Atlantic City, NJ – Smiles and warm greetings were everywhere on the campus at the St. Nicholas Greek Festival this past weekend. Just a few blocks away from the Atlantic City Boardwalk, casinos and beach, is one of the oldest Greek communities in the tri-state area.
Most Greeks came as immigrants to Atlantic City with their families and settled here around the turn of the 20th century, working in the restaurant and the hotel industry. With them, they brought and gave Atlantic City it’s sprinkling of Hellenism. On Saturday, I got to meet many of those next generation parishioners of this ninety-one-year-old parish. They shared their thoughts, history and great food.
The church festival was hosted behind the Byzantine church, where I found skirted tables of food circling the church parking lot and offering plenty of outdoor seating. I got there just in time for dinner. Parishioners were serving up hot, homemade Greek food platters, like pasticcio with rice. The lines grew around dinner time and takeouts we’re in full swing, with Gyro sandwiches and platters being ordered as the traditional favorite.
After sampling the gyros, we headed over to the sweets and coffee stand were some older Greek parishioners were. “We’ve been here a long time and we serve with love”, said one parishioner as she made us a traditional Greek coffee. “You have to try our sweets, they’re all homemade”, she added. An assortment of Kataifi, Baklava, Kourambiethes and more were as fresh and ready as any bakery I ever visited. I headed for a tent with my desert to join the crowd and people watch. The tent was full of Greeks and locals enjoying their food and chatting away.
Minutes later I was sipping my traditional Greek coffee and eating baklava, as the Pan-Macedonian Dance Troupe of Philadelphia was announced. The dinner crowd and the parishioners in the food lines paused to watch as the dancing began. The colorful outfits and leaping acrobatics of the dancers brought on a sense of pride for all Greeks, especially the parishioners who beamed. They clapped along and cheered for nearly half before they went quietly back to serving dinner.
Over the years, this community has added a culture center and in 1999 a new, grand Byzantine church. They even renamed the street around their church from Mt. Vernon Avenue to St. Nicholas Way, reaffirming their church as a landmark. The Atlantic City community and the economy have taken its bumps and bruises throughout the years. But through it all, these Greeks have held steadfast to their church, culture and to being part of the Atlantic City community. This annual festival is a commitment from people that share a common to preserve all this.
One parishioner summed it for me. “Atlantic City has been a town that mimics the television series “Boardwalk Empire”. It’s history of hi’s and low’s will continue. And so, we parishioners will continue to be here waiting for the next boom. We have our faith and this is our home”.