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June 2003

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Orthodox Church Changes to Meet Needs


By Maria Fotopoulos  



(LOS ANGELES) – When Saint Sophia Cathedral opened its doors in 1952 Los Angeles, the idea of performing a wedding in Spanish likely would have been anathema. Fifty years brings change.

In L.A. at the 36th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America last summer, the Liturgy was given in Spanish, and Orthodox children from a Tijuana, Mexico, orphanage provided music. These inclusions added legs to the Offering-Orthodox-Faith-to-Contemporary-America theme that the gathering was to tackle. But even before that summer event, yes, couples wed in ceremonies conducted in Spanish at Saint Sophia.

“Churches always change,” says Father John Bakas of Saint Sophia. “The theology and church doctrines are the same, but the Church delivers its message in a way that is commensurate with the realities of our times.”

As the Greek community grew out of its early 1900s small church in downtown L.A. on San Julian Street and into the ornate St. Sophia Cathedral, California was growing as well. With 4.2 million people in 1950, L.A. County added another 5.3 million by 2000 and is an unmistakable repository of diversity – look only to L.A. schools and the more than 80 different languages spoken in them.  


And the Normandie/Pico area where St. Sophia was built half a century ago is now home to many from Mexico and other Latin American countries. But the Byzantine/Renaissance-influenced cathedral still draws its predominantly Greek congregation of as many as 1,000 from perhaps a 60-mile radius – from throughout L.A. County, as well as an adjacent county to the south. Los Angeles’ Greek community has never been centralized, as in cities such as New York City and Chicago.

“It’s a broad area, because it was never intended to be a local neighborhood church; it was intended to be a diocesan cathedral drawing people from all over,” says Bakas.

But Greek Orthodox doesn’t mean Greek-only, and perhaps 20 percent of the congregation is not. “Contemporary America is a multiethnic, multi-religious, multilingual society,” Bakas says. As the majority of the area’s neighbors are Spanish speakers, he adds, “The Orthodox faith has to be offered in the languages of the people.” Thus, step into this Greek Orthodox church and you might hear a wedding, sermon or baptism delivered in Spanish.


What is now called the Byzantine-Latino Quarter is a dramatically changed landscape from the late 1940s when Hollywood mogul and St. Sophia’s patron, Charles Skouras, began envisioning a new church for L.A.’s Greek community. Besides more ethnically diverse now, the immediate environs of the church are poorer.

Sophia in Greek means wisdom and Skouras perhaps showed this in choosing the church location. “To Mr. Skouras’ credit, I think it’s inspired,” says Bakas. “A lighthouse is built on rocky shores, and the Church should be a lighthouse on the rocky shore which is this part of town.”

Simply by way of its location, according to Bakas, St. Sophia reaches out to its neighbors, not to proselytize, but to serve. “Service is very important in the Church,” Bakas says. An example is the church-sponsored Camp Axios, a values, ethics and character-building camping experience for at-risk, inner city kids who are close to criminal activity, drugs and gangs.

Bakas believes in the power of the members of the church to become involved to generate change in the immediate community too. “I think the Church has a role to play,” he says. “Cathedrals – Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey – always have been the generating engines of great cities.”  

The 1997 creation of the Byzantine-Latino Quarter, a cultural, economic and historic redevelopment zone, may in the long-term urge revitalization around St. Sophia. “Los Angeles in the next 10 years is going to have a major renewal,” Bakas believes. “Frankly, people just can’t move any farther out; you just can’t have a quality of life and drive two hours to work and two hours back home.”

As one of the fastest growing areas in the United States, with 782 people moving in everyday in 2001, Bakas’ thinking may be prescient. Hopeful homeowners may start to reexamine the inner city and environs and begin a rehabbing renaissance, some of which already is occurring in the heart of Downtown L.A., only minutes away from the Quarter.

“I’m very encouraged,” Bakas says. “The better years of St. Sophia Cathedral are in the future.”


Sidebar: St. Sophia’s Hollywood Heritage


From time-to-time, a wedding planner calls Saint Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles asking how to have a Greek wedding, clearly a vestige of the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Although this bumping up against “Hollywood” may be a short-lived phenomenon, St. Sophia is steeped in a longer-lived Hollywood legacy.

As the story is told, Charles Skouras, a Greek immigrant of humble beginnings, vowed to build a cathedral if he “made it” in Hollywood. Indeed, he – and brothers Spyros and George – all ended up “feeling the love.” Their combined credits include major roles in 20th Century Fox and United Artists, along with the making of Cleopatra and the development of CinemaScope. They also had a hand in creating Century City and managed a 500-theatre movie chain.

The success in the new world brought the old world to Los Angeles in a big way when Skouras made good on his vow and commenced with plans to build a cathedral, which was big news throughout the Greek community in the United States.

Inspired by the original St. Sophia of Constantinople, plans included seating for 2,000. The cruciform design eventually was scaled back, but that made little impact on the resulting impressive edifice. The interior is light, mirroring Orthodox thinking that says the interior of the human being should be “light.”

The church immediately engages all five senses, starting with the smells of burning incense and moving on to an extraordinary visual display. With leaded glass from Belgium, England and Germany; marble from Greece and Italy; 17 over-the-top chandeliers from Czechoslovakia, three of which each weigh a ton; 25,000 pounds of copper on the roof; religious depictions everywhere; a dome rising 90 feet into the air and lots of 24-carat gold leaf; St. Sophia is a very visible symbol of Orthodox faith and a translation of Skouras’ belief in service. Built for approximately $2 million between 1948 and 1952, if built today, costs would exceed $50 million.

St. Sophia also was built to last a long time. Constructed with seismic considerations given California’s earthquake propensities, the church’s steel girders and reinforced concrete go 20 feet into the ground and its transepts support 440 tons.

Skouras’ Hollywood flair came through in theatrical ways. A lighting panel was included at Skouras’ pew allowing him to “influence” the look and feel of the “stage.” And, the ten angels around the dome actually are baby pictures of the children and grandchildren of benefactors, often referred to as “Charlie’s Angeles.”  

Beyond the calls for big fat Greek weddings, Hollywood and celebrity still touch St. Sophia. Arianna Huffington, syndicated columnist and talk-show regular; Michael Huffington, former politician, sometime filmmaker and multimillionaire; and actors Tom Hanks and Rita Williams may be seen at church services. But, as St. Sophia’s Father John Bakas is quick to share, “When a person kneels in a pew, that star of the stage and silver screen is no more valuable in God’s eye than the 80-year-old widow living on Social Security.”

For information on St. Sophia tours and services, visit


Maria Fotopoulos is an independent marketing communications consultant in Los Angeles and the founder of TurboDog Communications. Prior to forming TurboDog, Fotopoulos spent eight years with Nissan North America, Inc. in a variety of communications and writing positions. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma where she majored in journalism, Fotopoulos has written for the El Paso Times, Oklahoma Gazette, Daily Oklahoman and Fairpress (Connecticut).