By Mollie Shinholster, John Pawlik, Alex Dunn, Jayla Hall, and Michayla Hebert

Holy Trinity – Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral is the United States’s third oldest Greek Orthodox church. Its protection of the Greek culture in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, has led to continuing growth and flourishing for both the culture and the congregation.

The church was founded after a group of approximately one-hundred Greek citizens of Birmingham, bought a small wooden building on the southeast corner of 19th Street and 3rd Avenue South from First Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1906. This building became the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. During World War I, many of the men in the congregation were sent to fight overseas. When they returned, a newer and larger group of first-generation Americans, the sons and daughters of the first Greek immigrants of the area, realized that they needed a community center that accommodated to the Greek community. This realization led to one being built alongside Holy Trinity (Lafakis). After World War II, from 1948 to 1949, Holy Trinity built the present church designed by Birmingham architect George P. Turner.

Another group of Greek immigrants on the northern side of Birmingham had established an additional Greek Orthodox church named Holy Cross. After WWII, the youth from each church decided they wanted to unite the two churches. This decision led to the consolidation of Holy Trinity and Holy Cross into the Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox church in 1953. In 1972, the church was named a cathedral by Archbishop Iakovos.

The Values of the Church

The Greek Orthodox Church holds has a number of values at its core that the members each hold very close to their hearts. These essentials are summed up into four points as described by Father George Mastrantonis: “1. Principles of belief and faith, 2. The worship of God, in whom lies belief and hope for salvation, 3. The living of life so as to serve one’s neighbor and especially the ‘least of them’ as well as oneself; and 4. The enforcing of a system of order of discipline and administration for the members of the Church” (Mastrantonis 2015).

To make people holy the Orthodox church celebrates the sacraments (mysteria) instituted by Christ or his apostles. All Orthodox Christians receive baptism with chrismation. These occur only once and are not repeated. Throughout their lives, Orthodox Christians confess their sins to a priest and thereby are forgiven of their sins by God. They also receive the body and blood of Christ in the holy eucharist (Mastrantonis 2015). These four mysteria are received by all Orthodox Christians. Some also receive three additional mysteria: ordination, marriage, and unction (Mastrantonis 2015).

The Orthodox Church understands the eucharist as “the seal of proclamation of the communion with God.” They believe God to be the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Prayer to God is a very vital part to living a vibrant life in Christ. Through prayer and worship God gives the grace necessary to live a moral life. The Orthodox Church takes seriously Paul the Apostle’s statement that “faith worketh through love” (Galatians 6:5) (Mastrantonis 2015).

Architecture

There is little decoration on the outside of Holy Trinity Holy Cross. It has a gabled roof similar to many Protestant churches.

Exterior of Holy Trinity Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church. Photo: David R. Bains

Inside, however, it reflects centuries of Orthodox tradition shaped by the sixth-century Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and other Orthodox cathedrals. Like them, it is divided into three parts: narthex, nave, and sanctuary. Also like them, it is shaped like a cross. Holy Trinity – Holy Cross, however, does not have a central dome. The roof of the nave extends through the crossing following the style of early Christian basilicas.

When they enter the narthex, congregants prepare for worship. It is filled with icons and candle holders. Connected to this is the nave, which is the larger middle section of the church where congregants gather for worship. It has aisles along each side, which are lined with stained glass windows depicting saints or symbols of the faith. The high domed ceiling and fresco painted there draw the viewers eyes up to heaven.

Scenes from the life of Christ are featured in the clerestory windows. Photo: David R. Bains
On the ceiling of the east end of the nave, the icon Christ Pantokrator (“Almighty” or “Ruler of All” ) draws visitors eyes upward during the Greek Festival. Photo: David R. Bains, 2016.

In the sanctuary there are paintings of saints on the curved wall of the apse. This evokes the seating that would have been there traditionally for the bishop and other clergy (called the synthronon).

Saints in the sanctuary behind the royal gates. Photo: David R. Bains

The old pulpit was replaced by a more contemporary pulpit for the speaker to speak from, but it functions in much the same way as it would have in the early days of the tradition.

The Community

In connection to worship-related activities, music is a prominent practice in Eastern Orthodoxy. Frederica Matthews-Green, author of a book concerning ancient Christian Orthodoxy, stated, “About 75 percent of the service is congregational singing” (1999). Also, with respect to Orthodox music, its form does not include instruments–with the exception of an organ in some churches. However, Holy Trinity Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral does not have an organ itself. Congregational singing is, according to Matthews-Green, a “constant” and “overwhelming” form of worship, similar to a minimal level of religious, unanimous ecstasy. Though there are varying styles of music in worship (“from very Oriental-sounding solo chant in an Arabic church to more western-sounding four-part harmony in a Russian church” (1999)), the liturgy can be viewed as one continuous song invoking variation and diversity in one unified, harmonious melody. Holy Trinity -Holy Cross itself uses mostly solo chants from either the priest or someone reading during the service.

Holy Communion holds a special place in the liturgy of Greek Orthodox tradition. Like other denominational practices, the symbolism held within the variations of bread and wine continue to be the body of Christ and His blood, respectively. However, there are apparent distinctions in the process of Holy Communion for a non-orthodox visitor compared to true orthodox members. For instance, non-orthodox visitors can partake in eating bread offered in Orthodox service. Yet Orthodox members are those who obtain the blessed bread that is soaked in wine from a chalice provided by the priest. Members are those who actively partake in this holy process, and non-Orthodox visitors are those given other blessed bread by members as a gesture of fellowship (Matthews-Green 1999). In order to receive the communion itself,one must “believe Orthodox doctrine, be under the authority of an Orthodox bishop, be making regular confession to an Orthodox priest, and be at peace with fellow worshippers” (Matthew-Green 1999).

The Greek Festival

The cathedral posts signs and buys ads to spread the word about the festival. Image: Bham Now.

One of the core Orthodox values is to live a life to serve neighbors and be a steward of God’s love (Mastrantonis 2015). The Birmingham Greek Orthodox community expresses this value in a very tangible way in the annual Greek festival held at the cathedral. The three-day festival has been held every year since 1972. Through the visitors’ purchase of food and beverages and other goods from vendors, the church gathers up the profits and donates a portion to certain community and national charities each year. Other profits support the work of the cathedral. Over the years, the festival has brought in over three million dollars for various charities (“Home – Greek Festival” 2019). Some of these charities include: Magic Moments, The Bell Center, The Exceptional Foundation, The Ronald McDonald House, The Fire House Shelter, and Alzheimer’s of Central Alabama (“Home – Greek Festival” 2019).

Every year some members bring items such as food, clothes, and other goods to sell to visitors of the festival. Photos: authors.

The festival is not only a very large cultural event, but it is also a way to bring in the community surrounding the church. The festival has been seen as an act of love to the Birmingham community (“Home – Greek Festival” 2019). By hosting this festival, cathedral members are able to serve the community around them and show them the love of God. By sharing their culture, they are bringing the community as a family and showing everyone the family that is established through the Church of Jesus Christ. As stated earlier, the Orthodox emphasizes the conjoining of faith and works. This festival is an excellent way of doing this because it is a great way to portray the care and stewardship of serving their neighbors, which serves to demonstrate the love that flows forth from genuine faith.

We had an incredible privilege studying a faith community that holds an event as spectacular as the Holy Trinity Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral has. Few other opportunities would be able to provide us with as many insights as the Greek Festival has. Especially to thank is Fr. Gregory Edwards, who agreed to take time away from the hectic schedule of the festival and give us fifteen minutes to ask questions and learn about what makes the Greek Orthodox tradition unique from other sects of Christianity. This community is a beautiful example of what the traditions and convictions of early Christianity look like expressed in modernity by a church that seeks to educate and serve the world around it.

Holy Trinity – Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Address: 
307 19th St S, Birmingham, AL 35233
Web:  http://www.holytrinity-holycross.com/
Congregation Organized: 1907
Current Church Building Opened: 1948
Affiliation: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Sources for Further Information

Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral (Birmingham, Ala.). 1981. A Journey of Faith: Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Birmingham, Alabama, 1906-1981. Birmingham, AL: [the church].

Lafakis, Irene. “Our History in Birmingham: Holy Trinity Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral.” Holy Trinity Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.holytrinity-holycross.com/ourStory.php.

Mastrantonis, George. 2015. “The Fundamental Teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church – Introduction to Orthodoxy Articles – Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. August 12, 2015. https://www.goarch.org/-/the-fundamental-teachings-of-the-eastern-orthodox-church.

Mathewes-Green, Frederica. 1999. At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

McGuckin, John Anthony. 2011. The Orthodox Church. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ray, Walter D. 2012. Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Schnorrenberg, John M. 2000. Aspiration: Birmingham’s Historic Houses of Worship. Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Historical Society.

Timiadis, Emilianos. 1994. The Relevance of the Church Fathers for Today an Eastern Orthodox Perspective. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

Alex Dunn ‘20, Michayla Hebert ‘22, Jayla Hall ‘23, John Pawlick ‘22, and Mollie Shinholster ‘19 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical & Religious Studies in fall 2019.

Published December 17, 2019.