Fr. Nicholas Vieron is somewhat of a local legend in Memphis, Tennessee. This year, he will conduct his 46th annual Adult Greek Class at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church where he served as a pastor for decades, before retiring.
He starts the weekly classes each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an ecumenical tribute to the Civil Rights icon.
The 91-year-old is now pastor emeritus at the church and for nearly a half century, he’s been teaching Greeks and non-Greeks alike, the value of the Greek language, and everything about Greek culture.
“Here we have this little country that has given us the seeds for democracy, the seeds for sports, that has given us art, that has given us so many things that we enjoy today,” he says.
And on the virtues of the language itself, he always reminds his students that they’re already speaking Greek, whether they know it or not.
“You already speak Greek, whether you realize it or not,” he told his class last year during orientation. “When you use such words as philosophy or zoology or biography or chemotherapy or theology, they are all Greek words.”
For Vieron, it’s not about learning the language, it’s more about getting to know a culture and a way of life.
He started the Greek class at Annunciation in part to help bring his congregation closer to the gospels. “Since God decided to speak to us in Greek, meaning the New Testament, the least we can do is tune him in,” he says.
He was born in New Orleans to a Greek family. English, he says, was his second language. When he went to seminary in 1942 and actually wrote some of his first sermons in Greek, when most Greek Orthodox communities in America were still using the Greek language exclusively in their liturgies and sacraments.
In the classroom, he displays some props and items he uses for his class instruction. One is a ceramic nude bust of the Venus De Milo, the famous statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite; another is a copy of the New Testament. They make for interesting talking points, he says.
“How many churches would have the Bible next to a beautiful woman?” asks Father Vieron.
To Vieron, it’s all about the beauty of being Greek and being the inheritor of a rich cultural heritage.
Not trained as a teacher, Vieron jokes about his qualifications.
“What are my qualifications for teaching? I don’t have any. Some of you will learn a little, and some of you will learn a little less.”
And there are only three grades in his class at the end: good, very good and excellent.
“You are here to relax,” he says, and learn about a tiny, beautiful country called Greece that has given the world so much.
Photo from wknofm.org