By David Bjorkgren, Special to the Hellenic News of America
The dream was to build a church like those their families had grown up with in Greece.
Years in the planning, overcoming financial and structural obstacles, they never gave up on that dream. Finally, in April 2012, the 220-family community at St. Sophia/SS. Faith, Hope & Agape Greek Orthodox Parish of Valley Forge opened their new $4.3 million church for services. The church is considered one of the most authentic Byzantine churches in the area.
“We had a lot of help in building that building, getting it built, getting it decorated. A lot of people, including Paul Kotrotsios of the Hellenic News of America, helped in getting it started,” said Rev. Peter Thornberg, pastor of the St. Sophia parish community.
They wanted to build something that reflected a thousand-plus years of tradition, something that was a more accurate link to their Greek Orthodox roots. But to say something is Byzantine is covering a lot of ground. In the end, they borrowed from different styles along the Byzantine time line.
“There is no one style that is truly Byzantine. It’s a continuum,” said Parish Council President Alex Nikas. “We picked elements that we liked.”
That means a 6th Century basilica octagonal base with a cross and a square.
“If you look at it from a bird’s eye view, it looks like a cross,” Rev. Thornberg said, though the Nave is longer to give more space inside.
There is a 32-foot copper-colored dome, but it’s more like something seen in the 11th Century, Nikas said.
There’s a Narthex, a Nave and a Sanctuary, all decorated with iconography in the Byzantine style from the 10th or 11th Century. There are new furnishings; the icon screen, the holy altar, the bishop’s throne, the canter stand, the pulpit, the Narthex furniture. There is white Oak woodwork that was carved on the island of Crete. The temple area of the church is 7,380 square feet and there is seating for 448.
The hardest part of the project was picking out the exterior stonework.
“We were going for an authentic look so obviously red Georgian style brick is not going to work,” said Rev. Thornberg. Doing the whole building in stone was too expensive.
They compromised with stonework for the front of the church and the perimeter. “That was challenging, finding the right color that everyone would like,” Rev. Thornberg said. “Sometimes when you put things to committee, you know.”
A recent donation will bring pews into the church, hopefully by Sept. 1. Right now, parishioners are sitting on chairs.
Dean Laskaris, chairman of the building committee and a member of parish council, hopes everything will be finished by year’s end, with projects completed as funding becomes available. Permanent seating, a bell tower and the rest of the iconography for the sanctuary are on the list. There are plans to renovate the community center to offer catering services and install a connecting wing from the church to the center.
At the spiritual heart of the new church is its Byzantine-style iconography, depicting saints, prophets, the Christ figure, Mary and Biblical scenes.
Using egg tempera paint, the art work is painted directly on to the dry wall of the church.
“They literally went to the Walmart down the street and bought 5,000 eggs and mixed the egg yolk with white wine and some additives and pigments to create the colors that you see,” Laskaris said.
For most churches, it takes decades to complete the iconography. St. Sophia was able to complete most of its art work in six weeks.
They hired Dr. George Kordis, assistant professor of iconography at the University of Athens in Athens, Greece. His style reflects more of the iconography that took place in the monasteries; elongated faces and more of an austere look. “You don’t see many plump faces,” Rev. Thornberg said.
Dr. Kordis, who has since retired as a professor but continues his work as an iconographer, has created iconography all over the world. One of his biggest projects is in Beirut, Lebanon. He has worked on projects in Russia, the Middle East, Greece and the United States. His first church project in America was Holy Trinity Church in Columbia, South Carolina. His second church was St. Sophia’s.
“It just so happened he had his iconography team and six weeks of available time,” Laskaris said.
He and his team worked on the art work from end of January 2012 to the beginning of March 2012. “We were able to coordinate them coming in right after they had completed most of the interior finish to do all that iconography live in the space over a six week time period,” Laskaris said.
That saved the church about $50,000 to $60,000 because it kept the scaffolding in place instead of tearing it down and putting it back up as time became available.
Laskaris said egg tempera colors will not fade over time. “It’s kind of like on Halloween when someone throws an egg at your car and you can never get it off,” he said. One incident demonstrated the durability of the paint. Two weeks before the church was to open, a sprinkler test opened up leaks in the dome, sending water down the dry wall.
“I was at home getting ready to go to work, seven in the morning, shaving. The phone rings. What I’ve learned out of life is that the early morning calls and the late night calls are never good,” he said.
There was a puddle on the floor. Water was running out of the center of the Christ icon at the Crucifixion scene.
“In a way, you hope there is divine intervention,” he said. “Do you blame people? No. You work together as a team to solve the problem.”
They found two places where the water was coming in and were able to stop the leaks.
“What was interesting was water came out of the Christ icon. It sort of bubbled a little bit on the dry wall seam. But after we turned off the water and it dried out and flattened out, to the naked eye you cannot see any damage,” he said. Despite the emergency they were able to open the church on time.
“We had Holy Week in the new church, with the new iconography and everything was fantastic. I shed a couple of tears,” Laskaris said. “My mother at the time was almost 90 years old and she was worried she wouldn’t live to see the church. She attended church four or five times before she passed away that August.”
Dr. Kordis will be returning to St. Sophia’s Sept. 20 to complete the iconography, which will include a Biblical scene of the wedding at Cana.
Laskaris, a CPA, owner of the CPA firm Laskaris & Laskaris in Wayne, was pivotal in getting the church project on its feet. He served as president of the parish council in 2013/2014, vice president before that, and became chairman of the building committee in 2010.
Rev. Thornberg said church officers had been meeting continually to talk about the new church but they couldn’t get it off the ground. They were proposing a project costing $7 million to $12 million. When the economy took a downturn in 2008, they had to address the financial burdens a new church would incur. “And we had to come to the realization that we had to scale down,” he said.
“The project was overly ambitious and people were taking a political approach,” Laskaris said. “When I took over as chairman, the first thing I did was establish a goal.”
He believed they could complete the project in two years, from conception to completion, so he set a goal of opening the church by Easter 2012.
They developed a site plan, worked on fundraising, got cost estimates, created project schematics and sought township approvals. They found general contractors and hired CJK Design Group out of San Francisco, which specializes in church design, utilizing architect Christ J. Kamages, AIA.
“One of the things we did, it was sort of a novel approach…we hired one of the general contractors to work with the architect directly to get the best possible construction cost estimate and value engineer the project,” he said. This way, there would be no unexpected cost overruns.
They also looked for ways to save money.
The original plan had an all-steel structure but that would have created a $200,000 cost overrun. Steel was limited instead to the weight bearing parts of the church, like the dome. Laminated wood was used elsewhere. The wood can never rot and it’s as strong as steel but the cost is much less, Laskaris said.
Help came from inside and outside the parish community to make the new church a reality. They had successfully paid off the debt for their former worship space, the current cultural center. The parish had already been hosting annual Greek festivals for 20 years, banking that revenue and other fundraising campaigns in order to save up.
“They just put it away, so when it actually came time to build the church, we had about a million and a half dollars in the bank so that got us maybe halfway through the project,” Rev. Thornberg said.
Getting the rest of the money was trickier.
St. Sophia was applying for a $1.8 million construction credit line.
“No bank would loan us money,” Rev. Thornberg said. A victim of bad timing, the construction project was happening during the middle of the recession so banks were leery of loaning money to a church. Greece was also in the middle of its debt crisis so banks weren’t thrilled about loaning money to a bunch of Greeks, Nikas said.
The church solicited six banks, including many of the major banks in the area. They all turned the church down.
Finally, they were referred to Quakertown National Bank.
“I never heard of them and they came through, a little local community bank,” Laskaris said. “They took a chance. They thought we were sincere and they really took a chance.
“We had them over for lunch a couple of days ago. That’s our annual thing. They get all their pastries,” Laskaris jokes. “If it wasn’t’ for them, it would have been very difficult to do this project. All the big banks turned us down and the little bank came through.”
In the end, it was everyone pulling together that made the new church possible. Pierce Electric gave them a deal on electrical work. Colonial Marble and Tile donated the marble flooring.
“Hellenic News of America was a big part of our success because we had articles in every month, from the very beginning to the completion. We got a significant percentage of donations from non-worshippers, maybe 30 percent. A lot of it had to do with the publicity,” Laskaris said.
At one point, when the fundraising came up a little short, an anonymous donor came forward with an extra $50,000, offering a two-for-one match on contributions.
“That ended up raising an additional $133,000, plus the $50,000, that’s $183,000. That put us over the line of what we needed to get the bank loan,” Laskaris said.
Nikas said contributions also went up after the ground breaking and after the iconography was added. “When people see that you’re actually doing it, they start giving,” Nikas said.
Laskaris said the church, despite its smaller number of parishioners, manages to meet its financial obligations as it continues its fundraising efforts.
“We’ve never had any trouble paying the mortgage,” he said. “The difference between our taking over the project successfully and people fumbling around wasting time for five to seven years was we did a project we could actually do,” he said.