SARASOTA — It took a village to raise the once tiny Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church into the epicenter of Greek culture it is today.
One of the largest Orthodox churches in Southwest Florida, Saint Barbara is made up of 250 permanent families, and another 250 regular visitors, each a child, grandchild or great grandchild of an immigrant who came to America.
Now, over three decades later, that heritage is evoked in the sights, sounds and tastes at the Greek “Glendi” Festival, held every February.
It’s a festival that defines the traditional Greek way of life.
“We want to give you the wonderful tastes, smells and sounds of our beautiful country, brought all the way to America,” said Maria Kirlangitis, who was born and raised in Greece.
Kirlangitis, now in her 60s, came to the church with her father 35 years ago. Then, construction had not begun on the new church. Her father, the Rev. Frank Kirlangitis, was the first full-time priest at Saint Barbara.
The festival began as a single-day event. The purpose was to gather with family, friends and to get to know the neighborhood.
Now it’s a four-day cultural exploration, full of Greek musicians and dancers, a marketplace with vendors selling all sorts of things and church tours.
Everything is authentic, from the uniforms the dancers wear to the meals served by blue apron-clad women steadily filling plates with steaming food.
There was avgolemono, dolmathakia and spanakopita — names the kids who tried to order them couldn’t pronounce.
Sharlene Toranites, 73, helped serve the avgolemono (a traditional soup made with chicken, rice, eggs and lemon) out of a crockpot that seemed to be refilled every 30 minutes.
“My husband makes it, but not as well as they do here,” she said, as she ladled a generous portion of the soup into styrofoam bowl.
To prepare enough food for the festival, roughly 30 church volunteers started cooking in January, said George Karabatsos, a co chair of the church.
He rode around the church grounds on a shaky golf cart full of signs that said “Enter only” “Greek Festival today!”
Nearby, small American and Greek flags flapped in the breeze.
By the week of the festival, the shelves inside the huge walk-in freezer outside the kitchen was stacked with hundreds of aluminum pans filled with made-from-scratch ingredients.
“Wherever there are Greeks, you can find good food and a proud tradition of heritage dancing,” Karabatsos said.
Many of the dancers, like Morgan Kirlangitis, are taught traditional and regional Greek dances before they can walk.
There are 10,000 traditional dances that come from all regions of Greece, many of which have been adopted throughout the Greek world for thousands of years.
The children, Maria Kirlangitis said, are the heart of the Greek festival.
“It’s not like as a little kid you get a chance whether to dance or not,” said Morgan, who is 16 now. “But it grew on me, and now I can’t imagine life without it. These dances are what make us special. They’re what make us Greek.”