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Malbis Plantation Greek Orthodox Church

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Malbis Plantation outside Mobile Alabama has a Greek Orthodox Church with some wonderful mosaics, The Presentation of Theotokos. Thanks to my new Toshiba camera with a 10 X zoom, you can see some really detailed photos that I took of these mosaics. I also took a few shots of the interior of the church and it's fanciful stenciling not often seen in churches in the States. Click on the photos of the mosaics to see a big version of the photo to see the detail and individual smalti tesserea. (See the story of this unusual community below)

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If you can read the old and discolored wording on the sign, it says that the church is open daily for visitors. So be sure to stop by if you travel along I-10 going east from Mobile as this church can be seen from the expressway at the Malbis exit, just a few miles east of Mobile, AL between Mobile and the exit to Gulf Shores and the beach. This church is a copy of a stately church in Athens, Greece designed by Frederick C. Woods of Mobile, Ala . Marble was brought from the same quarries that provided stone for the ancient and magnificent Parthenon. A "master painter" and his helpers were brought over from Greece to paint the murals on the walls, the panels and the ceiling of the rotunda. Hand carved figures and ornaments used in various rites were brought from Greece and assembled in this church. This Greek Orthodox Church of Byzantine architecture opened in 1965. The church itself is the shape of a cross

I have learned from a second book printed in Greece that I have recently run across on the subject of this church that the mosaics were designed and prepared by the Tonelli Fine Art Studios of Chicago that specializes in all types of interior church decorating. A current directory lists them as:

DR CHICAGO, IL 60611 (312) 337-1716

Mr. S. Tonelli had the mosaics executed in his shop in the Pietrasanta / Carrara, area of  Italy.

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The front gable of the church is covered in mosaics. Photo is taken while looking up from ground level. Click the photo to see the big version of the photo.

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The angle of my photos is somewhat skewed since I must stand on the ground in front to take most of the photos while looking up.

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On either side of the church front are these mosaics with gold backgrounds of the Apostles.

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Under the porch and above the front doors are these half round mosaics. Unfortunately the porch lanterns are high from chains directly in front of the mosaics which is a bit distracting. The mosaicist did a great job of creating very readable text using a very few individual tiles. He or she also did a great job on the skin tones in my opinion. The large versions of these photos show how amazingly this is done with so few tiles.

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Click the book to see the BIG photo of the book and click the photo above to see a close-up of the text in mosaics.

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I wish I had been able to take these photos from a better angle rather than looking up at such a sharp angle.

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You can see the edge of the lantern that I was trying to avoid on the left side of the photo. While I think the clothing in the St. Monica mosaics has slightly softer looking folds, the faces and skin tones in these Malbis mosaics are just wonderful. Look at the power in this mosaic of St. Paul.

The Interior of the Malbis Alabama Greek Orthodox Church
of The Presentation of Theotokos

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This photo shows the decoratively painted interior of the center dome in the sanctuary. The interior adornment of the church was executed by Spyros Tziouvaras, an Iconographer of Athens. He was assisted by by Haralambos Tziouvaras and Chris Tziouvaras . Together they labored over many consecutive months in Athens preparing the paintings on canvas which were later brought here by the artists and adhered to the walls. Some of the remaining space has paintings down directly on the walls. The interior of the dome is covered with the artist's conception of the Pantocrator (in Greek meaning literally the Holder of Al Things) or The Almighty. This was painted from a 75 ft. scaffolding over a period of 3 months by the artists lying on their backs. Altogether the artists spent 8 months painting the interior of the Malbis Plantation Church.
Click to see a big photo.

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Looking directly up into the dome.

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The altar area and carved marble pulpit which is to the left of the altar. The pulpit has a great deal of intricate carved detail, click the photo to see the detail.

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Marble columns and elaborate painting throughout.

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One unusual feature...on a side wall, next to the pews, is a painting of the church itself.

In the foyer was an offering plate which held contributions for the church's upkeep by grateful visitors. The Malbis Plantation Greek Orthodox Church is definitely one local treasure worth preserving. The church is open daily and visitors from all faiths are welcome.  For more information call 251-626-3050.

Another church with wonderful mosaics in the Mobile Alabama area--St. Monica Roman Catholic Church

Malbis Plantation

I learned a bit about Malbis Plantation founder, Jason Malbis from a book written in 1964 in both English and Greek and printed in Greece. According to "The Faith of Jason Malbis" Jason was born into a poor family in Doumena and taken to a monastery where he remained for several years learning the Word of God and performing monk's duties. The book is vague about how Jason Malbis managed to immigrate to the Chicago area. It says that he made two friends who eventually traveled with him in 1906 in search of land to purchase. After much travel and searching,   Jason saw a 'sign' in the sky from God over the South Baldwin property that they purchased for 5 Dollars per acre for a total of $600 for 120 acres. They made a down payment and planned to pay the balance in monthly installments. Other Greek friends from the Chicago area joined them in their farming activities over the years. The Malbis farm acquired an additional 600 acres in the third year of their efforts.

When World War I began, Malbis saw the value in establishing a cannery and a John Vocolis  became manager of the plant. The canned products included tomatoes, eggplants, squash, peppers, figs and okra with Chicago, New York and Boston being the principle markets for these canned goods. Of course, I am wondering what on earth the Northerners did with the okra since even today , no one north of the Mason-Dixon Line seems to appreciate okra. (Note: a dear reader emailed: Okra is part of a lot of delicious, traditional Greek dishes. Okra is also in Turkish recipes and in other warm-climate cuisines across Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. ) Later a bakery was opened too.

When the Papageorgiou family joined the Baldwin County farming commune, a young daughter, Photini, became an important asset to the community. In 1918 she died during a terrible outbreak of deadly influenza which was a national epidemic. The community, whose population had grown to 85 by 1920, was self-sustaining, with its own ice and power plants, dairy, cannery, bank, garage, nursery and motel. Unmarried women lived in one dormitory, unmarried men in another.

The next installation was a refinery to extract turpentine and resins from the local pine tree sap. An ice plant followed. Jason Malbis turned to friends for capital to install an electricity generating facility after more Greek immigrants arrived  This same group of hardworking individuals labored to built a new road to connect their community to other main byways. After it's completion, their road was designated Hwy 90 and became part of the U.S. Highway System.

Located 13 miles east of Mobile, AL, the Greek Community incorporated under the name Malbis Plantation, Inc. In 1926-7, a new, bigger bakery was built built, with loans from the Chicago area, closer to Mobile on railroad lines.

Prominent visitors came to visit the Malbis Plantation including the famous attorney Clarence Darrow and an Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church from Greece. In July of 1942, Jason Malbis, founder of the prospering community died while on a trip to Greece. Jason Malbis left one last written request: "Build a Greek Orthodox church for me in Malbis." It took his followers more than 15 years to raise the funds, but in 1965 the Malbis Memorial Church, formally called the Presentation of Theotokos (Birth of God) and patterned after The Church of the Panagia Chrysospyliotissa (Our Lady of the Golden Cave)  in Athens, opened. The community flourished until the mid-1970's, and descendants of the original Greek immigrants still live in the area.


Great Mosaic

Copyright 2002-2014  Lundy Wilder
June 10, 2014
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