LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) – It’s set to be a feast for the senses as people in La Crosse experience a culture more than 5,000 miles away. Sunday, July 14 is the 45th annual Mediterranean Fest.
If you drive by Copeland Avenue on La Crosse’s Northside you might not see this small, easy to miss church.
“The Orthodox church is, to use a quote, the church that Christ built,” said Rev. Fr. Dionysios (Dean) Wilhelm.
St. Elias Orthodox Church was built in the early 1900’s during a time when members weren’t fully accepted into the La Crosse community.
“There was a riot out here on Copeland Avenue, so they said let’s build the church to fit in with the community.”
Finding a way to fit in with the community is one reason the Mediterranean Festival got started.
Stacey Kalas has been a member for the past 20 years. She said, “The festival started out just as a community picnic in Copeland Park. Mostly Syrian and Lebanese, they just wanted to do a family picnic and invite the community and it’s grown ever since.”
While the festival grows, the makeup of the church is changing. Historically founded by Arabs, today it is still home to 50 families, many of whom have adopted the Orthodox religion.
Rev. Fr. Wilhelm said, “We only have two Greek families and two Arab families left in the parish.” On Friday, church members were busy prepping hundreds of lamb kabobs for the festival. In its 45th year, they draw big crowds with their authentic food.
“It’s just really a celebration of what we have to offer. The Orthodox faith is rich in itself to be able to share food and music, it’s just hospitality we like to celebrate with the whole community. We’re small but vibrant and really put on a good festival,” added Kalas.
The fest will be held at the church located at 716 Copeland Avenue. New this year is Greek wine and olive oil tastings, an Arabic tea ceremony, and a Middle Eastern herbs and spices display. The festival starts Sunday at 12 and runs until 5 p.m.