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Malbis Memorial Church
Malbis Memorial Church, officially named the Church of the Presentation of Theotokos, towers majestically over Malbis Plantation three miles inland from Mobile Bay. It stands as a crowning tribute to, and culmination of, the vision of a Greek immigrant named Jason Malbis.
In 1906 Malbis, a former Orthodox monk, founded a quasi-communal colony on 120 acres in rural Baldwin County with the assistance of his friend, William Papageorge. Three years later, they purchased an additional 600 acres. Known as Malbis Plantation, the colony attracted other émigré Greeks and developed into an enterprise that, at its height in the 1920s, may have numbered as many as 85 people. Most of the immigrants were single men who lived communally in a dormitory known as the Big House that still stands a little north of the church. There were also a few families as well as single women who lived elsewhere.
Known locally as “the Malbis family,” and united by their deep Orthodox faith, they worked in the plantation’s various enterprises alongside hired day laborers. In addition to the raising of crops and livestock, these activities grew to include a sawmill, cannery, bakery, restaurant, plant nursery with greenhouses, dairy, chicken and egg-processing facilities, as well as an ice plant/machine shop/electrical plant (all housed in one building). Members of the group also worked in a restaurant and a commercial bakery across the bay in Mobile, returning to Malbis on weekends. As a Greek colony in the rural Deep South, Malbis Plantation was unique, but it maintained important commercial ties to other Hellenic communities, not only in neighboring Mobile, but in cities like New Orleans, Miami, New York, and Chicago.
Malbis was on a return visit to Greece when the Axis occupation of the country during World War II prevented his return to Alabama. He died in Greece in 1942. His last wish, recorded in a letter, was for the colony to build a church dedicated to Mary Theotokos (meaning Mary, Birth-giver of God). Fundraising for the project began immediately, but it took twenty years to raise the more than one million dollars needed for construction, plus another five years to build the church. This was a remarkable achievement considering that by the early 1960s only forty members of the colony remained on the plantation. Malbis’s remains were brought from Greece and, after the church’s completion in 1965, they were reinterred in the crypt.
Cruciform in plan, west facing, and possessing a neo-Byzantine character, the Malbis Memorial Church is meant to express the Orthodox faith of Malbis and his followers. It was reputedly inspired by a specific Greek prototype, a church at Agia Paraskevi near Athens, dating from the turn of the twentieth century and said to have been regarded by members of the Malbis community as “a perfect and ideal example of a House of God.”
A pair of massive bell towers with cupolas topped by large crosses engages a two-tiered arcuated facade. The lower tier functions as an open entrance loggia. Above, there is a second range of five arched and traceried openings: the three innermost filled with stained glass, the outer pair with mosaic images of the four evangelists. Higher still, a triangular pediment frames a mosaic image of a descending dove holding in its beak an olive branch—a symbol of peace—set against a field of sky blue. These and other exterior mosaics were designed by Italian-born Chicago artist Sirio Tonelli and executed in his workshop in Pietrasanta in Tuscany for shipment to Alabama. Seventy-five feet above the crossing of the church rises a shallow dome resting, in traditional Byzantine manner, over a high drum pierced by tall, slit-like rounded windows.
A nave lined with Corinthian columns and pilasters, to the shafts of which scagliola has been applied to imitate red marble, creates a dramatic setting for an iconostasis, bishop’s throne, and pulpit hand-carved of fine-grained white marble from the ancient quarries at Mount Pentelicus north of Athens. Hand-painted iconography abounds, created by Greek iconographer Spyros Tziouvaras and his assistants, Haralambos and Chris Tziouvaras. Most striking, perhaps, is the image of the Pantocrator (Almighty God) that adorns the ceiling of the dome. To complete this painting, the three artists spent several months lying on their backs atop a scaffold. Damaged by Hurricane Frederick in 1979, the Tziouvaras paintings were, after several failed attempts, finally restored by Mobile artist David Riall to match the original work.
The Greek Orthodox Archbishop of North and South America officiated at the church’s opening service in 1965, which was attended by Orthodox congregants from across the South. One of only a few Greek Orthodox houses of worship in Alabama, Malbis Memorial Church has never functioned as a parish church. Only special holy day services, as well as weddings and funerals, are held in the church, which is open to the public for tours.
At its height, Malbis Plantation may have encompassed more than one thousand acres. Modern suburban and commercial encroachment from the north has reduced the total to 866 acres. By 1929, the road that would become AL 90 sliced through the northern section of plantation between the Big House and nursery. A decade later, a north-south road (now AL 181) ran through the plantation, intersecting AL 90. Today, a major interchange on I-10 lies a half mile north of this intersection.
Most of the plantation’s remaining historic buildings and structures, including the Malbis Church, are located east of AL 181 and south of AL 90. The church was sited just north of the colony’s one-acre burial ground. Established in 1918, this still active cemetery contains 98 burials arranged in ten rows and two mausoleums. Lining AL 181 are the Big House, the ice plant/machine shop/electrical plant, the church, and its cemetery. Scattered to the east and southeast of them are the laundry building, two sawmill buildings, and various barns and other agricultural structures. With the exception of the church, these buildings predate World War II. The historic plantation structures that line the west side of AL 181 below AL 90 include the Men’s Dormitory (built in 1956), the Arcade Dormitory (c. 1945), and a water storage tank (c. 1925). Located within the plantation’s current boundaries are fifteen houses dating from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, whose owners tend to be of Greek descent and own shares in Malbis Plantation, Inc. The corporation is involved in timbering, leasing farmland, and selling real estate.
The Faith of Jason Malbis: Founder of the Malbis Plantation.Athens: The Ekdotiki Hellados S. A., 1972.
Malbis Memorial Church.Athens: The Ekdotiki Hellados S. A., n.d.
“Malbis Plantation,” Baldwin County, Alabama. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 2011. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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