By Catherine Webster
Greek immigrants had a tremendous impact on the history of Lowell and the region.
A century ago, Lowell was home to the largest Greek immigrant community outside of New York and Chicago. It was the first stop in the United States for many people emigrating from Greece and became the home of many of the first Greek-American institutions.
The country’s first Greek Orthodox church, Holy Trinity Hellenic Orthodox Church, was built in the area once known as “Greek Acre” and is now a National Historic Landmark. Lowell also hosted the first Greek consulate and the first Greek Orthodox school.
So even as the descendants of these early immigrants dispersed to other parts of the city, the suburbs and beyond, hundreds of them returned to Lowell to celebrate the opening of the “Acropolis of America”, an exhibition on the history of Greek immigration created by History Teacher. Robert Forrantseveral history students and Art and design graduate Kelly Freitas ’16.
“I think this is very commendable work and something that you should all be proud of,” Greek Consul General in Boston Stratos Efthymiou told a standing-room-only crowd in Moloney Hall. “The Greeks realized the American dream in Lowell, a special place in the American mosaic. »
Efthymiou spoke about notable Greek Americans from Lowell, including former Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, whose father emigrated to Lowell; the late U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas and his widow, former U.S. Representative Niki Tsongas; Lowell Mayor William Samaras; and the late George Tsapatsaris ’77, longtime superintendent of Lowell schools.
Efthymiou also praised the ongoing relationship between Greece and Greek-Americans in Lowell, noting that retired pharmaceutical executive and philanthropist George Behrakis, a Lowell native, was honored on a Greek stamp this year for his contributions to the campaign anti-smoking program in the country.
“It’s up to us to continue telling stories, because when we remember history, we restore it,” he said.
“Acropolis of America: Lowell’s Greek Community 1874-2020” was created in collaboration with Lowell’s Hellenic Culture and Heritage Society and with support from the Hellenic Studies Program at University.
The traveling exhibit consists of nine banners, each focusing on a period or aspect of Greek-American history in Lowell, illustrated with immigration documents and letters, stories and photos that depict the journey from the coasts of Greece, across Ellis Island, and up to the tenements of Lowell.
“The Acropolis of America,” on display on the second floor of University Crossing, is dedicated to the deceased Psychology Professor Charles Nikitopoulos, who emigrated from Greece as a child after World War II, graduated from Lowell High School and later co-founded the university’s community social psychology master’s program.
Nikitopoulos and local historian Nicholas Karas provided numerous photos and documents for the exhibit and for a more in-depth history of Greek immigration that Forrant is compiling with the help of honors major in history Sophie Combs ’21. Combs also collected oral histories from the town’s older residents.
Forrant and Combs took turns speaking at the opening, showing slides of historic photos, documents and paintings and describing what they had discovered, including the fact that almost all of the early Greek immigrants to Lowell were men looking for work.
“A boy asked his father, “Why did you come to America?” “, Combs said. “He said, ‘I was always hungry.'”
They also learned that there were once 70 coffee shops in Lowell, 28 of which were Greek. Coffeehouses were men-only clubs, while women were active in churches — at the community’s peak there were four Greek Orthodox parishes — and in other societies, Combs said.
Everyone went on Sunday to have a picnic dressed in their best clothes, or to go on outings to the beach or to Boston sponsored by businessmen including the Demoulas brothers, founders of what is today the chain of Market Basket supermarkets.
Men and women worked in the mills and lived in buildings without heat or electricity. They raised their children to value family, hard work, the Greek language, education and “sitting down and looking people in the eye,” Combs said.
“Community was the strength of Lowell Greeks, then as now,” she said.
After the official program, as people came out to view the exhibit and share Greek food, including sumptuous Greek pastries prepared by members of the Hellenic Culture and Heritage Society, Combs said Forrant told him given a lot of freedom – and responsibility – to decide what to do. would go into the exhibition.
“It was the first time I was responsible for what happens on the panels, from the punctuation to the story,” she said.
Andreas George, a junior from Lexington double majoring in education And languages and cultures of the world (Spanish and Italian), was enthusiastic about the exhibition and the presentation. He grew up speaking Greek because his parents and grandparents are Greek.
“I came because this is the first Greek event or experience I’ve heard about since I was a student here,” he said. “I knew Lowell had a strong Greek presence, but I didn’t know the first Greek consulate was in Lowell. It was cool!”