Monday, June 15, 2015

A Brief History of the AHEPA in Reading, Pa.

The William Penn Chapter No. 61 of the Order of AHEPA was organized in Reading, Pa., by one of the founders of the organization, the late George A. Polos.

Mr. Polos came to Reading in the early months of 1925, and spent several weeks here talking to Reading-area Greek-Americans about the AHEPA and initiated the first group of AHEPANs into the Order. On March 16, 1925, he initiated another group of 18 AHEPANs.

Twenty-five of these brothers signed the petition on May 2, 1925, asking the "Supreme Council of AHEPA," as it was then known, to grant them a charter. The Reading AHEPA Chapter was the sixth one organized in Pennsylvania (and the 61st chartered in the United States.) The official charter for Chapter No. 61 was dated March 16, 1925.

In 1926, the first major banquet was sponsored by the Reading AHEPA Chapter and among the dignitaries attending were Reading Mayor William Sherman, Berks County Judge John D. Shaffer, and Berks County Superintendent of Schools E.M. Rapp.

Another banquet was held in 1928 with Robert Birch as toastmaster, and among those attending were Mayor J. Henry Stump, The Rev. Miller, and Congressman Charles J. Esterly.

In 1933, the Reading Chapter was host to the Pennsylvania AHEPA District Convention, and just prior to the Convention, the Reading Times newspaper published a glowing editorial on July 10, 1933, praising the work of the AHEPA.

Now came the Chapter's golden years. With capable men assuming the leadership, the respect for the AHEPA grew, many activities of all kinds were held, and many more joined the Order.

The AHEPA Parade Patrol was organized, and under the leadership of the late Peter Eleftheriou, won many awards including first prize in Easton, Pa.'s, 50th Anniversary Parade.

Also, the AHEPA Greek Award was established and was given every year to a student of Albright College who excelled in the studies of Greek.

Then came World War II.  Many members of the Order served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Some were wounded in combat, but all eventually returned with honorable discharges to rejoin their Chapter. The Chapter participated in the AHEPA drive to sell War Bonds and, as a result, the entire Order was commended by the U.S. Government for the millions of dollars of War Bonds that they sold.

In 1946, when Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church purchased the building at 8th and Court Streets in downtown Reading, and moved the Church facilities there, the Chapter donated the cost of the Iconostation (Icon Screen). The cost of the Iconostation was $1,835.00, and this was at a time when Chapter dues were $6.00 per year, and Church dues were $12.00 per year.

When the present Church at 1001 E. Wyomissing Blvd. was built in 1970, that Iconostation was taken apart, brought over to the new Church and re-assembled, and was used until the present newer Iconostation was installed in 1995. Some parts of the old Iconostation are now in the church’s Heritage Room.

On May 5, 1957, the Chapter hosted a banquet honoring Berks County President Judge H. Robert Mays and Judge Marks on their retirement that year. Charles Alvin Jones, the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was the main speaker.

In 1959, the Chapter entered in an agreement with Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church to rent the old Greek School building at 734 Walnut Street in Reading for $500.00 per year for its chapter headquarters.

Although this was a commendable effort to provide a home for the Chapter, it later proved to the downfall of the Chapter and almost caused its extinction. Of course, the division of the church that took place about that same time aggravated the situation.

In 1974 the Chapter was re-organized under the leadership of Michael Firilas, and many new members were initiated, old members re-instated, and became very active. Michael Firilas was elected to the office of District Governor of Power District No. 4.

In 1978, the Chapter hosted the District Convention again, with many city, county and state officials attending the formal District Banquet on June 17th.

The Chapter enjoyed another renaissance from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, hosting another successful District Convention in 1988, establishing the first Chapter Scholarship Fund and winning recognition from Power District No. 4 for the initiation of most new members and reinstatement of past members. Chapter membership peaked at 80.

The Chapter sent full delegations to District and National AHEPA Conventions throughout this 10-year period. Several chapter members served on the District Lodge and one member, Michael Firilas, was elected Supreme Governor of the Order of AHEPA. Michael Firilas was also named 1991 AHEPAN of the Year by Power District No. 4.

The Chapter also held successful Banquets in honor of U.S. Congressman Gus Yatron (a longtime member of the Reading AHEPA Chapter) and the two pastors who served the Greek Orthodox Churches in Reading: Rev. Thomas Pappals and Rev. Spyridon Papademetriou.

As financial scandals rocked the national AHEPA during the mid-1990s and criminal charges were brought against its top leadership, membership declined significantly and the Reading Chapter, like many others across the country, fell into a period of dormancy.

In 2010, a new effort was put forth to bring the Chapter back to its glory days, spearheaded by Gust C. Kraras. Many new members were initiated, and old members were reinstated. A new set of officers was elected, who are worthy successors to their illustrious predecessors and who are working very hard for the Chapter today.

The Chapter re-instituted the Annual AHEPA Day  in our Church. The Sunday includes a Memorial Service for all our departed Brothers, a meal served after Church, and also a Booklet with all the names of the departed Brothers, the present Chapter Officers, and the present membership that is handed out to all Parishioners.

In collaboration with the local St. Xenia Philoptochos Society, the Chapter organized a very successful Christmas Party for the children of our community in 2011, with about 250 children and adults attending. The event has continued every year, with proceeds going to charity.

Also, a new idea was put into practice of holding regular dinner meetings at Reading-area restaurants, where the Brothers can enjoy each other's company socially, as true AHEPANS.

An annual AHEPA Golf Tournament was organized, bringing the brothers together for a game of golf, and their families joining them for a casual picnic social afterwards. The event was eventually named in honor of our late Brother Ernie Orphanos, who organized the first tournament and chaired the event for several years as Athletic Director.

The Reading AHEPA Chapter, under the leadership of President George J. Giovanis, was recognized as Chapter of the Year in Pennsylvania in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

By the end of 2013, chapter membership topped 100, making William Penn Chapter 61 one of the largest AHEPA chapters in Pennsylvania (and the country).

On June 1, 2015, the chapter was renamed in honor of Gust C. Kraras during a 90th Anniversary Banquet. Brother Kraras is a 70-year member of the Order of AHEPA and was a Past District Governor of District No. 5 in New Jersey. Brother Kraras was instrumental in reviving the Reading AHEPA Chapter and guiding it over the past five years.

-- History Compiled by Gust C. Kraras and Tony A. Phyrillas

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