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Philhellenes in Maine Devote Lives to Promoting Greece, Hellenism

The city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesvos is paired with Portland, Maine in the Sister Cities program. Irwin Novak and Mary Snell, two philhellenes from Maine, helped make that a reality. Credit: Koutrolm /Public Domain

Irwin Novak and Mary Snell, philhellenes who live near Portland, Maine, have devoted much of their lives to furthering the knowledge of, and appreciation for, their beloved Greece.

From establishing The Hellenic Society of Maine (HSoM) to creating the “Sister city” pairing of Mytilini, the capital of Lesvos, and Portland, Maine, they are tireless campaigners for the promotion of the country.

Snell tells Greek Reporter in a recent interview that she and her husband established the Hellenic Society of Maine for the purposes of preserving and promoting Hellenic heritage and culture in the state. The Society is affiliated with the University of Southern Maine (USM) and its Hellenic Initiatives program, and supports the official Sister City relationship between Portland and Mytilene.

Philhellenes devote lives to furthering appreciation for Greek culture

While neither of them are of Greek extraction, the love affair with Greece started a long time ago for Snell, who lived in the country from 1973- 1975, during what she calls ” a very heady time” as it emerged from the years of junta rule and the invasion of Cyprus that followed.

These dramatic years were very formative ones for Snell, who learned the Greek language by immersion; she tells Greek Reporter that she quickly “fell in love with the country and the people,” eventually coming to purchase a home on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Now, having stayed on Lesvos every single year since 1989, Novak and Snell can look back on their decades of service to the people of Greece, and Lesvos in particular. Now in the middle of starting up an archive for any and all materials relating to Greek immigration in Maine now, they earlier spearheaded the twinning of Portland and Mytilene.

Mary Snell and Irwin Novak
Mary Snell and Irwin Novak, philhellenes who have worked tirelessly for decades to promote Greek culture and Hellenism in Maine. Photo courtesy Mary Snell.

Last year, the couple was honored by the mayor of the Governor of the North Aegean in a ceremony in Mytilene. This recognition was given due to the many educational, cultural, and charitable initiatives the two undertook over the past 30 years that have both helped the island and promoted Hellenism in Maine.

“Your contribution to the Sister City initiative between Mytilene and Portland, the establishment of the Hellenic Society in Maine, and the collaboration between the University of Southern Maine and Aegean University, is invaluable,” stated Christiana Kalogirou, the Governor of the North Aegean Region.

“Furthermore, the material assistance and medical supplies that you [and HSoM] provided to the Hospital of Mytilene was critical to its function during the refugee and migrant crisis,” Kalogirou added.

Sister cities project links two maritime cities with a great deal in common

Snell and Novak credit the people and organizations who have been partners in many projects, including the Hellenic Society of Maine, USM, the City of Portland, as well as various citizens, officials, and organizations in Mytilene and on Lesvos.

Although at first glance perhaps not appearing to be exactly twins of each other in a host of ways, Snell tells Greek Reporter that there were many reasons that spurred her and her husband to work toward the pairing of the two maritime cities.

Just some of the similarities, Snell says, are that they are situated in the northeastern parts of their countries and are historically centered around the sea. They are both prominent ports in their regions and are known for their longstanding environmental efforts. Also, she adds, the peoples of Mytilini and Portland are similar in that they tend to be of a more taciturn, inward-turned nature.

After becoming immersed in the life of Lesvos and involving themselves in the thriving arts and culture scene there, Snell and Novak began a series of intercultural exchanges.

Over the years at USM, the Society supported events of the University of Southern Maine/Aegean Arts and Cultural Exchange and academic programs between USM and the University of the Aegean on Lesvos.

Hellenic Society of Maine fosters cultural exchange between Lesvos and Portland, Maine

In supporting the Sister City relationship, since 2003 the HSoM has hosted five different mayoral delegation visits to Maine and to Mytilene, Snell tells Greek Reporter, adding the programs included tours and cultural events in both cities.

In 2007, the Society collected and shipped more than 80 hardcover books in English on the subject of American culture to the Mytilene City Public Library.

Five years later, it collaborated with Tetra Projects to send the exhibit called Portes (Doors), featuring the work of 50 Portland artists, to Mytilene. The same year, the HSoM installed an oak display case in Portland City Hall which features Mytilene as its Sister City.

In 2016 the Society raised over $20,000 through Lesvos Hospital Aid to send a 40 foot long container filled with more than $250,000 worth of repurposed medical equipment and new medical supplies to the Municipal Hospital of Mytilene – which was overwhelmed by the refugee crisis that began on Lesvos in 2015.

The HSoM was also instrumental in creating the art exhibition called “IXNOS,” at the USM Library, which explored the ongoing refugee crisis on Lesvos Island and in Greece as a whole. The week-long exhibition was part of the statewide initiative called “Making Migration Visible.”

Presentations, language courses, dancing lessons part of Society’s offerings

The Hellenic Society of Maine also presented special events for philhellenes such as a Greek cultural bus tour to Boston in 2014 in collaboration with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USM. It included a visit to the Greek Consulate, the Museum of Art, a contemporary art exhibit, and a stop at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Saco.

In the Fall 2016 the HSoM presented a talk by Ifigenia Kanara, the Consul General of Greece in Boston at that time. In the Spring of 2019 they sponsored a presentation by the current Consul General, Stratos Efthymiou. A talk by the former Ambassador to Greece, David Pearce, was presented by the society in late 2018.

Although it has now shifted to an online activities, this has not hindered the Society — quite the opposite, as Snell says, who explains that they have many more attendees at their Zoom presentations than they had in person in the past.

The Hellenic Society of Maine regularly presents a number of special events, including lectures on such topics as Greek history, Orthodox mysticism, the Olympian gods, Modern Greek poets, ancient and modern Greek engineering, icons, ancient Greek music, the Olympics, and Greek genealogy.

Book club, Greek film series, concerts for Society members

Subjects including the monasteries of Mt. Athos, traditional folk painting, archeology, the Antikythera Mechanism, the rescue of Greek Jews in WWII, and the 1821 Greek Revolution have also been the focus of talks sponsored by the HSoM in the past.

The Society hopes to hold in-person classes in Greek dancing, language, and the culture of Modern Greece as soon as feasible. Meanwhile, their well-received annual Greek Film Series is ongoing. Participants are expected to view the films on their own and then they can discuss them together. There are six films a year (in Greek and English) on classical and contemporary topics of Greek culture, including documentaries, vintage, and recent films by Greek filmmakers, as well as popular American films with Greek themes.

Since Greek is a rather notoriously difficult language for many English speakers, the HSoM also hosts the “Greek Table,” which consists of three different hour-long  sessions (open conversation, grammar class, and advanced speakers) that gather each week via Zoom to speak and learn Modern Greek.

Snell recommends attending the open conversation class for those who do not yet possess advanced skills in Greek.

Biblia Mazi, a book club for HSoM members, is another way that Hellenism is spread in Maine. Participants read three Greek-related books a year and meet via Zoom to discuss them.

The HSoM also has helped create “The Greeks of Maine Archive” at the Maine Historical Society; it encourages Mainers of Greek heritage to donate material to this archive, helping to preserve the history of the Greeks of Maine.

In the future, Snell says, the HSoM will present other cultural and artistic events, as they have in the past, including public dances; concerts of Greek music including rembetika; Greek wine tastings with silent auctions; USM planetarium shows geared toward Greek mythological figures in the constellations; a children’s theater production on Greek myths
and a heritage and cooking panel discussions on the Greeks of Maine

All those who are interested are encouraged to join the society via its website.

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