LOWELL — Exports from Kalamata, Greece usually come in the form of olives, but on Thursday the town’s mayor visited Lowell to commemorate and honor a new connection between the two towns.
Kalamata Mayor Athanasios Vasilopoulos, alongside Lowell Mayor Sokhary Chau and former Mayor Bill Samaras, signed an agreement to form sister cities between Kalamata and Lowell. Such a pact will unify the cities and allow them to mutually support each other’s activities and culture.
Local and Greek officials visited a number of notable locations across Lowell to better understand the town’s roots in the Greek community, stopping first at Market Basket on Pawtucket Boulevard – founded, owned and operated by the Demoulas family.
While CEO Arthur T. Demoulas was unable to attend the festivities, Chau spoke of the tremendous positive impact of immigrants in the city, noting his own personal connection to one of Lowell’s multi-ethnic and historic neighborhoods.
“One of the great Greek stories of Lowell is the story of the Demoulas family, how they started with their first store in The Acre, and I’m the first Cambodian-American mayor, I grew up in The Acre too, Chau said in an interview. “When we come together, we can connect with our culture, with our city, and we can preserve heritage, culture and history so that we can be a better city.”
After a walk around the grocery store, the delegation proceeded to City Hall for a flag raising and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding – an agreement that the cities will support each other and seek ways to support their respective interests.
Students from the Hellenic American Academy — the first parochial Greek day school in the United States that taught Greek to students — waved Greek and American flags as they sang the two countries’ national anthems during the flag raising. They then sang a Greek anthem at City Hall, led by Reverend Nikolaos Pelekoudas.
“Kristos anesti!” Pelekoudas and the children sang. “Christ is risen!”
Vasilopoulous was also honored with a key to the city, and he presented Lowell with a Kalamata “collectible” medal seal. Prior to the ceremony, he said he already felt welcomed by the city and looked forward to a prosperous and beneficial partnership.
“We’ve only been here a few hours in the United States, but we feel like we’re at the heart of the Greek community,” Vasilopoulous said in an interview. “Both cities are seizing this opportunity. We look forward to a visit from the Lowell delegation to Kalamata to respond with their hospitality.
Kalamata lies along the southern coast of Greece and is considered the second most populous city in the Peloponnese, the southern peninsula of the country, with around 80,000 inhabitants. Vasilopoulos shed light on much of the city’s history, as well as the many “entertainment options” that Kalamata has to offer.
Lowell was once home to the third-largest Greek-American population in the country in the 1920s, with 35,000 immigrants arriving in the city to escape conflict and financial hardship. Lowell is considered “the Acropolis of America” because of these strong Greek roots.
Samaras originally formed the resolution to create Sister Cities while serving on city council after attending an event hosted by the Federation of Hellenic-American Societies of New England. This sparked the idea of connecting with the Greek community at home and abroad in a ceremonial yet concrete way.
Now, Samaras said he was thrilled to see this proposal come to life.
“Many years ago I brought my wife and children to Greece, and the city we fell in love with was Kalamata,” he said. “I think this program strengthens the bonds between the Greek community and greater Lowell and Kalamata.”
Vasilios Kafkas, president of the federation, visited Kalamata twice and held numerous meetings to strengthen ties between the two cities before inviting officials to Lowell.
Having immigrated to Lowell as a high school student, Kafkas said his own background and Greek identity were coming full circle.
“It’s a sign of appreciation for my new home, America,” Kafkas said. “When you mingle with cultures and organize cultural events…something positive is going to come out of it.”
Officials also toured the Boott Mills, where Larry Curtis, president and managing partner of WinnDevelopment, took Vasilopoulos and his staff on a mill tour, showcasing the renovated apartments and highlighting sustainability efforts.
Next, the group traveled to the UMass Lowell Research Center and Nesmith House at Middlesex Community College to discuss education and potential exchange opportunities. They also attended the swearing-in of new Lowell City manager Tom Golden later that evening.
Over the weekend, officials plan to introduce Kalamata delegates to Boston, and on Sunday Vasilopoulos and other Greek officials will speak at Boston’s Greek Independence Day parade.
Dimitros Mattheos, board member of the Federation of Hellenic-American Societies of New England, said it was important to honor this “bond of brotherhood” that Lowell and Kalamata now share, and that a such a link will only strengthen the Greek culture here.
“I am honored and proud to see this partnership come to fruition,” said Mattheos. “Now we are each stronger because (Lowell and Kalamata) are together and because they are united in the mission to continue to promote growth and opportunity for us and for the nation of Greeks and Greek Americans.”
While Kalamata and Lowell may be 4,700 miles apart, the towns have now formed a bond, and Kafkas said he hopes it’s “not just on paper.”
“I think it’s something good for the betterment of both cities, and better communication, better relations, better relations between people,” he said. “The Greek community isn’t like it was decades ago, but it’s still strong.”