When you walk into the Assumption Cathedral on Alameda near Leetsdale, you should immediately look up.
A 24-foot-wide circular depiction of the Christ Pantokrator, surrounded by gold-leaf squares, gazes down on you from the dome’s 65-foot apex. The figure’s eyes follow you from pew to pew, an optical illusion created by Leonidas Diamantopoulos, the Greek iconographer who had panels transported from his studio in Athens, as part of a $1 million project to renovate the dome’s interior in 1998.
The golden dome, which measures 15,000 square feet, is covered with intricate, two-dimensional biblical art that makes you feel as if you have been
transported to a time when religion permeated the lives of everyone, not just the interiors of houses of worship.
“The saints seem to rain down on you,” says Father Chris Margaritis, who serves as the presiding priest for a congregation of around 4,000 families from all over the Front Range that attend weekly services at Assumption.
“Our church has a 2,000-year continuous history. You see it in this,” he says.
In a book dedicated to the consecration of the Assumption Cathedral, Denver architecture critic Mary Voelz Chandler writes that icons played a significant role in 5th-century Christianity.
“Figures of saints, apostles, prophets, teachers, and the Holy Family were the window through which humanity could peer into the spiritual realm,” she wrote. “In the Orthodox communities of the Byzantium, icons became both guide and collective conscience. They were teaching tools for those who could not read (a role stained glass windows later would assume in the Western Christian church).”
Margaritis says visitors sometimes mistake the church’s aesthetic beauty for the ornateness usually seen in older Catholic churches. The Greek Orthodox, like Catholics, practice baptism, confirmation and confession. But they prefer not to be confused with other forms of Christianity.
“We don’t have a deification process, we don’t have the legal system that the Catholic Church has. We split with the Catholic church 1,000 years ago,” Margaritis explains. And unlike in the Catholic tradition, a committee of bishops rather than a Pope governs the faith.
Even the sign of the cross in Greek Orthodoxy is reversed from the Catholic tradition. “We go from right to left, they do plain-hand, left to right. We do it with three fingers because we believe in a trinity,” he says.
Margaritis says Greek Orthodoxy has, in many ways, as much in common with the Jewish tradition as it does with Christianity. “The Greek community always had a reverence for the Jewish communities that lived in Greece. And in places like Alexandria, they lived side-by-side for centuries,” he says.
He explains the meaning of the word “sin” as one example.
“Most Christians interpret the word as rule-breaking. But for us, just like in the Jewish tradition, it means missing the target,” he says.
The liturgical art in the church may have more in common with centuries long-faded from public memory, but the Assumption congregation itself dates back to the first Greek immigrants in the state, who came to work in local ore smelters and on the railroads at the turn of the 20th century.
The church’s first meeting was held in 1906 in the basement of a prominent Greek’s candy store at 16th Street and Champa Street, when LoDo used to be an ethnic enclave called “Greek Town.”
Margaritis considers it a blessing the faith has lasted so long in Colorado and around the world.
“We always say two Greeks, three opinions, because Greeks never agree on things. We consider that God rules the church through all of us. You can’t put God in a test tube, but you can collect the history. Just like the history of Alexander, or anything else,” he says.
Tradition Passed Down Through Greek School
While many religious institutions across the U.S. shutter their doors in response to a nation that is becoming increasingly secular, Assumption’s Denver School of Modern Greek, one of the largest afternoon Greek School programs in the country, is expanding.
For two days a week, from 4:45 to 6:30 p.m., children from two years old to middle-school age, attend one of the few Greek-language programs in the country that’s accredited by the Greek Ministry of Education.
Natasa Kallergis, who serves as the program’s director, says the school has grown so much the church is out of classroom space, and will soon need to hire more teachers.
“We’re a testing center, so after graduating from our program, kids can pass the National Greek exam,” she says. “They can go to work in Greece, and at jobs that require Greek fluency.”
Parents can often be seen laughing and conversing in an office that serves as an impromptu café. Kallergis says the program encourages the kind of socializing you might see if you visited a Greek village.
“We have students here who are second-generation Greek, like I am. My parents are born and raised in Greece, but I came here, and now my kids come here to learn and pass on the Greek language and culture,” she says.
The program, which also has classes for high school students and adults, is not just for Greeks. “We have people who come who want to learn the language, or adults who have married into a Greek family,” she says.