Last spring, Father Constantine Lazarakis retold the Parable of the Rich Fool to parishioners of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons. In the story, Luke 12:13-21, a farmer with bountiful land stockpiled grain for years in massive silos, before God came to him and told him he couldn’t take it with him to the afterlife.
After the service was complete, one of his flock came to Father Lazarakis with a confession: He had been collecting antique furniture for years, stockpiling it all in storage lockers. So moved by the message of the parable, the man chose to donate most of his collection to the church—and it now furnishes areas of the new sanctuary, which opened August 15 to much fanfare.
Archbishop Demetrios of America, who is the highest-ranking bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, presided over the ceremonies on Thursday, August 15, which included a morning prayer service, called an orthros or a matins, in the church’s cultural center; a door-opening ceremony called “The King of Glory,” where the Archbishop blessed the church and its parishioners with holy water before playing the role of Jesus entering his kingdom; and then the first Divine Liturgy.
The new sanctuary, which took more than 12 years to plan and build and had a budget of more than $12 million, will house 47 different cultural groups, all practicing under one brand-new roof.
“We have a very diverse population here at our church. Some of our most devoted members are not of Greek heritage,” explained Father Lazarakis during a walk-through a week before the opening. “We are Greek Orthodox, but we are not a church of Greeks.”
To add to the church’s diversity, people of all different faiths have stopped by to see the new building, according to Father Alex Karloutsos, the church’s Protopresbyter, or head priest, and he said the outsiders have all commented on what a great monument to the East End it will be.
“Only in America would you have all different faiths coming together to celebrate a church as a monument to a greater community,” said Father Karloutsos, who spearheaded the project over more than a decade. “Throughout the ceremony, I was thinking how a church is a haven, a holy space for those who create it. But in reality, we may design churches, but God and the communities he helps create build the churches.”
Much like the donated furniture, every shadow of the new building hides a story, and every design holds a deeper meaning.
The front courtyard of the church is lined by four benches, each inscribed with two lines of the Beatitudes, Christian ideals said to be handed down by Jesus and relayed in the Book of Matthew.
Past the benches, an octagon pattern is molded into the ground. “An octagon has eight sides. Eight is representative of the Resurrection, because the Resurrection introduces the eighth day, the day of eternal life,” said Father Lazarakis.
“The cross on the [60-foot-tall] dome and the doors and the chandeliers, really all over the sanctuary, is the Justinian Cross, the same cross you’d find on the Hagia Sophia,” a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica and current museum in Istanbul, Turkey, according to Father Lazarakis. The same cross can be found on the capitals and bases of the massive Greek marble columns.
“We really tried to have all of the finishes on the exterior of the church be natural finishes. The doors are wood, the columns are Greek marble, the veneer is granite from China and limestone from Bulgaria, and the dome is copper. We wanted it all natural primarily because we wanted the church to be taken from God’s earth,” he said. “The bottom veneer of the granite is rusticated, it is rough. Then as you move upward and get to where the limestone is, it is more refined, smoother. Finally, you have the copper dome on top. So the materials become more refined as you move heavenward, which is really a symbol for the journey of the soul as we move toward heaven—we become more refined as we move closer to God.”
The church is in the mold of a sixth-century Byzantine design but includes many modern amenities.
“We took a lot of inspiration from the Hagia Sophia. We’ve tried to have great fidelity in keeping with the height of the Byzantine-Christian architectural tradition, with, of course, contemporary means, methods and materials,” Father Lazarakis explained.
Modern amenities include heated floors, high-definition cameras within the sanctuary in order to broadcast services live on the internet, a quiet room, a library and a bridal suite. In addition, the church is going to be a green church, heated and powered by radiant power from Dow Chemical solar shingles.
Another uniquely perfected aspect of the sanctuary are the acoustics. If a speaker, or celebrant as the Greek tradition calls them, is in the very back of the sanctuary, facing the wall behind the altar, a parishioner standing by the doors can hear every word clearly without the use of a microphone, a feat Father Lazarakis demonstrated successfully.
When the plans for a new church were finalized, one concern was preserving the memory of the previous worship site. In the preservation attempt, many original features are prominently displayed or in use, such as the stained glass windows lining the hallway to the clergy offices, the icons on display which used to be on the ceiling of the old church, and the two middle rows of pews, which were refinished.
To match the preserved ornaments were preserved memories in the crowd last Thursday, such as those held onto by Presvytera Despina Kehgias, who founded the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons in 1977 with her husband, Father Nektarios Keghias.
“He wanted a church built for the glory of God,” recalled Ms. Keghias. “Everybody said, ‘You’re crazy—there are no Greeks out here.’ Here we are 30 years later, though,” she said, smiling.
Despite the grandeur of the opening ceremony, the church is not yet complete. For example, a giant mosaic, currently being constructed in Pisa, Italy, to fill the entire front facade of the sanctuary’s overhang, will be installed in October.
Also, the inside of the dome is still missing a giant icon of Christ overseeing his people.
“As you come down from the Christ icon, there will be prophets from the Old Testament. Underneath them will be Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the four evangelists.” Father Lazarakis explained. “It is a demonstration of how God’s grace comes down from heaven, through Jesus, through the prophets, through the evangelists, to the people in the pews. It is a pictorial description of God’s grace.”