In December 2002, just a few days before Christmas, a fire gutted the sanctuary of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, one of the state’s largest Orthodox churches. The front vestibule was destroyed by fire; and smoke and water damage compounded the problem. Estimates of the damage reach as high as $3.5 million.
With no suitable worship space, the community was forced to hold its 2002 Christmas liturgy on folding chairs in the gymnasium. From the start, parish members and the community pitched in to clean and restore what had been lost. Parishioners Louie and Angie Ropotos helped to bring a new nativity icon from Chicago in time for the Christmas liturgy, replacing the nativity icon which had burned in the fire. Volunteers worked around the clock to salvage what they could—filling dumpsters with debris, cleaning and wiping smoke stains from artifacts.
Since that time, the 1,200 member congregation has worked toward an ambitious goal: full restoration of the church.
Repairs were made to the structure, but for the first few years, the walls were bare. Then in 2006, the parish hired Greek master iconographer Vlasis Tsotsonis to begin the restoration. Plans were made; then, in 2009, Tsotsonis spent three months in St. Clair Shores and painted the altar.
In September 2012, Tsotsonis returned with his assistant Niko Gaitanidis and apprentice Ilia Brako to complete the solea, the vacant area of the church interior situated between the Iconostasion (Templon) and the first row of church pews. This area is used liturgically for processions with the Gospel and the Holy Gifts (Small Entrance and Great Entrance).
And just weeks before Christmas 2012, Father Michael Varlamos welcomed guests to a reception introducing the restored iconography.
Tsotsonis and his team will return to Michigan once more in 2014 to complete the icons in the dome. His hope is that when people walk into the church, they will feel embraced by God.