St. Elias Mediterranean Festival

By Andrea Culletto  

Exotic music dances through the air, mingling with a cacophony of heavenly aromas. Dancers in colorful garb display their cultural skills before an enraptured audience. Everywhere you look, something new and fascinating awaits. From a plethora of delicious Mediterranean foods to cultural performances and the inspiring structure of the St. Elias Orthodox Church itself, there is plenty to savor at the St. Elias Mediterranean Festival, a treasured La Crosse tradition. 

Multicultural Tradition

The St. Elias Orthodox Church was constructed in 1909 under the direction of the Syrian Orthodox Society. It was designed to offer a religious home to the growing Orthodox community in La Crosse, many of which hailed from faraway lands. “The building was a humble structure,” described St. Elias congregant Terri Markos, “but with care and planning it continues to this day.” 

The congregation’s demographics evolved over the following 100 years. According to Terri, the church now enjoys a “small but vibrant group of folks who represent many ethnicities and follow the traditions of the ancient church. The church has an apostolic tradition which is unchanging from the earliest centuries.” The church now includes Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Bulgarian, German, Norwegian, Syrian, Lebanese and Greek congregants, among others. 

The Markos family has a long history with the St. Elias Orthodox Church. In fact, Terri’s husband, Richard Markos’ grandfather, Salem Markos, was a founding member. The Markos family Multicultural Tradition

The St. Elias Orthodox Church was constructed in 1909 under the direction of the Syrian Orthodox Society. It was designed to offer a religious home to the growing Orthodox community in La Crosse, many of which hailed from faraway lands. “The building was a humble structure,” described St. Elias congregant Terri Markos, “but with care and planning it continues to this day.” 

The congregation’s demographics evolved over the following 100 years. According to Terri, the church now enjoys a “small but vibrant group of folks who represent many ethnicities and follow the traditions of the ancient church. The church has an apostolic tradition which is unchanging from the earliest centuries.” The church now includes Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Bulgarian, German, Norwegian, Syrian, Lebanese and Greek congregants, among others. 

The Markos family has a long history with the St. Elias Orthodox Church. In fact, Terri’s husband, Richard Markos’ grandfather, Salem Markos, was a founding member. The Markos family helped sustain the budding new church and stepped in as needed throughout the years to assist when it lacked a full-time priest. “The Markos family took a leadership role in taking care of the church, sponsoring little events to pay for the heat and the upkeep,” Terri said. “The Syrian Church, as it was then called, was unique in that it was the only one in Wisconsin.” 

In 1976, the church held its first Mediterranean Festival.

The aim of the event was to revitalize the church and help establish regular services. The festival became a beloved tradition. It has grown and evolved over the last 30 years and helps sustain the faith that founded it. Like the church, it has also expanded to include new and increasingly diverse cultural offerings. 

“As the church grew, many other families became involved,” Terri explained. “They sustain the church and the festival through a great deal of dedication and support. Although the number of original Syrian families is now very few, the tradition continues with folks who have converted to the faith. The legacy and multicultural makeup of the church is important, but the blending of cultures taking place creates an environment that is welcoming to all people.”

This sentiment speaks to the heart of both the faith and the Mediterranean Festival itself. The festival is a celebration of cultures which has become a beloved tradition eagerly anticipated by individuals of all faiths and cultural backgrounds. This year, the festival will include all the most cherished hallmarks of the celebration with many additional highlights to enjoy. 

Basking in the Authentic

In 2017, the Mediterranean Festival is hearkening back to its roots. “The festival this year builds on ancient tradition by offering a menu that dates back to the food which was served by the early Christians,” Terri explained. “For example, for the first time ever, the church will offer Kilbee, which is boiled wheat berries with walnuts, raisins, sugar and almonds. Offering Kilbee is part of an old rite of the church for the requiem liturgy and today is a nutritious treat for vegetarians and other health-minded folks. Another homemade treat offered in the past few years is falafel, which will be cooked on-site for the first time and consists of ground chickpeas and fava beans made into patties with spices and baked or deep-fried. This Mediterranean staple can be found on every street corner in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine.”

And that’s not all. Many delicious and culturally authentic menu items will be available at the festival, including chicken or lamb kabob dinners and the falafel dinner. These entrées are each accompanied by sides of Syrian rice, tzatziki sauce, pita bread and salad. For those who like to try a little of everything, the Slavic plate sampler will be the perfect fit. Or, if you’re looking for something quick and delicious, a lamb sandwich may be just the ticket. And be sure to try the Zalaybe, a Middle Eastern fried bread that will be prepared fresh on-site. 

There will also be a variety of delicious baked goods and sweets including baklava, talame bread and spanakopita. “Almost every menu item being offered has a history that goes back to early Christianity, except perhaps the beer and soft drinks, which are also offered at the festival,” Terri explained. “The food is incredible. The bake sale is amazing and sells out quickly. Everything is homemade and authentic. Many folks come to buy ethnic baked sweets, partake of the lamb kabob dinner, the chicken kabob dinner with a homemade yogurt marinade, and the Slavic plate sampler among other offerings.”

Entertainment at this year’s Mediterranean Festival will include performances by the Festival Singers, the Winona International Dancers, and the Maritza dance band, which specializes in Eastern European tunes. The event will also feature a silent auction, children’s activities and much more.

A Legacy of Faith

For Richard and Terri, the best part of the St. Elias Mediterranean Festival is the opportunity it brings to share the historical legacy of their faith, which is both inspiring and deeply intertwined in their daily lives. “Being able to share faith traditions and offering unique cuisine to the community is a reminder that we all come from some place that is meaningful to us,” Terri said. “We learn to appreciate each other’s traditions through these opportunities to be together and break bread.” 

They, along with the rest of the St. Elias Orthodox Church members, are excited to celebrate and share their ancient traditions with the community. “To know and experience a living history through food is special,” Terri said. “How many times do you get to sample authentic baked goods from many parts of the world?”

Terri is also looking forward to the St. Elias Orthodox Church tour that will showcase many of the building’s icons. These were personally written by Connie Mahairias, the church’s official iconographer. “The icons simply make the church beautiful, reverent and ethereal, and tell an allegorical story,” Terri explained. “The interior is totally unlike any other church in the area.” 

The St. Elias Orthodox Church is the centerpiece of the festival, both metaphorically and physically.

Funds raised help support the church and will ensure that it continues to thrive and grow into the future. In addition, the church’s location on Copeland Avenue lends increased authenticity to the festival. This historic neighborhood was once home to an early Syrian colony in La Crosse. For Richard, this is the most important part of the festival—remembering how they started and the rich legacy they have to build upon. 

With incredible food and amazing cultural offerings, the St. Elias Mediterranean Festival is sure to delight your senses and enliven your curiosity. According to Terri, “It is a rich experience and a mosaic of cultures, which is a gift to the community. On top of all of this, there is entertainment which is colorful, sometimes ethnic, and altogether enjoyable. The festival is a family activity that teaches each of us a little bit about La Crosse, then and now. Don’t miss it.” 

The St. Elias Mediterranean Festival will be held at noon on July 23, 2017, at St. Elias Orthodox Church, located at 716 Copeland Ave. in La Crosse. For more information, call (608) 782-3557.