July 13th, 2012
09:00 AM ET
By Effie Nidam, CNN
New York (CNN) – The sounds of hammers and saws fill the air in the small workshop of the Byzantion Woodworking Company in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria. The smell of sawdust and wood polish is thick.
At the center of it all, woodworker Konstantinos Pilarinos lovingly chisels elaborate carvings destined for Greek Orthodox churches across the country.
“The pieces I make by hand, that people pray upon in church, are like my children,” he says.
A series of tragedies brought Pilarinos to this city and this profession.
He learned woodcarving at an orphanage in Greece, where his mother deposited him when he was a teenager.
His father had died when he was 3, and when he was 14, his mother found six children too much to deal with, he says.
“It was just too many kids for her to take care of,” he says. She sent him to the orphanage.
There, he discovered his love of woodworking, and his talent for the craft. He sees it as a calling.
"This talent comes from religion. So you need to know your religion well, in order to become a master of woodcarving.
“Religion and woodcarving come hand in hand, because I tell religious stories through my work," Pilarinos says in Greek, translated by his daughter Penny.
In 1974, he came to the United States, drawn by the knowledge that his late father had once lived and worked there.
He and his wife and settled in Astoria, Queens, a heavily Greek neighborhood just outside of Manhattan.
"At first, it was difficult to find work in my field. I worked as a construction worker and had other various jobs - and I wasn't paid very much," he recalls.
But the area has many Greek churches, and a disaster at one of them gave Pilarinos the opportunity to make his living at his craft.
A fire struck St. Demetrios Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox house of worship in Astoria, and damaged a major part of the cathedral's icon screen.
Icon screens, the most important pieces an Orthodox church, are large decorative panels, up to 70 feet long, that separate the sanctuary from the congregation.
Pilarinos asked the priests of St. Demetrios if he could restore the burned icon screen. They hesitated at first, but he was finally able to convince them. The priests were impressed with his work.
“I was able to restore the icon screen for them, like it was before the fire," he says.
Now, along with his apprentices and daughter, Pilarinos works tirelessly to create Greek Orthodox ornamental church furnishings.
Pilarinos is actively handing down his business, sharing his knowledge and talents with his apprentices and Penny.
But the work is harder for him than it once was. Today, he speaks a bit slower and does most of his work with the help of his apprentices. Sometimes his hands shake as he pushes down on his chisels. It’s all because of a stroke he suffered last year. But he says it will not keep him from the work he loves.
"Having the stroke only made me stronger, because I just want to continue what I do," he insists.
"I feel like I am doing something very good for the world every time I make these pieces,” he says. “When I make a piece for the church, I want to impress people, and I want everyone to say bravo."
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