On Nov. 13, the faithful filed into Prophet Elias for the morning liturgy. Through the service, Father Michael Kouremetis, the Holladay-based Greek Orthodox Church’s priest, sang the divine text and ministered to the approximately 200 souls who had gathered to worship. Sunlight streamed through a stained-glass depiction of Jesus Christ, dappling parishioners’ faces.
At the end of the service, parishioners listened as Kouremetis urged them to vote Nov. 20 in favor of accepting regulations that, many argue, would bind the Salt Lake City parish significantly tighter to the national archdiocese of the Greek Orthodox Church. In contrast to the moving harmony created by the solemn liturgy, more than one member deemed those comments “inappropriate” in what another termed the “emotionally charged” atmosphere of the debate over the parish’s future.
Concern over the administration of the church’s financial affairs among parishioners had come to a head several weeks before. On Oct. 26, five members of the nonprofit corporation the Greek Orthodox Church of Greater Salt Lake filed a lawsuit in 3rd District Court against their church’s parish council. The lawsuit, which was moved to Provo’s 4th District because several Greek judges sit on the 3rd District bench, had two essential motives: achieving transparency in the church’s murky financial affairs and restoring democratic processes to an institution the plaintiffs claimed had been “hijacked” by the parish council.
The complaint noted that the parish council had failed “to convene the membership for required elections for nearly two years, far more than the 90-day notice period provided by statute.” The plaintiffs alleged the council, which had been whittled down from 15 members to eight, did not constitute a quorum and was running the corporation “secretly.” It had proposed no budget, despite being required by its bylaws to propose one annually. Bottom line, the complaint said, voting members had “effectively been disenfranchised.”
The local parish joined the national archdiocese in 1964, but on the condition its assets remained under the control of the parish members. Those assets now include parking lots and apartments by the downtown Holy Trinity Cathedral and property surrounding Prophet Elias in Holladay. Some fear those regulations, up for a vote on Nov. 20, will open the door to losing their assets if approved.
While the notice promised a second assembly Dec. 4 for parish-council elections, there was a sting in the tail. That assembly would only take place if the measures of the Nov. 20 meeting were approved by two-thirds of the members in “good standing.”
Previously, good standing had meant little more than keeping up to date on financial pledges. But several sentences at the top of a pledge list of eligible voters issued by the council led outspoken critics to fear they faced a purge for speaking up. According to the document, pledging members would also be assessed by the regional church authority—the Metropolitan Isaiah, based in Denver—or local clergy for their “ecclesiastical standing.” Members deemed not in good ecclesiastical standing faced losing the right to “attend, participate and vote in a parish assembly.”
The lawsuit was but another salvo in an ongoing two-way war of words ranging from angry letters from the church hierarchy lambasting individual parishioners and pulpit commentaries to bilious tirades on a blog titled “Take Our Church Back,” all topped off by a highly critical internal audit. This escalating drama has left the Greek community desperate for respite.
Former Utah state Sen. George Mantes argues the parish council traditionally handles secular and financial issues while the priest handles morality; but Kouremetis, Mantes says, appears to handle both.
Mantes sees a headstrong, opinion-driven parish community sadly fractured by the ongoing struggle. “Families are fighting families,” he says.
City Weekly requested interviews with Kouremetis and the regional and national leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church without any response. Five former and current parish-council members either declined to be interviewed or did not respond to requests for comment. City Weekly founder John Saltas, a prominent figure in the Greek community who is on record supporting transparency in the community’s affairs, also declined to comment [Ed Note: John Saltas' title was misstated in the 11/17/11 edition of City Weekly. It is correct here].
Tony Gianoulis, a lifelong member of the Greek Orthodox Church, sees his church in generational terms. His parents, from an arranged marriage in Greece, emigrated to Price, a mining town in central Utah in 1963, the year before he was born. In the face of economic hardship, his parents’ orthodox faith “carried them through,” he recalls. “I guess that’s why I still have my faith—because of them.” His forefathers having helped build Utah’s Greek Orthodox churches, like so many Greek immigrants, he understands parish members “wanting to preserve it.” The parish turmoil of the past two years, he speculates, is essentially “a power play over control and money.”
When Kouremetis was appointed by Metropolitan Isaiah to the Salt Lake City parish in 2002, Gianoulis felt, as many did, that initially the priest was a “positive influence in the community.”
But over time, that positive perception was eroded to the point where Gianoulis now says, “I can’t support many of the things he’s done, and I can’t approve of the way the community is being divided.”
In a 2007 letter, regional church authority Metropolitan Isaiah promised to not force a split of the parish into two, nevertheless describing its situation as being like “two married families living under the same roof.”
As tensions within the parish worsened, an internal audit presented in spring 2010 noted, “Clergy spends a lot of time conducting administrative activities rather than performing ecclesiastical duties, such as supporting parishioners, unifying the community and helping our faith to flourish.” It also highlighted poor financial controls and questionable spending priorities at the Prophet Elias.
In early 2010, Metropolitan Isaiah reversed course and requested the archdiocese grant Prophet Elias parish status. In March, paperwork for a nonprofit corporation for Prophet Elias was quietly filed with the State of Utah, unbeknown to the parish community.
In an Oct. 6, 2010, letter, Metropolitan Isaiah publicly decreed the split of the parish. In response, on Oct. 24, 2010, 450 members of the church gathered in the Salt Lake City Sheraton hotel, 85 percent of them voting against the split and naming themselves the unity group.
The unity group, represented by six senior parish members, successfully appealed the split and other matters to the church’s highest national authority, the New York City-based Holy Eparchial Synod. In a March 24, 2011, letter to Metropolitan Isaiah, Demetrios, the Archbishop of America, wrote, “The Salt Lake community will remain as one united parish,” withdrew the ecclesiastical charter previously granted to Prophet Elias and instructed the nonprofit corporation dissolved.
Then, in June 2011, the Greek newspaper the National Herald reported that Metropolitan Isaiah had defied the Synod and ordered the Salt Lake parish divided into two. Three months later, the unity lawsuit emerged as a last-ditch attempt to challenge, according to the complaint, “the current corporate authorities, and those who influence them [who] have threatened, overtly and covertly, to disenfranchise all members who have questioned their actions or inactions.”
The plaintiffs requested a temporary restraining order on the council’s bid to push through the Nov. 20 vote. Russell Fericks, representing the parish council, told Judge Fred D. Howard the Greek Orthodox Church was hierarchical by nature. “Do not step into this swamp,” Fericks warned Howard. “Pretty soon, you’ll have the court … entangled in the life of this church.” For the plaintiffs, attorney Richard A. Kaplan told the court, “Spiritually, ecclesiastically, all roads lead to Constantinople, to Istanbul. But secularly, we reserve our right to own our assets.”
Howard denied Fericks’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit and also denied the plaintiffs’ request for a restraining order. Nevertheless, in what unity advocates view as a partial victory, he ordered the defendants to hand over the long-sought-after records.
A letter dated Nov. 7 from the parish council warned of “a long-lasting negative effect” if the adoption of the regulations was voted down. Two days later, the parish council sent out a second letter. Howard’s denial of the temporary restraining order request “affirms that we are a church, first and foremost, not just a civic club of casual acquaintances.”
As to fears of the parish split edging ever closer, the letter noted such a split “will only occur when we as a Christian community, in conjunction with His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah, decide how and when that is to happen.”
Mantes says, “All we want is fair and open general assembly. That’s all we are asking for. Let the community decide.”
Gianoulis agrees. “It’s disingenuous granting us a general assembly after two years and the only agenda item is the need for an affirmative vote. We haven’t discussed the benefits or the advantages.”
In the end, all he wants is to pass on his faith to his children, as his parents did to him. “I don’t want to lose my faith,” he says.