least part of its readership. The Atlantis expressed the hope that the next Congress that would convene at Houston in 1972 would reverse the consequences of the coup d’ etat against the Greek language that had taken place in 1970 (Atlantis 1972).

Iakovos struck back before the Clergy–Laity convened in Houston in 1972, in his public proclamations that same year on the Archdiocese’s fiftieth anniversary. Iakovos presented a broader vision of the current state of Greek America. The Archbishop reiterated the Archdiocese’s commitment to Greek-language education but also described the church’s fifty-year trajectory as one in which it had transcended its narrow national origins and had become an American church. The community, he added, had led it to become integrated and successful in American society, which made the maintenance of ethnicity and religion much more challenging and complex. The church, Iakovos wrote, went from being “national” to becoming “above and beyond national, in the nature of our Ecumenical Patriarchate.” The community “was neither wholly Greek nor wholly American but Greek-American, a synthesis strongly bound together.” The community’s values that had to be addressed in light of an uncertain future were “our religion, our Greek education, Greek culture and civilization, our love for our country, our ambition to survive” and the way these could be preserved was for them to “be embodied in our Church and in our traditions, the guardian of which is the very Church.” Iakovos added that Orthodox Greeks had a collective responsibility to not keep that heritage “for ourselves” but instead “to share it with others and multiply it,” a process he regarded as moving from of a state of mere physical to spiritual growth. Thus, Iakovos had acknowledged the significance of the language question but he placed it in a broader context that took into account the American environment, the future of the community, and the need for its spiritual development (Archbishop Iakovos 1972).

By using the fiftieth anniversary to restate his view on the language question, Iakovos had neutralized his critics because it was not an occasion where they would dare criticize him. Plans for the commemoration of the Archdiocese’s fiftieth anniversary began in earnest a year earlier, with the Archbishop exchanging memoranda with his close advisors on the feasibility of a number of celebratory events to be held in 1972. It was yet another indication of the Archbishop’s political and rhetorical acumen and the ways he exploited occasions in a way that bolstered the status of the Archdiocese. The opponents of the policy would have to wait for the Congress that would take place in the summer of 1972. But the Congress itself presented the opponents with difficulties, because it was taking place far away from the ethnic enclaves of the East Coast and in the heartland of America, where most Greek Americans had abandoned the use of Greek. And the atmosphere surrounding the Clergy–Laity Congress in Houston was nothing less than a Texas-sized party. There was a visit to the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center led by the Archbishop, a “Welcome Reception” with “delightful background music provided by a string ensemble comprised of talented young musicians from Houston’s Annunciation Cathedral,” a special youth forum that included guitar and vocal performances, a luncheon address by astronaut James Irwin, an evening “Freedom Ball,” and on the Fourth of July, following a service at the Annunciation Cathedral, a “Texas style barbeque” on the church grounds (Villas 1972, 2–3). The Clergy–Laity Congresses always combined prayer meetings, serious deliberations, or at least discussions, on prepared committee reports, and visits to local sights and evening entertainment, so the one in Houston was no exception. An extra bonus in the 1972 Congress was a brief address by Spiro Agnew, the Greek American who was President Nixon’s vice-president. Agnew’s father was Greek Orthodox but he had become an Episcopalian.

It was in this particularly American atmosphere that Iakovos addressed the serious business of language controversy by responding firmly to the traditionalists. The official agenda of the Congress did not include a specific item on the language question, but Iakovos mentioned it in the preface to his keynote report, saying:

I want to reaffirm for the record, without the slightest reservation whatsoever, that Articles I and II of the Charter of the Archdiocese which provide that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, is part of the Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Throne, and that the liturgical language of the Holy Archdiocese shall be principally Greek, are valid and in full force and effect, and will continue to be so, for as long as I serve as your Archbishop … in connection with this, let me say unequivocally the position of the Archdiocese. With respect to the language issue: the Greek language continues to be the official language of the Divine Liturgy. (Decisions 1972, 82–83)

The Archbishop also reminded his audience of the decision at the 1964 Clergy–Laity Congress at Denver, ratified by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, according to which certain essential parts of the Divine Liturgy, the Sacraments, and other religious services may also be offered in English, “when and where it is deemed appropriate and necessary in the judgment of the Church” (Decisions 1972, 82–83). It was a way of reminding all that English had already been in use before 1970. Iakovos then took on his opponents directly, by linking the Congress’s theme, “Speak the Truth in Love,” to the language question. He declared that what had happened at the 1970 Congress “was that certain persons did violence to truth and love as expressions of Greek Orthodoxy, at the very time when its influence was on the rise” and that “it was not the language of the Greeks that was threatened in that Congress, but the language of God: the language of truth and love in our Church life and our personal lives” (Decisions 1972, 85). And a little further on after he spoke of the need for the church to confront the pressures of assimilation and dangerous social trends including a loosening of morals, Iakovos proclaimed that the church, deeply rooted in the past and the present, whose mission was to bring the message of Christ to the world, and would “utilize the Greek as well as all other languages in fulfilling its mission” (Decisions 1972, 88). Iakovos’s words were met with widespread approval from the floor of the Congress. The Committee on Laity Relations took the unusual step of referencing the language controversy in its recommendation that the Archdiocese establish a Commission for Spiritual Renewal. It expressed its frustration that there existed a language barrier in the church’s spiritual outreach and declared, “let it be made abundantly clear that we love and respect the Greek language, and recognize it as the historic and original vehicle for transmitting the beauty of our worship services” but, it added, it placed its confidence “in the leadership of His Eminence, praying that it will lead us very soon to a proper solution in meeting this crucial need of greater linguistic flexibility” (Decisions 1972, 72–73).

The challenge to the Archbishop and the attempt to portray the Greek language as the cornerstone of Greek American identity died a quiet death at Houston. Aside from the explicit rebuttals of the criticisms over the language of the liturgy, the Archdiocese also announced several measures designed to enhance the instruction of Modern Greek in the schools. The Education Committee Report included several recommendations aimed at strengthening Greek-language instruction, such as the publication of a three-year syllabus for teaching Modern Greek in the high schools the Archdiocese administered, and the preparation of visual aids to support the instruction of Modern Greek. The Archdiocese, in cooperation with the Foreign Language Department at Dartmouth College, planned a three-day workshop for teachers of Modern Greek and the production of audio cassettes to enable the study of Modern Greek at home (Decisions 1972, 44–45). Significantly, these recommendations were made known before the Congress convened, another way in which Iakovos outmaneuvered his critics. The Greek-language press continued to express concerns though less pointedly given the Archdiocese’s responses, and thus the church and by extension the bulk of the Greek American community remained resolutely at Iakovos’s side. Another reason why the opposition to the Archbishop lost its momentum was that his critics had claimed Iakovos was also calling for the church’s autocephaly—in other words, for a significant degree of independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the 1970 Congress. This helped their case gain traction, despite the Archdiocese’s denials, until it became obvious that all he had done was call for the Archdiocese to act autonomously only when determining issues affected by American laws, such as the complicated issue of marital status and whether or not the church could recognize the range of non-Orthodox marriages that were available to Greek Americans in the United States.

The language crisis of 1970 had been a lesson for the Archbishop. He presented a much- better-thought-out case two years later, neutralizing any concerns that could have emanated from either the Patriarchate of Constantinople—where Athenagoras was gravely ill—or from Athens where the colonels had initially appeared to share the concerns about the status of the Greek language before adopting an attitude that indicated they did not wish to choose sides. Significantly, the regime’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Demetrios Tsakonas, was an honored guest at the Clergy–Laity Congress at Houston and he made no mention of the language issue. When Iakovos chose to hold the Congress in Houston, he was fully aware that it was a venue where his East Coast–based critics were likely to have much less of a presence and effectiveness in raising their case if only because they would have been outnumbered by the many delegates from the American Southwest and the West Coast for whom travel to Houston was relatively easier than for those delegates from parishes from the Northeast and Chicago, the region where the Iakovos’s critics were strong. If this story affirms Iakovos’s sharp political instincts and his ability to neutralize his critics, it nonetheless is also a reminder of the significance of the Greek language to notions of Greek identity writ large, and its importance for the Greek-born Greeks in the United States. Their attachment to language and its symbolic place in their understanding of Greek identity was strong enough for them to challenge the all-powerful Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

The story of Greek versus English did not end in the early 1970s. It did not because it was part of a much bigger debate on the future of Greek Orthodoxy in the United States and whether or not it could or should evolve into a form of American Orthodoxy, which, inevitably would be primarily English speaking. Thus, over the next two decades there were ongoing debates within Greek Orthodoxy about the role of the Greek language in shaping Greek American identity, the use of Greek in the liturgy, and the merits of a “Greek Orthodox” versus an “Orthodox” church. And nearly half a century after the 1970 Congress, with English having inevitably made significant inroads in Greek Orthodox life, the debate still continues.


Alexander Kitroeff is Associate Professor of History at Haverford College. He specializes in the history of identity in Greece and its diaspora in a broad range of fields, from politics to sport. He served on the editorial committee of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora from 1980 to 2013, the year the journal ceased publication. He has published four books,The Greeks in Egypt, 1919-1937: Ethnicity & Class; Griegos en América [The Greeks in the Americas]; Wrestling with the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics and Ελλάς, Ευρώπη Παναθηναϊκός! 100 Χρόνια Ελληνική Ιστορία [Greece, Europe Panathinaikos! 100 Years of Greek History]. His new book, The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt: From Muhamad Ali to Nasser, is being published by the American University of Cairo Press and will appear in early 2019. He has also completed a book-length study of the history of the Greek Orthodox Church in America in the twentieth century. He has collaborated as historical consultant with director Maria Iliou in four documentary films, including “The Journey: The Greek Dream in America.” Kitroeff and Iliou are currently working on a new project, a five-part documentary on the history of Modern Athens.


Cover Image credits: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Department of Archives & Resource Center "The Faithful observing the liturgy for the 20th Clergy Laity Congress in Lincoln Center with Iakovos officiating in 1970."



Research for this paper was conducted as part of a larger project on the history of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, generously funded by the Jaharis Family Foundation. My sincere thanks to the Archdiocese’s archivist Ms. Nikie Calles for her help, and to her and the Rev. Robert Stephanopoulos for sharing their experiences and insights on the history of the Archdiocese in the early 1970s. I would also like to thank two anonymous readers and the editors of Ergon for their comments and advice on earlier drafts of this article.

1. As I mentioned earlier, Patrinacos intentionally avoided the descriptor “Greek” when discussing Orthodoxy as a way to universalize Orthodoxy and eliminate the Greek cultural and linguistic baggage associated with it. It is interesting that Vasiliades would retain that descriptor and that Papaioannou, in his book, which was published by the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, would go on to explain that Vasiliades “emphasized... the need for maintaining the cultural heritage” (1970a, 455). It sounds like Iakovos’s advisors were not all entirely on the same page.

2. The Archive of the Archdiocese include files with numerous letters it received as well as extensive clippings from Greek American newspapers which contain protests about the decision to permit English in the liturgy. These are by Greek American organizations, individuals, and a few parishes. Upon inspection, their geographical concentration in the New York and Chicago areas is immediately apparent.

3. There were accommodations made in other parts of the larger parish structure, namely, Sunday School was conducted in English from the early 1950s onward by permission of the then Archbishop Michael. And it was commonly known that in the 1960s English was used widely in Church youth activities such as the choirs, and also in Church social activities.


Works Cited

Archbishop Iakovos. 1970. “Keynote Address to the Delegates of the 20 th Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Archdiocese of North & South America,” June 29. New York: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

Archbishop Iakovos. 1972. “The 50 Years of Life and Development of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas 1922-1972 – An Appraisal.” New York: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

Atlantis. 1972. «Φωνή Βοώντος εν τη Ερήμω» [A Voice in the Wilderness]. June 28.

Carnevale, Nancy C. 2009. A New Language, a New World: Italian Immigrants in the Unites States 1890-1945. New York: Oxford University Press.

Counelis, James S., and Andrew T. Kopan. 1968. “The Orthodox Church and its Language Problem.” Logos 1 (no. 8) (Sept.).

Decisions of the 21st Clergy–Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. 1972. New York: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

Eggebroten, Anne. 1970. “Americanizing Greek Orthodoxy.” Christianity Today, July 31, 998­–99.

Ethnikos Kyrix. 1972. «Το ΚΑ’ Κληρικολαϊκόν Συνέδριον» [The 21st Clergy–Laity Congress] Ethnikos Kyrix Sun. June 25.

Fishman, Joshua A. 1966. “Language Maintenance and Language Shift: the American Immigrant Case with a General Theoretical Perspective.” Sociologus Neue Folge 6 (no.1), 19–39.

Fishman, Joshua A. 1989. Language and Ethnicity in Minority Sociolinguistic Perspective. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Fitzgerald, Thomas E. 1995. The Orthodox Church. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Georgakas, Dan. 1986. “The Greeks of New England.” The GreekAmerican, Nov. 1, 10–11.

Jameson, Harris P. 1972. “A Showdown in Orthodoxy.” Hellenic Chronicle, March 2.

Karpathakis, Anna. 1999. “Home Society Politics and Immigrant Political Incorpration: The Case of Greek Immigrants in New York City.” International Migration Review 33 (no. 1) (Spring), 55­­–78.

Metropolitan Polizoides, Germanos. 1961 What We See and Hear in a Greek Eastern Orthodox Church. New York: Divry Publishers.

Moskos, Charles C. 1989. Greek Americans: Struggle and Success. Second Ed. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

New York Times . 1970a. “100 Demonstrators Protest Greek Orthodox Plans.” July 13.

New York Times . 1970b. “Iakovos, in Greece, Defends Reforms.” July 12.

Papaioannou, George. 1985. The Odyssey of Hellenism in America. Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies.

Patrinacos, Nicon. 1970a The Individual and his Orthodox Church. New York: The Orthodox Observer Press.

Patrinacos, Nicon. 1970b. “Change or Succumb to the Inevitable” Orthodox Observer 35 (no. 603) (June).

Patrinacos, Nicon. 1982. “The Role of the Church in the Evolving Greek American Community.” In The Greek American Community in Transition, edited by Harry J. Psomiades and Alice Scourby, 123–36. The Greek American Community in Transition. New York: Pella Publishing.

Saloutos, Theodore. 1964. The Greeks in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Villas, Ernest A. 1972. “The 21st Biennial Clergy Laity Congress – Report of the Congress Coordinator” Archives, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America File #L23AC0004, 1972 Clergy–Laity Congress, Houston.

Wolfe, Alan. 2005. The Transformation of American Religion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.