It All Sprang from the ECCLESIA
Did you know that Kantyli-Custom Greek Gifts Founder, President, and Creative Panos Fiorentinos is also an author? The book, called ECCLESIA, changed his life. Just like the seeds that nurture and protect a young sapling, so did the seeds of faith planted during his upbringing in the Greek Orthodox Church. These seeds not only sprouted, but led him on a life-changing journey, melding his professional interests with his passion for photography, to meeting his wife, and creating the keepsake volume, ECCLESIA, a pictorial and historical reference that chronicles the history of the churches of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago.
In the 1990s, Panos forged a career building architectural models. The San Francisco native worked for an architectural firm on Front Street.
“In the days before 3D computer renderings, we built architectural models to scale, to better envision what a building would look like, find any limitations, things that didn’t look right, or might need adjustments,” Panos said. “Many can’t visualize a project, but the model was something they could touch and experience.”
One day at church, a fellow parishioner told him that Award-winning Greek-American Architect Christ Kamages, who’s designed dozens of Greek Orthodox churches, had opened an office in town. The parishioner suggested that Panos connect with him.
“Turns out his office was right down the street from mine,” Panos recalled. “We met and then I started building models for him. I built 25 models for churches all over the country. I’ve not seen all of the finished buildings in real life. But hope to someday.”
On a visit to Seattle, he attended a party with several other young adults. The father of the party’s host came to talk to them.
“I took the opportunity to talk to the man and asked about his role as an archon. He shared that he’d traveled across the U.S. visiting churches and sometimes he’d take photos. The thought lingered in my mind. I thought, why not create a book with Greek churches. When I arrived home, I asked Mr. Kamages if he’d ever seen a book like that. He hadn’t. That was the genesis of the idea.”
But it wasn’t until he moved to Chicago in 1999, that things began to come together.
He’d been dating a non-Greek woman, but the relationship fizzled. Feeling alone in a Chicago suburb still new to him, he contemplated his next move. One afternoon, something compelled him to go to St. Haralambos Church in Niles and take some pictures. I parked the car across the street from the church and slowly moved closer to the building with camera in hand.
“A man came out of the church and approached me. He was there attending a baptism. He asked, ‘Are you Greek?’ It was the first time I’d spoken Greek to a stranger. As the words came, so did the memories (of being Greek). I left that day, questioning my life. Still new to Chicago, I was hopeful. My relationship with a woman who wasn’t Greek and not Orthodox was ending. That hadn’t mattered to me before, but after that conversation, I knew that wasn’t the life for me. I realized I needed a Greek woman. A Greek woman would better understand me, where I come from. I needed Greek friends, Greek food, Greek language—and the Church. My Greek heritage and my Orthodox Faith were too important to me, and I knew that if I continued with my ‘xeni’ girlfriend, that part of me would die. I don’t know who that man at the church was. But that brief conversation changed the direction of my life, sending me on a new path. I immediately began going to local Greek events, visiting more churches.”
When the relationship ended, he re-joined an online dating site. But that interaction at St. Haralambos stayed in his mind. Finally, one night he logged on and was about to delete his membership, when something—and someone—caught his eye.
“During this time, I’d become fascinated with this little church, Vlaherna, on the island of Kerkyra. I wanted to make a model of it. I searched for photos. This was before much was available on the Internet. I could only find front and side images and needed more angles.
As he did a “last look” before clicking “delete”, he found a Greek woman.
“Her profile said she was born on a Greek island. When I asked her where she was from and she said, ‘Kerkyra’, my heart jumped a few beats.”
They began chatting by phone. She arranged for her father to take photos of the little church and send them for Panos. Not only was she able to capture the images, but she captured his heart.
“She was living in Chicago but wasn’t from here either. So, we began exploring the city together, visiting different churches. I told her about the book project—I hadn’t shared it with anyone before. She asked if needed an assistant. So our dates included long talks on these drives to all the churches.”
Wonder what happened to that woman? He married her.
Over the course of about three years, they visited every church in the Metropolis of Chicago. He shot photos, they catalogued histories, learned what they could. Published in fall 2004 and printed in the U.S., the book, aptly named ECCLESIA (Greek for church), is a beautiful historical keepsake of the history of the Metropolis.
“Some of these churches don’t exist anymore. We’ve captured them for the ages. This book is also a great reference for history and architectural buffs. I’m so proud of it.”
His Eminence Metropolitan Iakovos of blessed memory loved the book. Panos spent several weeks with the hierarch, and later published a limited-edition special commemorative book for him. Only 200 copies were printed. They were distributed to various hierarchs and priests, with half sent outside the U.S. Years ago, a copy of the book was presented as a gift to the highest-ranking Turkish official during a visit to the Metropolis of Chicago.
The book also led to the start of Kantyli-Custom Greek Gifts. With his designs, Panos shares his love for his heritage and gets to exercise his creative muscles. He’s always brainstorming, always trying new things.
“I’ve learned so much in this process. If you want to do something, do it. Learn it. If you still need help, get it. It will help you hone your craft.”
It’s been 17 years since the book was published.
“I’m thrilled that the book has legs. It’ll never age to the viewer. The world of God has no expiration date,” he said. “And anyone interested in Greek Orthodoxy or has thoughts like, ‘I wonder what the inside of that Chicago church looks like?’ will have a source and will be surprised at its beauty and the stories, too.”
Kantyli-Custom Greek Gifts continues to grow, with new products introduced every few months. God guides us. He has a plan. And it all started with the “ecclesia”.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20.)
Do you have a copy of ECCLESIA in your collection? There’s no other book like it. Embark on a fascinating journey through all the parishes of the Metropolis of Chicago, which spans six states. Find more than 400 richly-colored photographs of interiors and exteriors of the churches—some of which no longer exist. It’ll look great on your coffee table and be a great conversation starter! It’s a great way to share your faith and the beauty of our churches and iconography. ECCLESIA is a must for every Chicago Greek! Makes a great gift. Get your piece of history here.
More about ECCLESIA:
Read the review from The Institute for Sacred Architecture here
Listen to a NPR interview with Panos, the author, about the book here