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Lambrene Sfondeles, Greek immigrant known for kindness and wit, dies at 94

Lambrene Sfondeles holding Vasilopitor Saint Basil's bread she made. It's traditional Greek New Years bread.

Lambrene Sfondeles holding Vasilopita or Saint Basil's bread she made. It's a traditional Greek New Years bread.

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Updated: February 4, 2013 3:01PM

Lambrene Sfondeles was the kind of woman communities are built on.

She came to America in the mid-1950s with her three small children and one trunk with all their belongings.

She had buried five children back home in Achladokambos, Greece, in a time before modern medicine whittled down infant mortality. Greece had endured Italian incursions, German occupation and civil war.

Mrs. Sfondeles joined her husband, John, who, like many other Achladokambites, had immigrated to Chicago. The couple became caretakers of Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, then located at 7351 S. Stony Island.

“They were working from morning to night, not looking at the clock,” said Father Byron Papanikolaou, pastor emeritus of the church, now located in Palos Hills.

She cleaned and mopped and made the church’s sacramental breads: the offering loaves known as prosphora, stamped with religious seals; and the blessed bread called antidoron. If altar boys weren’t available, she assisted at church services.

She was yiayia (grandmother) and thia (aunt) to her own family, and a surrogate matriarch to many others. The Sfondeles home was warmed by love; pride in Hellenic culture; delicious Greek cooking, and jokes in a language that might be called Greeklish.

Next to her telephone, Mrs. Sfondeles kept a laminated card, made by her children. In large type, it listed all the phone numbers of relatives and friends. Every day, she called to inquire about their health and to get the latest news about her grandchildren. “How’s Joanna? How is Kathy? How is Tina? How is Mark? How is Lori? How is Georgia?”

She’d close with, “Say hello to everyone for me.”

Mrs. Sfondeles, 94, died Monday at her Palos Hills home.

“She had a good heart,” said her friend, Georgia Antonopoulos. “Anytime she [told] me somebody [needed] something, she [gave] it. . . .food, and money.”

She might bring them her heavenly avgolemeno (chicken-lemon-rice) soup. Sometimes she dropped off cookies. “The Greek sweets, she was famous,” said her pastor. Mrs. Sfondeles made the flaky almond-and-powdered sugar cookies known as kourambiethes, or the honey-soaked walnut treats called melomakarona.

Her tender nature made her cry when she heard of anyone suffering. “If she visited somebody in the hospital,” said her son, Jim, “She’ll visit four or five more she didn’t even know.” She’d stick her head in their rooms and say, “ ‘Hello, how are you? Sorry you’re sick.’ ”

Mrs. Sfondeles had to endure the loss of her adult daughter, Georgia, after she came to America, said her granddaughter, Georgia Shizas. Georgia Sfondeles, who was in her 20s, had married and remained in Greece. “My grandmother cried every time she told it,” Georgia Shizas said. “She got a telegram saying her daughter had passed.” Because of a mixup, Mrs. Sfondeles had had no warning. The telegram that said Georgia was ill with meningitis came after the telegram informing her mother of her death.

Her compassion was learned in a tight-knit Greek town where everyone seemed to be a relative or friend, said her daughter, Eleftheria (Liberty) Dinos. (Eleftheria was born in 1943, and the Sfondeleses named their daughter Liberty in the hope Greece would be free of occupation.) Once, back in Greece, “there was a little child left on their doorstep,” said her granddaughter, Tina Sfondeles, a Sun-Times reporter. “They took her in and raised her” until the girl found a home.

She made her family laugh with her Greeklish. “She would sort of take English words and put a Greek twist on them,” said her grandson, Mark Dinos. “She’d say ‘Happy University” for ‘Happy Anniversary.’

When Dinos became a lawyer, she gently teased him by co-mingling the words “law” and “lie.” “She would always lecture me on how it’s important not to twist the truth and lie. And when I would see her, she would ask, ‘How’s the lying business?’ ”

She called her husband “meli” — Greek for “honey” — and they laughed together, because it sounded like “smelly,” her pastor said. “He used to tease her about that.”

Her husband died in 1985. In addition to her son, Jim, and her daughter, Eleftheria “Liberty” Dinos, Mrs. Sfondeles is also survived by her son, George; six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Visitation is 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Chapel Hill Gardens South Funeral Home, 11333 S. Central Ave., Oak Lawn. Her funeral is at 11 a.m. Friday at St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Church, 8500 Archer Ave., Willow Springs.

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