Greek Orthodox Church moves into new home in Sandy

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chuck Karpakis hangs one of the icons in the new St. Anna Orthodox Church in Sandy, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.

Sandy • A garden-nursery-turned-wedding-venue has bloomed a third time — into a Greek Orthodox Church.

The St. Anna Parish recently bought the former Western Garden and Atrium at 9201 S. 1300 East in Sandy and is turning a building that once sold seeds, trees, shovels and bark into a place for Sunday liturgies, Easter services, baptisms, weddings and community gatherings.

(Photo courtesy of St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church) The parish at St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church has transformed a former nursery into its new home.

After completing the purchase of the 3.25-acre site in October 2019 and spending the past several weeks constructing a temporary worship space, the parish — which includes about 200 families — will hold its first service in its new home on Sunday.

To symbolize the transition, each churchgoer will transport an icon, chalice, candle or other sacred vessel from the former space in Cottonwood Heights — on the campus of St. Thomas More Catholic Church — to the new spot.

“It takes a lot of faith and volunteers to transform a garden center into a church," said the Rev. Anthony Savas. who will perform the church’s inaugural Divine Liturgy alongside Metropolitan Isaiah, the Denver-based regional leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Timing played a significant role in the recent purchase, said Savas, a native Salt Laker who graduated from Westminster College. Three years ago, St. Anna tried to buy the property, but, with limited funds, it could couldn’t work out the financing offered through the building’s owner.

The congregation was disappointed, he said, but not deterred.

More than a year passed, and the 16,000-square-foot building once again became available. This time, though, the fledgling parish was on better financial footing, able to put down half the $3 million asking price.

Throughout the emotional process, Savas said, the congregation was aware of the deep connection between the building’s garden history and the life of St. Anna — reverenced as the mother of the Virgin Mary.

The patron saint, also known as St. Anne, and her husband, Joachim, were childless well into their senior years, according to passages in the Gospel of St. James. That brought them much sorrow and also subjected them to scorn, because childlessness at the time was considered a curse.

“They were marginalized,” Savas said, “but never lost faith.”

On one occasion — when the couple’s generous gift was publicly refused — a weeping Anna went home to her garden, sat under a laurel tree and prayed that God might give her a family.

Her pleas were answered — as were those of St. Anna’s parishioners.

While the St. Anna Parish is officially moved into the building, there is still much work to be done. The parish plans to transform both the interior and parts of the exterior into a Byzantine-style church with an icon screen that separates the east-facing altar from the nave, classrooms, offices and a large common area for activities.

Work soon will begin and should be done by year’s end, said Savas, whose flock includes members from Serbia, Romania, Russia and the Middle East. Because of that multiplicity of languages, the services, he said, are done almost exclusively in English.

Unlike most Greek Orthodox churches in the U.S., though, St. Anna won’t have a traditional Byzantine dome. While that might seem unusual, Savas said, it’s hardly unheard of — there are churches in Greece that were built without that architectural feature.

Chuck Karpakis, who has been part of St. Anna since it began as a mission parish in 2014, was one of many volunteers who helped set up the temporary church in recent weeks. He is both excited and a tad sad about the move.

“The Catholics have been so welcoming,” he said. “It’s bittersweet leaving them.”

St. Thomas More had a large, unused space on its campus that it offered to St. Anna several years ago.

“It was wonderful to be in a position to help them,” Pastor John Evans said. “They were a missionary church without a home and that is our history.”

The Catholic parish’s first Sunday services in 1981 were in a mortuary on Bengal Boulevard, Evans said. "Then the Episcopalians took us in.”

More than three decades later, when the Catholic parishioners learned that a Greek Orthodox community was looking for a home, they were happy to pay it forward, said Evans. “We see ourselves in them. Our humble beginnings are their humble beginnings.”

St. Thomas More sends their Greek friends into their new home with “many blessings” — and a temporary altar on wheels.

“We used it in those early years, until we built a permanent one,” Evans said. “This one would have ended up in storage, and we knew they had a need.”

Catholic connections also helped St. Anna procure 18 wooden pews from the now-closed Trappist monastery in Huntsville.

These gifts, Savas said, “are just God’s eclectic way of bringing everything together.”