LEWISTON — To the 9-year-old Lewiston girl who had lost both her mom and her dad in less than a year, Lewiston-Auburn's Greek community became a warm safety net.
That's how U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe remembers it.
Her aunt and uncle, Mary and James Goranites, lovingly raised Olympia and her brother, John. But in a way, so did the other local Greeks: the Orestises, the Alexopolouses, the Kesarises, the Nicholses, the Simoneses and so many others.
"I always viewed it as being part of one big family," Snowe said. "You knew everybody. They knew you. You took care of one another."
"To have that wider family was very important and nurturing, and provided critical support," said Snowe, who was born Olympia Jean Bouchles. "People cared very much about my well being and my brother's."
More than five decades later, Lewiston-Auburn's Greek community has, like most cultures, assimilated to some extent, but its members say it still provides a sense of family.
The community is a little more spread out than those days in the first half of the 20th century when many families seemed to cluster in apartments around the little Greek Orthodox Church on Lincoln Street. Those Greeks have branched out across much of Maine and beyond. But like Snowe, who became the first Greek-American woman in Congress, many maintain their ties here. Snowe, who lives in Falmouth, continues to be a member of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, which is the hub of Greek culture in Lewiston-Auburn.
Its community is still her family.
"That was very much my world," she said. "It's part of who I am."
Cultural celebration continues
As it does every year, Lewiston-Auburn's Greek community plans to share itself with the bigger community on Sept. 6, 7 and 8, when the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church hosts its Greek Festival.
There will be games, a taverna, dancing, tours of the church and lots and lots of homemade food.
"The church keeps the celebration of ethnicity alive," the Rev. Ted Toppses said. "This quality of philoxania, of hospitality, is celebrated."
And it serves as a reminder.
"We do still have a Greek population," Toppses said. "We still have a community"
And it thrives, insists Jason Levesque, 38, who is half Greek despite having a last name that speaks of crepes and blood sausage rather than baklava and lamb kabobs.
"It's a wonderful community, here," he said. "It is multi-generational. And it's very welcoming."
When Greek friends discovered that he, too, was Greek, they pleaded with him to come to the church on Hogan Road in Lewiston. The church now serves about 140 families. Though there are many cultures there — including many from Eastern Europe — the majority are Greek.
Levesque was named Jason Tsamouras at birth. When his parents divorced, he took his mom's maiden name as his last name.
"The church is not just about religion," said Levesque. "It's about shared culture, too." He joined the church about seven years ago. Since then, his wife, Catherine, and their three children have all been baptized in the church and a son now serves as an altar boy.
Though he was raised by his mom, Levesque's Greek heritage helped shape him, he said.
His first name came from the hero of Greek myth. When he started his own business, he named it after the stories of Jason and the Argonauts.
"I've known since high school that I would have a business and it would be called 'Argo,'" he said. "If I had been a plumber, it might have been 'Argo Plumbing.'"
Instead he owns a Lewiston-based firm that helps telemarketers and other businesses make better use of their call centers, called Argo Marketing.
In 2010, Levesque also ran for Maine's 2nd congressional district. He managed to secure the Republican nomination but failed in the general election against incumbent Michael Michaud.
Being Greek has kept his aspirations high, he said.
"I always thought that being Greek gave one a sense of pride of our past accomplishments as a culture," Levesque said. "You're always driven to do bigger and better things. Since I was a little kid, I was told what great things Greeks have done over the years. Everything's Greek."
That sense of pride and mission came to Lewiston-Auburn from mostly tiny villages in Greece.
"The men came to work, make money and go back home," said Peter Robinson, a Greek-American from Lewiston who has researched the local community. "Some did go home. But a lot of them stayed. They decided that they liked it here. They eventually went home and brought their families back with them."
The first wave of immigrants came around 1900, he said. Within 20 years, they'd become an economic force in the community. They seemed to bring an ethic of entrepreneurship and mercantilism.
"When you make a decision to stay, it changes everything," Robinson said. "This is your home, now. You make the best of it. You start a new life for your kids and all of that."
Their numbers were not large, never rivaling the Irish or Franco-American groups.
A 50th anniversary written history of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, published in 1967, described a Lewiston-Auburn Greek population of 3,000 people.
However, Robinson figures the numbers were grossly inflated.
He says he read through the Lewiston and Auburn censuses for 1920 and 1930.
"I literally counted, line by line, how many Greeks there were," said Robinson. "We're talking hundreds not thousands. In the 300s is what shows up in the census."
Their impact seemed far larger.
By the 1940s and 1950s, when Snowe was a girl, the Greeks seemed everywhere.
"I think virtually every restaurant in Lewiston-Auburn was owned by a Greek," Snowe said. "There were several on Court Street in Auburn. There was the Auburn Lunch, and Pops, an Italian sandwich and pizza place around the corner, the Plaza and the Nichols' Tea Room."
In Lewiston, there was Simones' Hot Dog Stand, which remains today, and Marois, operated by Toni and George Orestis (George Orestis also became Maine's first lottery commissioner in the early 1970s). Marois, on Lisbon Street, specialized in American and Greek food, closing in 2003.
Many of the Greeks, it seemed, were inspired to open their own businesses instead of pursuing careers in the mills, though many did that, too.
"Most of them didn't work for somebody else," Snowe confirmed.
There were Greek-run laundries, merchants and barbers. Snowe discovered only recently that her dad had run a shoe and hat cleaning shop on Lisbon Street.
Socially, local Greeks had a few groups for the adults — such as the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association and the Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society — and for the kids there were dances and Greek language classes.
"We went to Greek school several afternoons a week," said Snowe, who remembers walking from her home on Elm Street in Lewiston to the Holy Trinity's pre-1977 church on Lincoln Street.
"It was an absolute must for us to learn how to speak Greek," said Snowe.
Those were the days when church services were conducted entirely in Greek.
Today, services at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church are largely in English, something Toppses initiated soon after he arrived in 2001.
Pride, sense of family remain
In a way, the language change seems emblematic of how the community has changed over the years.
The Greeks and their culture have evolved. But they are here.
Robinson figures there are about as many Greeks in the area today as there were 80 or 90 years ago. In some cases their names, like his — he's part of the Doukas family — are different, but the desire to excel remains, he says.
Robinson and another Greek American, Stavros Mendros, were part of 2011's failed effort to bring a casino to Lewiston. Earlier, Mendros served on the Lewiston City Council, in the Maine Legislature and even made a congressional bid.
"It's interesting to see how many entrepreneurs, business owners, lawyers, doctors and so on are in the Greek community," said Levesque.
For instance, another Orestis, John Orestis, owns retirement and nursing facilities. And Jack Clifford, a Greek-American attorney in Lisbon, has been working on a potentially game-changing challenge to the home mortgage industry.
And many of those same politicians, businessmen and lawyers routinely end up on a stool or in a booth at Simones' Hot Dogs, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008.
The breakfast and lunch restaurant on Chestnut Street in Lewiston is still in the family, run by Jimmy and Linda Simones. They are joined by such places as George's Pizza in Auburn run by George Stamboules and Niky's Restaurant in Lewiston, run by Niky Karamousadakis.
"We're still here," Jimmy Simones said. "The numbers of Greeks might have changed, but there is still a community."
His wife, Linda, agrees.
"There is such a sense of connection, and that's one thing that hasn't changed," she said. And it's something that they hope to pass on to their children. Their daughter, Melissa, 28, moved to Washington, D.C., but still attends an Orthodox church. Their son, George, 32, has stayed in the community and is studying to be a deacon at Holy Trinity.
"A lot of the old families have passed on or moved," said Jimmy, who was the third generation to run the restaurant. But among the Greeks, they're remembered.
It tempers the change, Jimmy said.
"It instills a pride," he added. "You still want to do right by them. You want to honor them."