LA CROSSE — Dancers swirled Sunday to Greek music and savory smells of grilled lamb and chicken kabobs wafted across Copeland Avenue, teasing the taste buds.
The dancers, music and food are integral to the annual St. Elias Festival, which is one of the seminal moments in the life of St. Elias Parish and a showcase of Mediterranean culture.
“It’s a good place to bring families,” said Sara Whitewater, who brought her family and a friend with three other children.
“We come for the food and the music,” she said.
While Sunday marked her third trip to the outdoor festival, Whitewater knows the place well. Five years ago, she lived next door to the church in one of the apartments that was torn down to make room for the festival grounds. The church people were great, she recalled.
Ana Skemp of La Crosse also brought her family and shared similar thoughts.
“This is the first time we’ve ever been, the food is lovely and the music is great,” she said. “It’s almost like when we were in Greece.”
The church brings Mediterranean dishes such as falafel and spanakopita to the food court.
In the church kitchen, coordinator Terri Markos of La Crescent along with a handful of other volunteers labored to prepare enough food for 700 guests. Markos along with primary coordinators Jeff and Christine Stolz and Julee and Ben Agar began planning as soon as last year’s festival ended.
“We’re a small fellowship, under 40 families,” said Markos. “We have to stay organized to pull this off.”
Things get pretty hectic at the last minute, she added.
Markos, whose husband’s grandfather was one of the founding members in 1909, also said that since the founders were mostly Syrian/Lebanese Christians, 10 percent of the event’s proceeds would go to help Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile, outside, the Maritza Dance Band and the Winona Area International Dancers showcased traditional Greek and Russian folk dances.
But the St. Elias Festival is more than spinning folk dancers and delectable Mediterranean cuisine. For the people of the Orthodox Church, it’s about celebrating their patron saint, Elias, otherwise known as the Elijah of the Old Testament and a model of the contemplative life.
But there’s also another reason for St. Elias Festival.
As Father Dean Wilhelm, the parish priest points out, “to let people know there’s an Orthodox church in town.”
The only other area Orthodox churches are in Rochester and Madison.
Wilhelm, who led lines of guests through the sanctuary
all afternoon, estimates that the first feasts dedicated to Elias began around the fourth century. While giving tours of the facility, he discussed early church history and the ethnic make-up of the Orthodox church in La Crosse, as well as a rather unusual form of détente practiced by the founders.
The area around here was an Arabic neighborhood, Wilhelm pointed out.
“If you read the newspapers from the early days, the Syrians were fighting with the locals; probably Germans,” he said.
To minimize friction, the early church fathers chose an architectural style distinct from most other Orthodox churches. Hoping to ease the tension, they patterned the existing structure after the protestant churches of the era. It was completed in 1917 at a cost of $125.
Wilhelm said that the ethnic makeup of the church has changed over the years and today’s congregation is made up of Russians, Romanians, Greeks, Bulgarians, a family from Egypt and a few Lutheran converts. Parishioners travel from as far as Galesville, Taylor and Arcadia, all in Wisconsin, to attend Sunday services.