For three generations, Greek-Americans from all over Northern California have found a slice of home at a tucked-away park in Napa Valley.
Since the early 1950s, the Macedonian Park on Lommel Road, between St. Helena and Calistoga, has been a popular site for weddings, baptisms, religious celebrations, summer picnics and other social gatherings.
"This is my playground," said Florika Bozionelos, who lives in San Francisco. "Other kids would spend their summers in Yosemite, we would spend every summer here with different Greek groups."
On Sunday, Bozionelos joined about 100 guests to celebrate the baptism of her cousin's youngest son.
Sitting atop a hill is a small Greek Orthodox church. Father Sergious of the Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga was brought in to preside over the hour-long service.
Greek immigrant donated park
The 10-acre park was donated to a San Francisco-based Greek organization in 1951 by John Zegras of Emeryville. Zegras was a Greek immigrant who had bought land by a canyon located off Silverado Trail between St. Helena and Calistoga.
"Northern Greece in the Macedonian region is pretty mountainous country, that's probably why Zegras bought this land here, it reminded him of the villages in Greece where he grew up," said Angelo Tonas, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Pan-Macedonian Association, USA, which owns the park.
In addition to the church, a large area of the park is dedicated to numerous picnic tables, along with a residential house, kitchen facilities and a bar area.
"Most of us came from some remote villages in Greece, not from big cities," said Tonas, who left Greece for California as a 13-year-old in 1951. "That's why it was natural for our founding members to choose that particular parcel for the park."
Roots in northern Greece
Membership in the organization is open to people who emigrated from the Macedonian province in northern Greece and to their children, Tonas said. Today, the chapter has about 100 members from around the Bay Area. There are about 60 chapters nationwide.
When Othonia Makris came to California 35 years ago, the Macedonian Park was the place to go to meet other Greek immigrants.
Back then, she said, marrying someone non-Greek was inconceivable, so she set out to meet a "nice, Greek guy."
At a summer picnic and dance she locked eyes with Nick Makris, who offered her a piece of watermelon.
"It was love at first sight," Makris said, smiling. Walking up the path to the church the two found a bench where they sat down to talk. Five months later they were married.
At Sunday's baptism and dinner, the Makris family, who live in Belmont, were in attendance along with their daughter and grandchild.
Since the park was donated, members of the group have planted numerous olive trees on the premises, to add to the likeness to the Greek landscape.
"It really is a slice of Greece," said Bozionelos, a second-generation Greek-American who said she has visited her parents' homeland several times.
Although the park is used less frequently today, at Greek Easter the grounds are teeming with people, Tonas said. Earlier this year, about 1,500 participants celebrated the important holiday and feasted on traditional fare of whole roasted lambs.
"It wouldn't be Easter if we weren't here," Bozionelos said.
Steve Charonis of Belmont also said he spent most of his childhood Easters at the park.
Both his sons, 6-year-old Jonathan and 3 1/2-year-old Nicholas were baptized at the park's chapel.
Charonis' wife Jackie, who is not of Greek descent, said she enjoys spending special occasions at the park.
"It's very nostalgic for (my husband)," Jackie Charonis said. "When they were younger, their parents brought them here, and now they are bringing their own children."
What's in a name?
Although the main focus of the Pan-Macedonian Association is to serve as a social club, Tonas said that members sometime take a political stand.
An ongoing issue for the members is the fight over the right to the name Macedonia.
When Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early '90s, officials at one of the former republics wanted to keep the name given to the republic of Macedonia by communist dictator Josep Tito.
International recognition of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was delayed by Greece's objection to the new state's use of what it considered a Hellenic name and symbols.
Although most countries have accepted the name, the issue has still not been finalized.
Last year, the Pan-Macedonian Association's efforts to bring light to the issue paid off in California when the State Assembly passed a resolution supporting the view that the name Macedonia is interlocked with Greece's history.
"We just want to get the word out and diffuse any propaganda," Tonas said. "Macedonia belongs to Greek people and ancient Macedonians."
Under the auspices of the United Nations, representatives from both countries continue to meet in order to come to an agreement.
On the Macedonian Park Web site's guestbook, several visitors reiterate that "Macedonia belongs to the Greek."
Tonas said the issue is important to people from the northern part of Greece for a variety of reasons.
"We're proud that we are from Macedonia and we're very proud of having one of the great leaders of all times, Alexander the Great, came from Macedonia."
To further the ties with the Macedonian Province in Greece, the park's church is named after the patron saint of the Macedonian province's capital.
Every October, Greek-Americans celebrate St. Demetrious. The celebration is one of about five major events that bring the area's Greek-Americans to the park.
Throughout the rest of the year, the park is rented out to other Greek and non-Greek organizations and parties.
Members can also spend weekends at the on-site house that was built in the 1970s. All proceeds and donations to the association go to the maintenance of the large park or to philanthropic causes, Tonas said.
While a property adjacent to the park is currently being developed into a luxury resort and time-share, the Macedonian Park will continue to be a place where new generations can meet other Greek-Americans, and experience the customs of Greece, Tonas said.
"The park, I believe, serves as a nostalgic reminder of our old country," he said. "It's a place where we can reminisce, play Tavli (backgammon), discuss politics, or just enjoy the peaceful country atmosphere which reminds us of our villages in Greece."
Vivi Stenberg-Williams can be reached at 256-2216 or firstname.lastname@example.org