The Greek Orthodox Shrine Church of St. Nicholas was founded in 1955 for a small group of Greek Orthodox Christian families in Flushing, New York. St. Nicholas is a thriving parish with four schools, 60 ministries, over 30 organizations, and over 1,800 families, dedicating its ministries to serving the community in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The idea of a Greek Orthodox Community in Flushing was first proposed by Dr. Anthony Vasilas and his father, Peter Vasilas, in early 1955. Committees were formed; meetings were held, demographics were studied and petitions were signed. Within ten weeks more than 450 Greek Orthodox faithful met in the Good Citizenship Hall in Flushing to establish a Church before a group of representatives from the Archdiocese and invited clergy. His Grace Demetrius, Bishop of Olympus, granted approval on that day. Candidates for the position of pastor were interviewed and the committee chose Fr. Constantine Volaitis, a Bridgeport Connecticut native, who was serving a parish in St. Louis Missouri to become the first pastor of the new Church.
On September 18, 1955, the Church officially opened its doors in a building bought for $30,000 on Beech Avenue, becoming the 348th Greek Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere. Over 1500 persons were in attendance on that day. Mr. George Theofanis of Port Washington cut the ribbon to open the church. Volunteers painted the structure and made the necessary alterations, while others began the task of raising the necessary funds.
The naming of the Church took place on Sunday November 13, 1955 at the Flushing Armory. After Archbishop Michael conducted the Hierarchial Divine Liturgy, he offered the first name for the Church: St. John Chrysostom. Each parishioner was able to purchase a vote for his or her choice of name. After two hours of “bidding” the choice narrowed down to St. Nicholas and St. John Chrysostom. After another hour of “bidding” the name “St. Nicholas” was chosen, by a margin of 200 votes.
As time progressed the community grew from 200 families to over 1000 families. Discussions for a new building were held as early as 1960. In May 1964, the parcel of land at 196th Street was purchased. Archbishop Iakovos, successor to Archbishop Michael, broke ground for a new Church on October 11, 1964.
The following year during 1965, the architectural model of the Byzantine style Church was completed and the community launched a fundraising campaign. Four years later in 1969, after the formal signing of the construction contract and an informal commencement ceremony construction began on the new St. Nicholas.
Two years later, in 1971, the St. Nicholas Parish became the first Church in the New York Metropolitan area to sponsor a large-scale “Festival” the first of what was to become an annual event for all Greek Orthodox Churches throughout the Archdiocese.
The newly (partially completed) Church was officially opened by Archbishop Iakovos on March 28, 1971. It seated 500 people and had wooden panels on either side, which slid open at the touch of a button to allow standing room for the overflow of worshippers during holiday seasons.
A significant event in the history of the St. Nicholas Church occurred on December 5, 1972, when Archbishop Iakovos received from the Roman Catholic Church in Bari, Italy the relics of St. Nicholas. The relics were enshrined in the Church at a special Vespers Service attended by clergy of both faiths. At this service the Archbishop conferred upon the Church its new name- “The Greek Orthodox Shrine Church of St. Nicholas.”
St. Nicholas now became, “the big Church on Northern Boulevard,” and in December 1972, the Queens Chamber of Commerce awarded the Church its award for architectural excellence.
The property bought in May 1964 as the future home of St. Nicholas.
The education of its youth has always been important in the life of St. Nicholas. Soon after the Church was established, the Stephen and Areti Cherpelis Greek Afternoon School was established to teach the Greek language and Greek heritage. Today over 300 students attend twice a week to learn the Greek language. Spiritual education began with the birth of the Church with the establishment of its Sunday morning Church Schools where children learned the tenets of their faith. Striving to attain excellence in education, in September 1977, the Church established the William Spyropoulos Greek American Day School as a parochial school for Grades N-8. The school today is one of the largest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese with over 480 students. In March 1997, the Church was able to acquire property adjacent for the eventual building of a new Community Center. The George and Evlavia Doulaveris Nursery School was opened in January 2002. Today there are more than 100 students enrolled in the Nursery School.
In January 1979 Fr.Volaitis left to assume the position of Chancellor of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. His Eminence assigned the Very Rev. Athenagoras Aneste as Pastor. After serving three and one half years he was elevated to the office of Bishop of the church. Rev. Fr. George G. Passias, who served the parish for three and one half years under Fr. Aneste, was chosen to assume the position of Pastor. Fr. George served the parish for eighteen and one half years before being appointed by His Eminence Archbishop Spyridon to be the Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on September 1, 1997. Rev. Fr. Paul C. Palesty was appointed to be the fourth Pastor of St. Nicholas on September 1, 1997 and currently serves along with Assistant Priests, Fr. Aristidis Garinis and Fr. Joakim Valasiadis.
Groundbreaking for the Church October 1964 – Archbishop Iakovos and Fr. Volaitis
In 1980, the parish began its iconography project to complete the interior of the Church. After several years of searching, the committee chose Nicholas Brisnovalis, an iconographer from Greece to perform the task of painting six 30ft. x 12ft. walls of the octagonal Church with scenes from the Old and New Testament. St. Nicholas is one of the few Churches in the United States to have the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation depicted on large panels. The iconography would also include the dome painting of the Pantocrator (Christ the Creator) and the icons of the Iconostasion (icon screen). The large 60ft icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child painted on the wall behind the altar was completed in the 1970’s by the Romanian iconographer Alexander Mazilescu. The arch iconography above the altar area depicting the prophets of the Old Testament and St. Anna and St. Joachim was completed in April 1999 by the Greek iconographer Eleftherios Gourgiannis. During the summer of 2018, Mr. Gougiannis began working on the iconography in the chapel.
By 1985, St. Nicholas began Phase II of the building program to complete the interior of the Church and prepare for its Consecration. A new altar, icon screen, baptistery, new carpeting, choir loft, three new classrooms, a new meeting room and a reliquary for the relics of St. Nicholas were included in the final plans. Italian artisans, under the direction of Salvatore Bruno of Carrara, Italy, were brought to Flushing, to execute the mosaics and the marble work, some of which was imported from the same quarry used by Michelangelo. The Church was consecrated on June 4, 1989.
The Church received international recognition as the Shrine Church of St. Nicholas in the United States when in December 1987; a Dutch film crew preparing a documentary on the life of St.Nicholas taped the Vesper Service at the Church as the final segment of their documentary. In December of 1994 and in December 2003, St. Nicholas was featured in the Biography Series programs produced by the Arts and Entertainment Network’s on Santa Claus.
The reception of the relics of St. Nicholas from the Roman Catholic Church on December 5, 1972.
The Third Phase of our building program began in March 1997 with the acquisition of the property next door to the Church. In 2003, the Church was able to purchase two homes next door to the Church, which along with several previous home purchases has allowed the Church to prepare for the building of a community center alongside the school building. The groundbreaking for the Michelis Hellenic Cultural and Educational Center took place on December 6th, 2004 and formally opened on December 2, 2007. It houses the Petros Sarantokos Hall, the Despina and Michael Yarian Gymnasium, the Venita Lorras Parish and School Library and the Niarchos and Vasilios and Anastasia Kartsonis Classroom Wing.
St. Nicholas was honored on March 17, 2004 when His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited the parish during his time in United States.
From the very beginning organizations grew with the Church to serve the needs of its members: Senior Choir, Church School, Men’s League, the Ladies Philoptochos (Friends of the Poor); Bible Study Groups (in Greek and English), JOY (Junior Orthodox Youth), GOYA (Greek Orthodox Youth of America), Little Angels and PTA’s when the two schools were opened.
The little Church that began on Beech Avenue in 1955 with 200 families has become The Greek Orthodox Shrine Church of St. Nicholas on Northern Blvd. with over 1800 families reaching today beyond Flushing to families in further eastern Queens and Nassau counties and is now one of the largest Greek Orthodox Communities in the United States.