More Than Seventy Years of Christian Philanthropy
A History of Philoptochos
Archbishop Athenagoras addressed many communications to the women, over the years, offering suggestions, counseling their efforts, praising their accomplishments, as he did on June 17, 1936, stating in an encyclical to the Priests, Board of Trustees and all Greek Orthodox Christians in the Archdiocese: "the mission promoted by the Philoptochos in many parishes has accomplished miracles". On another occasion the Archbishop offered many suggestions to increase the membership of the Philoptochos in order to aid the poor. He asked that the ladies be concerned for the school and the students who are poor; he asked that the Feast day of Saints Cosmas and Damianos, which is observed on November 1st, be designated as the Patron Saint of the Philoptochos (unless the local chapter has another patron Saint already designated); and he asked that the organization observe "Brotherhood Day, Thanksgiving Day, Halloween, the Christmas Tree, and the St. Basil's Pita".
On July 17, 1936, Archbishop Athenagoras, in an encyclical to the Greek Orthodox community, expressed concern for the education of the youth. He asked that a survey be undertaken to learn how many Greeks were members of the parish and how many were not; how many Afternoon Schools and Sunday Schools were functioning and how many parishes had Philoptochos Chapters. He urged the establishment of Afternoon Schools and Sunday Schools where they did not exist and organize Philoptochos Societies in their respective communities. He further asked the Philoptochos, if at all possible, to take responsibility for both of these schools.
The Holy Cross Theological School was founded in June, 1937, in Pomfret, Connecticut, by Archbishop Athenagoras who announced to the Philoptochos Society that it would begin functioning the following September. The Archbishop directed a special appeal to the Philoptochos to "devote" themselves to the Theological School, "where your children will be educated as teachers and priests". He exhorted the Greek women to prove once again "your strong faith and you will triumph" by undertaking this worthy project.
The Ladies Philoptochos Societies accepted the challenge. Throughout the Theological School's history, the Philoptochos has contributed generously in numerous ways. One famous event was the "fasoulatha" dinners held in the Church halls with proceeds sent to the School. In his encyclical, Archbishop Athenagoras stated, "with the establishment of the Holy Cross Theological School, a new page has been turned in the history of the Greeks in America and the great role of the women will be recorded". In the ensuing years the Philoptochos was - and still is sixty-six years later - in the forefront of activity to aid the School and its vitally important programs.
In a relatively short period following its establishment, the Philoptochos was engaged in a broad program of philanthropy, educational projects, emergency relief in the United States and Greece on a local and national level.
Another glorious chapter in the history of the Philoptochos Society was the mobilization of its members to lend assistance to Greece following the invasion of Mussolini's armies in October, 1940. Prime Minister John Metaxas' dramatic "OHI" to Italy's request to surrender, resounded around the world. The Greeks in America felt great pride and love for their Motherland and rushed to help. The Greek War Relief Association, Inc., was launched by Harold Vanderbilt and Spyros Skouras with the blessings and cooperation of Archbishop Ahtenagoras. The Philoptochos undertook the enormous task to aid the courageous Greek people who were starving and suffering untold hardships. Hundreds of thousands of packages were shipped to the people of Greece, including food, clothing, medicine, blankets, hospital equipment and an ambulance bearing the name of the Philoptochos.
Spyros Skouras of Twentieth Century Fox spearheaded the activity of the Greek War Relief. He arranged for a premiere benefit of the famous film, "Gone With the Wind" with the ladies engaged in the myriad of details for this event; a special "Tag Day" was initiated by the Philoptochos throughout the U.S. with the ladies soliciting contributions on street corners, restaurants, super markets and other business establishments, including the neighborhood theatres; many events and programs were organized with proceeds sent to the Greek War Relief; and "knit a sweater for a soldier" was a popular project. Sewing Centers were set up with the valuable assistance of the Council of Hellenic-Jewish Clothing Manufacturers which was headed by Joseph Josephs, providing hundreds of articles of clothing for children and adults in Greece. Heading this project was Mrs. Agatha Vernicos of London, as chairman, Mrs. Sophie Hadjiyanis and Mrs. Katy Vlavianos were co-chairmen, and the secretary was Mrs. Despina Vrachopoulos.
The activity of the Greek War Relief continued for several years. With the entry of the U.S. in the war following Pearl Harbor, the Ladies Philoptochos devoted long hours to selling War Bonds, to the American Red Cross under the leadership of Dr. George Papanickolaou, who later developed the famous "Pap" test to detect Cancer of the uterus in women, and offering hospitality to soldiers on leave prompting the American Government to praise the efforts of the Philoptochos.
On March 3, 1944, Archbishop Athenagoras announced that the Philoptochos Society had purchased the magnificent 250-acre Jacob Ruppert estate in Garrison, New York, at a cost of $55,000. It was choice property beautifully landscaped and situated on the shores of the Hudson River, opposite the West Point Military Academy. The Archbishop's dream had become a reality! He had attempted since 1932 to establish a Children's Home and Orphanage. Now, with the valuable assistance from the Philoptochos and the proceeds of the Vasilopita from the two previous years, the Ruppert Estate would become a haven for Greek Orthodox children.
On March 15, 1944, the legal papers were signed and the Philoptochos took possession of the estate, which included several buildings. The Children's Home and School was placed under the direct supervision of the central Council of the Philoptochos.
Still ahead to be accomplished were two huge tasks: the complete renovation of the buildings; and the legal status of the organization. The Philoptochos applied for and received a Certificate of Incorporation from the State of New York dated July 12th, 1944.
With the approval of the Certificate of Incorporation by the State of New York, the Philoptochos Greek Ladies Societies, Inc. was recognized as a duly accredited national philanthropic tax exempt organization of the Greek Orthodox Church of North and South America, engaged in extending benevolence to the Greek-American community.
In August of 1944, a special General Assembly of the Philoptochos Society was convened at St. Basil Academy and a new Constitution was adopted and new By-laws enacted.
The next major task was the renovation and furnishings of the Academy's buildings: the main administration building, the Dean's residence, the classrooms and dormitories, the reception hall, and setting up a Chapel and recreation room. Modern equipment was purchased for the kitchen and laundry.
In November, 1948, Archbishop Athenagoras was elected to the highest ecclesiastical office of the Orthodox Church: Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. He departed for his historic See in January, 1949. During the years that followed Patriarch Athenagoras I bestowed the highest honors of his Ecumenical Throne on several dedicated Philoptochos Ladies by granting them the title of "Archontissa".
During the first twenty years of its existence the Philoptochos Society's major accomplishments were recorded, among which were the Church's most important institutions: the Holy Cross Theological School (which moved to Brookline, Mass.), and St. Basil Academy.
Archbishop Michael was elected Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas in 1949. Under his spiritual guidance, the Philoptochos continued its mission of humanitarian services. They assisted the Archbishop in establishing the Greek Orthodox Youth of America, and participated in an arduous campaign, launched by the Archbishop, to have the U.S. Government place the initials, G.O. on dog tags to accurately identify Greek Orthodox members of the Armed Forces. This was a remarkable accomplishment by the Greek Orthodox community.
Archbishop Michael, in 1951, placed the administration, budget and supervision of St. Basil Academy under the Archdiocese. Since its establishment, the Philoptochos had been totally responsible for its operation. The Society continues to this day its dedicated support of the institution.
A devastating earthquake shook the Ionian Islands in 1953 and once again the Philoptochos chapters rallies its forces to offer considerable assistance, sending food, clothing, medicine and financial support to the beleaguered people of the Ionian Islands.
A new plateau was reached in 1956, when the Philoptochos National Conference, for the first time, was convened simultaneously with the Archdiocesan Clergy-Laity Congress in Washington, D.C. At this Conference the Philoptochos was urged to participate in local chapters of the United Council of Church Women.
At the initiative and leadership of Archbishop Michael, an Old Age Home was founded in Yonkers, N.Y. in 1958. Among its founders were prominent Ladies of the Philoptochos, including Sophie Hadjiyanis and Katherine Zoullas. The Society organized many special fund-raising events donating the proceeds to furnish the rooms of the Home. Substantial support from the Ladies Philoptochos Society has continued to the present.
During the Clergy-Laity Congress and Philoptochos Conference in Salt Lake City, Archbishop Michael became ill and returned to New York. He died shortly thereafter. Several months later the Old Age Home was named, "St. Michael's Home for the Aged" dedicated to the memory of its founder, the beloved Archbishop Michael.