A church is the flowering of a blessed seed. We can admire the architect and builders, express gratitude to the donors, recite stories of sacrifice and dedication. But churches are creations not of men, but of God. And so it is with the Three Hierarchs Church in Champaign.
As the post-WWII years brought stability to Champaign-Urbana, a number of Greek-American families were operating successful businesses and raising families. But while these hard-working citizens honored their Greek heritage, something important to them was lacking: a Greek Orthodox church. In 1952, serving as president of the local chapter of AHEPA (The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), Gus Leo Furla convinced others to join in the purchase of a house at the corner of Locust and Green Streets - a site within walking distance of the University of Illinois campus. The AHEPANs converted two rooms into a humble chapel where priests from Decatur's Church of the Annunciation graciously conducted infrequent vesper services and an occasional Saturday liturgy. Prominent among these priests were Fr. John Bitas, Fr. Anthony Sarris, and Father Balomenos.
Over the next several years, AHEPANs and others worked faithfully to gradually accumulate money to someday build a church. Nothing happened until late in 1960, when four men - Peter F. Tomaras, John Lessaris, Gus Furla and George Lessaris - pledged significant funds to launch the project. These men of God, envisioning an Orthodox church, planted the blessed seed. Since money was still inadequate, they decided to first erect a simple two-story building, doing so in 1961. The first floor became the temporary chapel, thanks to donations of a holy altar, icons, and other religious necessities. The basement accommodated frequent church and social functions, all fund-raisers toward the dream of a true Orthodox church.
The next four years were devoted to strengthening the unofficial church community so that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese would consider granting a charter. In 1964 George Lessaris was elected president of the church council, followed in 1965 by Gus Furla. That year, influenced by the determination of the community leaders and the large number of Orthodox students enrolled at the University of Illinois, Archbishop Iakovos and Bishop Meletios of the Chicago Diocese approved the official charter of the Three Hierarchs Church. It would serve a parish reaching to Gibson City on the North, Danville on the East, Farmer City on the West, and Charleston on the South.
Father Ioachim Yalouris commuted from Chicago each weekend to conduct regular liturgies. Dues-paying members numbered 72, and support also came from the Champaign Ladies' Philoptochos Society and from a strong Hellenic Student Organization at the U of I, led by Professor Deno Geanakopoulos. When Father Yalouris resigned, the council persuaded Father Basil Papanikolaou to become the parish's first permanent priest. Father Basil moved his family into a parish home purchased by the council, and performed his first liturgy on February 13, 1966.
The dream of a proper church did not wane and architects submitted various designs, but the new construction still exceeded the community's means. However, in 1970 the parish council sold the Green Street building in order to purchase, at a favorable price, the Mormon church on West John Street in Champaign. This was a spacious building with a sanctuary, offices, classrooms, and an attached gymnasium. For the first time, services were held in a building built as a church, albeit not an Orthodox church. The risks lay in increased debt, and in distancing the church from the University, but as society became more mobile, students and professors found their way to the new site.
In 1972 Father Basil accepted reassignment to a larger church, and Father Athenagoras Zakopoulos took his place for two years. Father Achilles Siagris then served as interim priest until the fall of 1976, when the Archdiocese appointed Father Nicholas Voucanos as permanent priest. Over the years parishioners had gradually made this new church as "Byzantine" as possible by donations exceeding $30,000, all the while paying down the mortgage and keeping alive the dream of building a true Orthodox church.
More years elapsed, more designs were drawn, and at last the mortgage at 1401 West John was paid. But the dream of a new church still seemed beyond reach. The blessed seed had taken root and grown, but not enough. In 1983, John Trebellas agreed to serve as council president. One might say he was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He provided both the leadership and the funds - eventually more than $2 million - that would enable the parish's dream to become reality. The blessed seed planted and nourished by hundreds of faithful parishioners, became a healthy plant.
In the summer of 1985, Father Nicholas Pathenos accepted assignment as priest of The Three Hierarchs Church, and conducted the first services in the new building. This wonderful Byzantine-design church and the Greek Heritage Center, incorporating a parsonage and comfortable homes for retired Orthodox parishioners, stand on beautifully landscaped grounds just off Devonshire Drive in South Champaign, once again near the U of I campus.
Nurtured for nearly six years by Father Nick's loving stewardship, then for seven years by Father Michael Kontos' earnest leadership, and then for nearly ten years by Fr. George Pyle; and, currently by Father Michael Condos, the Three Hierarchs Parish has grown through Grace of Almighty God.
Orthodox students have become the adopted children of the parish, filling the pews and serving as Church School teachers and even on the parish council. A continuous flow of people from other faiths have embraced Orthodoxy at Three Hierarchs, taking the places of departed parishioners, changing the face of the congregation and infusing new strength through their special talents and devotion.
On October 3, 1999, with the original dream so grandly realized (if perhaps still unfinished), the Three Hierarchs Church stands in respectful commemoration of the Three Holy Hierarchs - Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom - and of those many Orthodox loved ones who have contributed so much before falling asleep in the Lord. The Greek Heritage Center honors our courageous ancestors who crossed two oceans to reach an unknown land. Starting from nothing, these immigrant pioneers worked and sacrificed, earning their way, committed to providing good homes for their families and education for their children. They became worthy, respectful American citizens, but never did they abandon their Greek heritage nor their Orthodox faith.
A church is a sacred building, constructed of earthly materials by human hands. Over nearly fifty years since the seed was planted, men and women whose names are too numerous to mention have contributed their time, their talents, their treasure. But even devout men and women create nothing by themselves. The Three Hierarchs Church is a miracle. Its inspiration was divine; the hands and hearts of the men and women who laid its bricks and adorned its interior were guided by the Holy Spirit.
The seed is now in full bloom, its strong branches reaching in glorious tribute toward Heaven. And the grateful voices of the faithful who fill this House of God rise in praise of the Pantokrator, through whom all things are possible.