Oh, that mysterious church in Malbis…



story by Harriet Swift  photography George Fuller

When the three domed towers of a Greek Orthodox church began to take shape in the piney woods off Highway 90 in the early 1960s, Baldwin County residents weren’t surprised. The “Greek folks” at Malbis were known for their enterprise and for doing the unusual.

Not so for the national response to the 1965 dedication presided over by the Greek Orthodox archbishop of North and South America. “A Bit of Greece Transplanted to Alabama,” marveled the The San Diego Union. This sentiment was echoed in other titles such as “Church Is Like Rainbow Inside” (Lexington, Ky.) and “Rural Alabama Church Immigrant’s Memorial/Byzantine Structure Costing $1 Million” (Los Angeles).

How the church came to be

At the turn of the last century Baldwin County was a lightly populated footnote to Alabama. It was a vast, unknown wooded and swampy place with fringe towns and villages strung along Mobile Bay and a few sandy outposts on the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond the coastline, the county was almost impenetrable, without many roads or navigable waterways.

A railroad arrived in Bay Minette in 1895, then was extended through the center of the county, reaching Foley in 1905. Agriculture, on a large scale, was suddenly possible. Crops could be efficiently shipped to markets near and far in quantities that leaped past notions of subsistence farming.

But who was actually going to farm this untested land? Traditional Alabama farmers still worshipped cotton and showed little interest in the sandy, scrubby acres between Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. But the same empty acres looked something like the Promised Land to the waves of immigrants flooding into America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Baldwin County was more akin to the Midwest than the South in that era, with its unclaimed land and open-door policy.

In 1888 Italian immigrants settled in the Daphne area. They were followed by Scandinavians in Silverhill (1897), Germans in Elberta (1905), Poles in Summerdale (1906), and Croatians and Yugoslavs in Perdido (1915). There was also the Fairhope Single Tax Colony, established in 1894, an experiment by high-minded Midwesterners to establish a community on the principles of Henry George’s philosophy of equality through communal land ownership.

When the Greek seeker named Jason Malbis popped up in Baldwin County in 1906 with a plan to establish a semi-religious community of “brotherhood,” no one blinked an eye. The only question was, how much land do you want to buy?

How much land do you want to sell?

Malbis’ answer was something like that. He started out with 120 acres, and within a decade had amassed several thousand, eventually expanding to 10,000, along with a range of businesses, including a large retail bakery, a plant nursery, restaurants, and banking interests.

But the financial empire-building was only the most public face of the Malbis experiment. Jason Malbis slowly gathered a community of Greek expatriates willing to live frugally and modestly, guided by Christian principles. The Greeks worked and lived together, initially in rough buildings they put up themselves.

The Malbis brotherhood or fraternity (there were some women) was an open society with few rules – but Jason Malbis was the undisputed leader. He made all the decisions, personal and business, apparently with little consultation with the members. Yet, Malbis, who was well-known in his lifetime (1869-1942), is actually quite a mystery. The briefest outline of his life begs a million questions. To begin with, he was a Greek Orthodox monk named Antonios Markopoulous who had been consigned to a monastery by his poor family from childhood. He left the priesthood for unknown reasons at an unknown time, arriving in the United States in 1906 at the age of 37. Speaking no English, he made his way to Chicago, where there was a large Greek-American community. One of his first acts was to legally change his name to Jason Malbis, inexplicably taking his new name from an obscure English village, Acaster Malbis, in Yorkshire.

Within a few months of setting foot in Chicago, he convinced two fellow Greek immigrants, William Papageorge and John Vocolis, that their destiny was to establish a religious community in America. Malbis somehow raised enough money, and he and Papageorge, armed only with unshakeable optimism and a Greek-English dictionary, set off to inspect America.

After traversing Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi, they straggled into Mobile. They were almost broke, but decided to heed a sign they saw in an office window on Bienville Square: Low Cost Farmlands for Sale. A salesman took them in hand, shepherding the two Greeks over the bay by ferry.

Arriving in Daphne

Here they shifted to a carriage and traveled six miles inland. Malbis and Papageorge were not impressed. Tired and downcast, they told the salesman they were ready to go back to Mobile. Suddenly Malbis reversed course, screaming “Here is the place where we shall build. … I have just seen a miracle. The Almighty has revealed to me that this is the land for which we are looking, and here is where we shall stay. I saw a brilliant sign on the horizon descending from Heaven and brightening the area around us with untold splendor. There is no doubt in my mind that this the place where our plans and goals will come true.”

Quite a mouthful of complete sentences for an emotional, life-changing miracle, but that is how the story was told. The two Greeks struck a deal for 120 acres, and by 1907 they were building. In the long tradition of American dreamers, their followers wrestled with the land and weather and luck to establish home and livelihood.

The loosely formed religious community of what came to be called “Malbis Plantation” has never been fully explained. Jason Malbis didn’t have (or didn’t make public) a written philosophy or an articulated vision for the “brotherhood.” In general terms, the group welcomed unmarried Greek men who were willing to live ascetically and work on income-generating projects developed by Malbis. Women were part of the community, usually relatives of the male members. A  few families became part of the community, but when a person married, he or she left to establish a separate household and family.

Greek was spoken

And the customs and worldview of Greece predominated. The membership was never more than 100 at its height. As time passed, the community profile devolved to unmarried Greek men.

Jason Malbis made himself a part of the power structure of Baldwin County split among farmers, politicians, businessmen, newspaper editors, and bankers. His relationship to the existing Greek community in Mobile seems to have been distant. When a Greek Orthodox congregation was established in Mobile in 1912, Malbis made contributions, but the two communities never coalesced. However, Jason Malbis kept close ties to the Greek community in Chicago, where he found investors for his colony’s ever-evolving projects. Many of these failed, especially a vision of a grand hotel in Mobile, but farming expanded to a canning factory for the abundant Malbis crops and an ice plant, dairy, and bakery followed. A Mobile restaurant (the Metropolitan Café) was also added to the Malbis portfolio. On the Gulf Coast, his most famous endeavor was taking over a small commercial bakery in Mobile and rebuilding it into Malbis Bakery, providing the famous Malbis soft white bread, puffy glazed doughnuts, and white icing birthday cakes for generations of area residents.

By mid-century, with Jason Malbis having died in 1942, “Malbis” was the modern compound of restaurant, motel, and gas station at the intersection of Highway 90 and present-day Highway 181. The restaurant was a huge favorite and the motel, considered a first-rate accommodation on Highway 90, was especially noted for its swimming pool, shaped like the state of Alabama.

The community formed itself into a corporation with all the members receiving stock. Decisions after Jason Malbis’ death were made jointly and usually hewed to a conservative course. The bakery was sold in 1956, the nursery was allowed to fade away, and the Malbis restaurant and motel became a ghost of what they had been. The new Greeks of this community, those born here, also ventured away from the compound and entered the mainstream of American life.

Jason’s deathbed instruction

Still, from his deathbed, Jason Malbis had left his followers one instruction for the future that they would not forget: “It is my desire that you build a church near the cemetery and near the living quarters. This should be your primary concern … I advise you to spare neither effort nor money for the building of an appropriate House of God.”

In the 1950s building a church provided a new purpose and focus for the brotherhood. Flush with money from sale of the bakery, they took seriously Malbis’ injunction to spare no expense. The prominent Mobile architect Frederick C. Woods was enlisted to head the project, and travels to Greece were commissioned to study Orthodox architecture. The planners used the 19th-century Panagia Chrysopiliotissa Church in Athens as their model. Woods found Italian and Greek artisans to create the paintings and mosaics that cover the interior and ceiling. The church’s rich, crowded décor remains a visit to another world.

There are many descriptions of the church’s gorgeous paintings and artifacts, the rare and marvelous materials that were used to compose its interior and exterior. The main gift of the church, however, is its great, powerful presence on the landscape, and especially its story of the evolution of a Greek community in the American South. These immigrants were led to envision, and to create, a splendid house of spirituality in the piney woods of Baldwin County.