| VISIT WESTERN NEBRASKA |
On Sunday morning around 3 a.m., members of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church in Bayard are awake and preparing for the day’s event. The annual Greek festival’s Sunday dinner, which includes freshly cooked lamb, begins while everyone else is still asleep. They are continuing a tradition, which began nearly a century ago.
| BRIDGEPORT NEBRASKA
Upon entering the Prairie Winds Community Center in Bridgeport, Nebraska attendees breathe deeply as the smell of delicately made Greek sweets wafts up their nostrils as vibrant and lively music sets the tone for the cultural encounter they are about to experience.
As they enter the main room of the community center, they can catch a glimpse of church members grilling fresh beef and lamb and hear stories of how a community of Greeks settled in western Nebraska.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Union Pacific Railroad sent workers to Greece to try and convince them to come to America to work for them. Many came in 1905, but the largest influx was in 1919. The railroad paid the way for the Greeks who decided the journey was worth it for work and hoped they would eventually return home to their families.
The new immigrants worked for Union Pacific in laying tracks from Nebraska to Billings, Montana. They settled in many areas in Nebraska, including Bayard, Lewellen, and North Platte. Many of these new workers were laid off when the job was finished.
Many went back home to Greece. Others decided to stay, but they needed jobs if they were going to survive in their new homeland. They turned to farming and ranching, which many of their descendants in Bayard continue to pursue today.
As with many new immigrants to the North Platte Valley, the men who decided to remain, eventually wanted to marry or be reunited with their families. Single men accepted arranged marriages and others traveled back to Greece to help families come and settle in the United States.
The families who settled in Nebraska brought Orthodox Christianity with them. In Nebraska, they formed the Constitution of the Greek Orthodox Church Community Assumption of the Virgin Mary in 1925. The Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church in Bayard, Nebraska was founded soon after.
Theotokos is a title of Mary, mother of Jesus, and has been in use since the 3rd century. It is generally translated as “God-Bearer” or “Mother of God” in English.
The church has been a large part of the Greek community in Bayard, Nebraska for nearly a century. One of its biggest holidays of the year is the Dormition, which commemorates the death of Mary.
Each year, the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church hosts its annual Greek Festival in Bridgeport to welcome anyone who wishes to celebrate with them. Dormition is held each year on Aug. 15, so the church hosts the event on the weekend as close to the date as possible.
The Greek Festival began on Aug. 15, 1926, with a members-only lamb roast after church to celebrate the Dormition and to officially name their church. As the years passed, the event grew. Neighbors wanted to know what Greek food tasted like. Friends and relatives, first a few, then many, gathered as the number of people attending grew.
The festival began as a simple church picnic held on a local farm but has grown to become the church’s main fundraiser of the year as crowds of people gather to sample authentic Greek recipes and learn more about Greek Culture. The event became large enough that, by the turn of the 21st century, it was moved to the Prairie Winds Community Center in Bridgeport to accommodate all the guests.
Around 1,500 people attend the two-day festival each year. Visitors come from all over, including Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Denver, Colorado to attend one of the biggest ethnic celebrations in Nebraska’s Panhandle. On Saturday, visitors are treated to authentic Greek food made with family recipes by church members and as fresh as possible. Visitors can sample calamari, loukoniko (Greek sausage), tyropitas (Greek cheese triangles), fasolakia (bean dish), manestra (rice)gyros, lamb and pork kabobs, pastitso, and an assortment of sweet desserts, including homemade baklava.
If you’re not too stuffed after eating all the sumptuous food, you can join in with dancers who entertain the crowds. Athenian Dancers are church members, aged 3-13, who perform a variety of Greek dances in traditional costumes.
Visitors can also participate in a raffle and an auction, with proceeds going to the church. Although there is no admission charge for the event, meal tickets are available for purchase at the door. This allows visitors to pick and choose what food they want to try and which ones they want to go back for seconds.
Members of the church plan on celebrating the festival’s 100th anniversary in 2026. As always, they plan to invite everyone who wants to have a good time in a family-friendly atmosphere.
| CREDITS & RESEARCH
For more information about the church or the Greek Festival, visit https://assumption.ne.goarch.org/about/greekfestival.