A Father's Legacy to Children and Church

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By Julie Hanson
Staff Writer
Chelmsford Independent

The artwork adorning Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Lowell touches many, but holds special meaning for Chelmsford residents Sylvia Contover and Elgy Toury.

"It's still very moving," Contover said. "It gives you a special feeling to know that your father painted it."

Three full-sized icons entitled "Saint John the Baptist," "The Virgin," and "The Christ," were donated to the church in 1930 after hanging in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for seven years. Documentation
credits Athanasios Solomonides as the artist, but the paintings are unsigned in accordance with an old Greek tradition.

"It's God's gift, so they don't claim credit for it," Contover said.

Solomonides was born in Axarion, a small town outside Smyrna, in Asia Minor. He was orphaned at age 16 and traveled to Athens to join his older brother who was studying medicine there. The siblings parted ways after quarreling over Solomonides' refusal to become a student. They eventually reconciled through correspondence, but were never reunited.

While in Athens, Solomonides viewed an icon sent to a member of the royal family in Greece from a monastery on Mt. Athos. He vowed to reproduce the artwork and journeyed immediately to Mt. Athos where he became a monk. Within a few years Solomonides' work gained recognition. His portrait of the Madonna sold to a wealthy Greek family living in Paris. The matriarch appreciated his work so much that she sent letters of encouragement and painting supplies to Solomonides after his arrival in America.

Solomonides came to America at his brother's urging. Upon arrival he discovered his brother, a Greek Orthodox priest as well as a doctor, had been transferred to the western part of the country. The pair never met up.

America was not the land of opportunity for Solomonides. He found little work as an artist.

"Hearst commissioned my father to paint some nudes but he wouldn't have that," Toury said. "He was a holy man."

Solomonides came to Lowell in search of work. A cantor in the local church arranged a marriage,
and Solomonides fathered six children, one of who died at birth. To support the growing family, he took a job at Columbia Textile Company. Management assigned him to the dye shop in an attempt to capitalize on his artistic abilities.

An industrial accident crushed his arm and ended his painting career. From then on, Solomonides rarely spoke of his art. He died shortly after the accident, on January 24, 1923 at the age of 45. He left a widow, Helen, and five children under the age of eight.

"We were very poor at that time," Toury said. "We pushed through."

Left alone and penniless, Helen Solomonides sold the house, planted vegetables, and raised pigs and chickens.

"I remember going to Pawtucketville and picking up buckles for shoes and we all worked on them." Contover said.

Speaking little English hampered Helen Solomonides' efforts. Relying on home-based industries such as embroidery, and with her children's help, the family eked out a living.

"Although she was poor she didn't want to sell icons because my father had said he wanted them donated to the church that was being built," Toury said.

The artwork was loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts where it remained on display for seven years. A 1929 Boston Herald article equaled the artwork to that of DeVinci.

Although poor, the family managed at least one excursion to the museum.

"We went specifically to see them," Contover said.

Four of the five children served in World War II, including Toury one of the first two WACS from the Lowell area.

Contover received her bachelor's degree at age 62 and finished her graduate degree when she was 73. She continues to work part-time. Both women are world travelers five times over. They hope their father's story helps lay to rest the stereotype of the lazy immigrant.

"Some of the immigrants that came over were very accomplished," Contover said.