Traveling through Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore near Daphne, be sure to find your way to AL Hwy 181 and the Malbis Memorial Church, a place of worship and devotion that is also a monument to the power and industry of immigrant culture.
Jason Malbis (born Iason Antonios Markopoulos in Doumena, Greece, in 1869) spent his early life in a Greek Orthodox monastery. He immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century. After travels around the country, he settled in Mobile and worked mostly in the food industry. Malbis and a fellow immigrant, William Papageorge, bought 120 acres of land across Mobile Bay and started a self-sufficient plantation that became a successful colony for Greek immigrants. Malbis Plantation continued to grow in the coastal countryside and Malbis himself remained active in civic endeavors in Mobile. The colony’s popular Malbis Bakery became a mainstay in downtown Mobile.
Jason Malbis was in Greece on family business when the United States entered World War II and he was subsequently unable to return to his home in Baldwin County. He died in Greece in 1942. Prior to his death, he expressed his wish for his body to be returned to Malbis Plantation and for a church to be built there.
The Sacred Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery of the Presentation of Theotokos – better known as Malbis Memorial Church – was dedicated in 1965. Once surrounded by the plantation’s farmland, the impressive church now sits quietly at a busy intersection, the historic buildings and remaining property of the plantation threatened by residential and commercial properties close by.
The church boasts an impressive Byzantine Revival exterior, with domes, arches, arcades, pediments, and mosaics representing Christian icons. But the real splendor happens once you enter the building. Beyond the vestibule, two rows of Corinthian columns in red marble support a brilliant blue arched ceiling in the nave. White marble is used extensively in the apse, which is crowned by a full dome with a rendering of Christ floating above at the very top. It seems that every inch of the space is covered with paintings, stained glass, murals, mosaics, and carvings. It is an unexpected find in an unlikely location – a place of intense devotion and meditation.
Each time I go there, I find it hard to fully believe the level of profound magnificence in a relatively small house of worship.
A quiet cemetery is just to the south of the church, among the live oaks. It is the resting place for many of the Greeks who made a home at Malbis plantation. Back inside the church, the remains of Jason Malbis are interred in a crypt. Home at last.