The Founding and Organization of the Greek Orthodox Churches of Reading, PA (1890-1914)
The present edifice of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church at 1001 East Wyomissing Boulevard represents the end of a long and interesting story that began more than 100 years ago by a handful of Greek immigrants who had settled in the Reading area. As news of their successes and accomplishments were received by friends, relatives, and fellow villagers in Greece, many others decided to join this group as they pursued the American dream in seeking a better life.
The first family that settled in Reading from Greece was the Hollis Family-William, Milton, Themis, and Despina. They arrived here from Mytilene, located on the island of Lesbos, circa 1890. Although the Hollis Family began their new life with a small candy making business that they operated from their home, they soon flourished into the largest manufacturer of confectionery in eastern Pennsylvania by 1910. This achievement brought many other young men from the same area as well as from close-by villages in Asia Minor, Aivali and Smyrna. Due to this influx of people in the early 1900's, their descendants are still the largest group of Greek-Americans in this area.
Around the turn-of-the-century, George Thomas arrived in Reading from a mountain area in Greece called Mani. These fiercely independent people are well-known for their continuous stand against the Turks during the entire 400 years of the Turkish occupation. George returned to Mani in 1903 to marry a girl from his village. He brought his new wife and his 13 year-old nephew back to Reading. It was his grocery store that soon became the unofficial Post Office for the Greek immigrants. He also provided these newly-arrived people with food and other products that they were familiar with from their homeland. Again, as news of George's success became known in Mani, many others followed him to Reading. These descendants number in the hundreds today.
Near Mani there is a village called Vlahokerasia, from where a young man came to make his way in America. His name was Constantine Mantis, later known as "Papa Mantis". He, along with some other young men, opened the famous Crystal Restaurant which became a landmark in Reading for over 50 years. Today, there are several families in Reading whose ancestors also came from Viahokerasia.
The fourth area of Greece represented in Reading today came here as a group from the Island of Kos and the area of Aretsou near Constantinople, Turkey. Although some of these young men found work In New York, most were still searching for jobs. It was one of them, a graduate of the Baxter School in Smyrna who saw an advertisement that a company in Lititz, Pennsylvania was looking for workers for its Animal Trap Company. Almost the entire group left New York and went to Lititz where they all found work in the factory. Now that these men finally found some job security, they began to see a need to fulfill themselves spiritually. They agreed to form an organization called Konstantinos Paleologos, named after the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Their principle aim was to locate a priest who would be able to occasionally minister to them. Since George Thomas still had the only place for these immigrants to get word from Greece or to purchase familiar products, these men would routinely travel to Reading. In 1909, when this group had the misfortune of being laid off from the factory in Lititz, they happened to notice a sign in front of the Berkshire Knitting Mills stating. "Boys and Girls Wanted". Most of this original group moved to Reading where work was now available. (Some chose to relocate in Lancaster.) The Reading contingency brought with them their newly-formed organization and the treasury. Their descendants are the second largest group of Greek-Americans in Reading today.
It was George Thomas who brought a priest here from Philadelphia to baptize his daughter on May 20, 1908. This priest was convinced to remain here to celebrate the first Divine Liturgy in Reading, on May 28, 1908 in the home of Costas Lambros at 28 Lemon Street. Although now hopeful of starting a church here in Reading, their meager finances prohibited them from pursuing the idea.
The above information is a result of a data search conducted by Sprios S. Lecatsas over the past 6 years & we are now in the process of transmitting all the research to our Heritage Room at Sts. Constantine & Helen Church.