Our New Home: “The Miracle on Riva Road”
This is a fascinating story about how the Annapolis Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church community were able to build a $4.5-million-dollar church complex on seven acres, debt free, and with an endowment fund of $2 million dollars. It is focused how our community raised the funds that were used to build our current church complex at 2747 Riva Road, Annapolis, Maryland.
Ss. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Annapolis, Maryland
The primary players in the $4.5 million transaction were Danny Tsamouras, Father George Gallos, and James (Jim) and Zoe Moshovitis. Danny is a civil engineer who came from Baltimore to Annapolis in the late 1960’s. Although many were involved in this land development, it was Jim and Zoe Moshovitis who, along with their partners, were instrumental in donating the property where the Hellenic Center was built on Riva Road.
The sale of the Hellenic Center and surrounding property was what provided the funding for the construction of the present Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Church complex.
Jim Moshovitis’ other partners were John Kalavritinos and Harry Pistolas. However, Jim Moshovitis was the major partner and made all the decisions. Also, our priest at the time was Father George Gallos, whose hard work was instrumental in motivating and inspiring the community. Father Gallos played a major role in working with the professional fundraiser and the team which raised the money to build the Hellenic Center.
Hellenic Center under construction 1983. Mrs. Nicholas Samaras (Christine), her son George N. Samaras, and John Pantelides served alternatively as Chairmen for building fund drive.
A short note about Jim and Zoe Moshovitis history, as you will see it was Zoe’s relatives in Annapolis and her clan, the Vlachs or Vlachi of the Aspropotamos Society (White River Society) which drew them to visit Annapolis many times where they visited family. Jim’s parents, Aristides Moshovitis and Kandoula Mantis, emigrated from Sparta. Kandoula came to Lynn, Massachusetts and Aristides came to Washington, DC in the 1890’s. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Jim went right from high school into the United States Navy and spent his service with a destroyer escort group chasing Nazi subs in the Caribbean Sea and later in the Pacific. In addition, Jim’s destroyer escort group was involved in the invasion of both Iwo Jima and Okinawa and saw firsthand the brutality of the Pacific theater.
After the war, Jim came home to Washington, DC and joined his father in the restaurant business. However, Jim’s love was real estate and slowly he started to invest. Jim loved corners and got the nickname “Spike” for purchasing any parcel he could buy that was part of a corner. The eventual developer of the entire parcel always had to deal with Jim in buying Jim’s parcel. In order to make the mortgage payments, Jim would often keep his restaurant open longer hours. Jim also invested heavily in Anne Arundel County buying hundreds of acres on Riva Road when it was a one lane road surrounded by farms. Jim had vision and to this day, Jim is still working with his son Harry in the business he established.
Jim would eventually marry Zoe Clessauris of Aberdeen, Maryland. Zoe’s parents James and Daphne, operated an incredible restaurant in downtown Aberdeen. Jim and Daphne were so well thought of that Jim and Zoe’s reception was held at the military installation in town, The Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Through her parents, Zoe had many friends and relatives in Annapolis, and would visit often with Jim. In fact, Zoe’s Godparents were John and Effie Charas members of the Annapolis Church. The Charas Family were officially designated Godfather and Godmother of the church when it was first built; an honor won in a fundraising raffle. Zoe’s mother, Daphne, was first cousins with Constantinos (Charlie) Samaras. Zoe’s relatives and friends who were from the same part of Greece as she was, and were the Vlachi who started an organization called the “Aspropotamos (White River) Society”, as the White River ran through their villages in northern Greece. These reunions were held primarily in Annapolis at the former Annapolis Roads Golf and Country Club or the Bay Ridge Beach club. Now, back to this incredible story.
These three men, Danny Tsamouras, Jim Moshovitis, and Father George Gallos played a major part in the deal that provided the money which made our current Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox church complex a reality. The original church on 4 Constitution Avenue was completed in 1949. In the early days, the early immigrants used Saint Anne’s Church on Church Circle, or traveled to the Annunciation Greek Orthodox church in Baltimore by trolley, or took to the bus to Saint Sofia Greek Orthodox church in Washington. However, by the 1970’s we were running out of room and Danny Tsamouras was asked by the church board to do a feasibility report. One option was to assemble properties around the church and expand. The other was to build on the property we owned located at end of Constitution Ave, known as Akiva Field. Another option was to build somewhere else.
The dentist who had offices next door to the church would not sell but the owner of the house directly behind the church would sell his property. The church bought the property behind the church, which became the Parish House, and was used for Greek School classes during the week and Sunday School classes on Sunday. The Akiva field property was not large enough to handle a new complex so the church board began to investigate other properties in the Annapolis area. A real estate committee was formed to sell the Akiva athletic field property. The committee consisted of Danny Tsamouras, Dimitri Sfakiyanudis, and Ted Samaras. Utilizing their expertise as land engineers and land developers, they were able to raise the value from $40,000 to the eventual sale price of $100,000 by assisting the buyer in subdividing the property into 11 prime home sites. This money was used for the down payment for purchase of the Moshovitis property.
Board member Nick Pantelides told fellow Board Member Danny Tsamouras about a property on Riva Road which was about two acres. Unfortunately, it was land locked. However, in front of that parcel was a 7-acre parcel owned by Washingtonians, Jim Moshovitis and his partners, John Kalavritinos and Harry Pistolas. Danny made a call to Jim Moshovitis but it was not returned. Danny was a frequent customer of John and Margie Christos’ Fred’s Restaurant in Parole. John Christo told Danny that Jim Moshovitis would not sell to the church because they had no money.
John Christo knew Jim very well as they played cards together and were very close friends. As mentioned, Jim’s wife Zoe, had many connections to Annapolis, especially being related to the Samaras families and close friends with the Characklis and Manis families whose wife’s parents were from the same part of Greece as Vlachi. As mentioned, the Vlachi formed the Aspropotamos Society in the 1930s and held reunions every year in either Annapolis or Charlottesville, Virginia. Or Valdosta, Georgia. I was invited to one of those reunions by Ted Samaras, and it was there where I met my wife Gloria.
The Vlachi came from all over Maryland, Virginia, Georgia and Florida to attend these reunions including members of the Annapolis Greek community. The gathering or glendi, was held at the former Annapolis Roads Country Club which included a swimming pool, golf course, banquet hall and rooms overlooking the river. The Shields brothers, Roy and Jim, ran the Club and it was simply an outstanding establishment. Again, this Greek connection was instrumental in making the deal happen.
Jim Moshivitis and his partners owned a lot of land on Riva Road and at one of his developments, the property where the Riva Giant is now located, had an issue with the County. Danny Tsamouras worked for Anne Arundel County and the Right of Way person, Charlie Frank, asked Danny to meet Jim at the site. Danny reviewed the issue and as a good public servant solved the problem in a win-win fashion.
Jim Moshovitis never forgot the service that Danny rendered and somewhere around 1973-1974, Danny got a call from Herbert Blum, who was Jim Moshivitis’ financial advisor, and told him to come to his office in Washington, DC. Danny brought Father George Gallos and Treasurer Jim Kitsoulas with him. Danny told Jim that the Church wanted to buy his 6-acre parcel on Riva Road. Mr. Moshovitis told them that they had to buy all three parcels; the 6-acre parcel, the 9-acre parcel next to it, and a 7-acre parcel behind the 9-acre parcel.
Danny asked to be excused and he Father Gallos and Jim Kitsoulas went to the bathroom and discussed it right there. Danny asked Jimmy, how much the church had in the bank and Jim Kitsoulis said $50,000. They agreed to tell Moshovitis that they would buy all three parcels. Upon re-entering the office, Jim Moshovitis, asked them how much money they had and they responded $50,000. Jim Moshovitis then said, we will sell you a 2-acre parcel for $50,000 and donate the remaining 20 acres to the Church. So, for $50,000 our church obtained 22 acres of prime property on Riva Road. John Pantelides is fond of saying that the good Lord loves all his children but he definitely has a very special place in his heart for the Annapolis Greek community.
On his own time, Danny drew up plans to subdivide the 6-acre parcel into residential 20 lots and sold them to builder Frank Miano. The church, as owner had to sign on the loan documents. Frank Miano was unable to close on the loan and went bankrupt. Fortunately, a client of Danny’s, Gary Pyles, said he would buy the contract and said that a better use of the property would be commercial. Then we began plans to build on the 9-acre parcel and engaged architect Joe Boggs recommended by George and Cathy Samaras. At this point, it was decided to design the entire church complex including a Byzantine church, Sunday and Greek School classes, banquet area, and a multipurpose activity center and offices.
A formal fundraising effort was launched to raise funds to build the entire complex under Father George Gallos. Under the leadership of Father Gallos and Chairmen, Christine Samaras and later George Samaras and John Pantelides, a fundraising program was organized. We hired a fundraiser consultant to teach us how to ask for money and created a professional brochure showing the various items for sponsorship, giving parishioners an opportunity to make a pledge for specific items, like Sunday School room classes, church, community room, icons, and more.
Team Fundraising Captains such as Mike Panos, Jim Kitsoulis, John Psaras, Nick Moutsos, Peter Cavas, Spiros Leanos, Alex Lardis, George Nikiforou, Peter Mavraganis, Dimitri Sfakiyanudis, Danny Tsamouras, Ted Samaras, Nick Pantelides and others started making calls and visiting parishioners in their homes. Original church founders like Tom Siomporas, Savvas (Sam) Pantelides, and Cleo Apostol served as advisers. After a mailing was done under the signature of Father George Gallos with a brochure, these captains and their teams would call each parishioner and ask for a time to visit their homes and make a presentation. This was difficult work as it is hard to ask for money but we knew if we made the case, the parishioners would step up. A funny story is how I had my wife Gloria who was then seven months pregnant during that summer, accompany me to many of the homes. I told Gloria “No one can turn down a pregnant woman asking for money.” It worked!
The community list was divided up and assigned to the team captains. Our church is made up of Greek immigrants from several geographic regions of Greece and Cyprus. The team captains picked families they were related or from the same clan, i.e., Cypriots, Macedonians, and Vlachi. Every family was approached to build the Hellenic Center. John and Martha Christo made the first pledge of $25,000 and paid it off.
We raised approximately $500,000 but it was not enough to build the entire complex so we used those funds to build the multipurpose center, named the Hellenic Center first which opened in 1984. Under John and Celia Alvanos leadership, we organized Bingo to supplement the many baptisms, festivals and weddings which were held at the Hellenic Center. It was a great resource for the entire Annapolis and Anne Arundel County community as it was affordable and you could bring in your own food and beverages.
The plan was to continue fundraising to build the remaining pieces of the Church complex on the nine acres. Then, we were blessed by the fact that Comprehensive Rezoning was slated to happen that year. As mentioned above, the Riva Road land was zoned residential and it happened that the County was undertaking it’s comprehensive rezoning which happens every ten years. Danny saw immediately that we should submit a zoning application to the change the zoning of the property to commercial which he did. Gary Pyles also went for a rezoning of the 6 acre parcel he had previously purchased from the church.
Danny knew that the Planning and Zoning Officer, Becki Kurdle, did not like churches on commercial properties and she believed that if we got commercial zoning, we would relocate to a less valuable residential area, which is what eventually happened. Thus, the Planning and Zoning Office recommended that our property as well as others on Riva Road be rezoned from residential to commercial and it was passed by the County Council and signed by the County Executive.
The commercial rezoning was passed and the value of property increased dramatically. We received an offer on our property for $2.2 million dollars but wanted to see what Gary Pyles would offer. Eventually, with Danny leading the negotiating team, Gary Pyles offered $4.5 million dollars and also agreed to provide seven residential acres on Riva Road on which to build the church. In November 1988, the community accepted the offer and we received a check for $4,199,968.48 on May 30,1989. In addition, we received the deposit of $300,000 yielding the church $4,499, 968.
Father Gallos decided to retire in 1986 and accepted a position at the U.S. Farm School in Thessaloniki Greece. Again, Father Gallos was our spiritual and inspirational leader during that time. Under the leadership of Father Kosmas Karavellas and Parish President Savvas Tshontikidis and the Church Board, he guided the community in spending the funds to build a new church complex that has served our needs well. Today our Byzantine church and complex have become a regional landmark and considered one of the most beautiful in the United States.
Ss. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church
While we waited for the plans to be developed other fundraisers were held and the initial fund grew to almost $6 million dollars. $4 million dollars was dedicated for the new church complex and an endowment fund of $2 million dollars was established for the maintenance of the church complex. An architect was hired and the new church complex was started in 1993. The new church complex was consecrated in October 20-21, 2001.
In summary, $4,500,000 were generated to provide for a new church costing approximately $2.5 million dollars and the Board with the General Assembly’s approval established an “Endowment Fund of $2,000,000. This “Miracle on Riva Road” was made possible by the good Lord who gave these Greek and Cypriot immigrants, their children and the many other people who became members of the church from 1940-1989, the inspiration and determination to make the dream a reality.