Blessings times three

TARPON SPRINGS — Louis Mailisand and Miros Petru have shared many experiences together.

They are cousins. Both attend Tarpon Springs High School. And on Friday, both climbed into the same dinghy, then dived into the chilly waters of Spring Bayou in search of a white cross and blessings from the Lord.

In a rare although not unprecedented twist, both teens retrieved crosses during Tarpon Springs' Epiphany celebration Friday and were honored as 2012 cross retrievers.

The first cross tossed into the bayou by Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, could not be immediately located. The archbishop threw a second one and Mailisand came up with it. Then other boys searched for the first one and Petru soon thrust it into the air.

Hours later, Epiphany organizers announced that a third boy, Jared Alissandratos, who also had his hands on the cross Mailisand retrieved, would be named a 2012 retriever, too, and receive similar honors and blessings. Alissandratos also attends Tarpon High.

Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. The cross dive is its centerpiece event.

"To dive is a blessing. To actually have it makes me feel even that much greater," Mailisand, 17, said moments after he climbed out of the water.

Added Petru, also 17: "It's doubly special in the fact that we're both cousins and we're family."

The cross dive capped a morning of solemn church services, followed by a processional. After the dive, celebrants gathered for the Glendi, or festival, where they ate Greek food and linked arms to perform a traditional line dance.

Tarpon Springs has achieved the label of "Epiphany City" because it has one of the largest such celebrations in the western hemisphere. Organizers estimate that about 20,000 people attended Friday's event.

This is the third year Detroit cardiologist Vicky Savas has made the trek with her father and son, Niko, who turned 3 on Friday. She said everyone at her church, St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox in Livonia, Mich., knows about Tarpon's celebration.

"All the Greeks know about it. This is the best one in the country," Savas said, adding that the annual event keeps her heritage alive.

"Sometimes we question whether this younger generation remembers our culture and religion. And I think this (large crowd) speaks volumes," Savas said. "It yells loud and clear that Greek Orthodox is alive and well."

Paula Renner and her husband, Art, drove up from Sarasota on Thursday afternoon and camped out overnight in their RV in hopes of snagging a prime seat for the church service.

Renner, a Methodist who loves experiencing other cultures, said visiting Epiphany has always been on her bucket list. She gasped as she entered St. Nicholas, marveling at the "ornate beauty" of the lighted candles, paintings and stained-glass windows.

"I've seen it advertised and I've heard about it, but I wanted to experience it," she said. "Watching the boys dive for the cross wasn't enough for me. I wanted to experience the service, because I think people miss a lot by going straight to the destination. I like the journey."

For 20-year-old dove bearer Anna Athanasatos, the journey from the church to the bayou wasn't as nerve-wracking as she had expected.

Leading the processional in her purple and white robes, Athanasatos gently clasped the white homing pigeon, then released it over the bayou just before the dive to symbolize the Holy Spirit.

She murmured, "Good birdie" to soothe the small creature.

"If you're calm, it's calm," she said.

Archbishop Demetrios tossed the first cross into the bayou near the observation platform at the bayou around 1 p.m.

Nearly 60 teenage boys swam toward it from the dinghies where they had been waiting, but were unable to find it after searching 41/2 minutes in the chilly, murky water. Several boys had to be treated by paramedics for cold exposure just prior to the toss.

The archbishop started to send the boys back to their dinghies, then announced a "change of plan" and told them to stay in the water. He then tossed a second white cross.

Michael Sakellarides, 18, of Tarpon Springs said he was elbow deep in mud. Yanni Kranias, 18, described the search as chaotic, but thrilling.

"We got kicked a lot. We got punched a lot. It was deep. You couldn't see anything," he said. "All I can say is I gave it my hardest. It's a great honor to be part of it even if we didn't win it."

A dripping wet Mailisand said he was "feeling good, feeling blessed" as his fellow divers carried him up Tarpon Avenue toward the cathedral.

From the spectators lining the route back to the church came cheers of "Bravo!" and "Congratulations, Louie!" and "Sweet Lou!"

Dive co-coordinator Michael Kouskoutis said Mailisand "has been around water all his life." He said Louis' dad, Manuel, who recently died of pancreatic cancer, ran a boat repair business.

Family friend Annette Alexiou Par broke into tears when she saw Mailisand enter the church.

"I'm so happy that it's him, because he's such a good kid," she said. "His father died not too long ago and (Louis) got baptized not too long ago."

At the altar, as he awaited the archbishop, Mailisand held a trophy in one hand and lifted the cross in his other to kiss it. Other divers and family members came forward to kiss the cross, as well.

Moments later, Petru arrived, also held aloft on divers' shoulders.

Petru, a senior at Tarpon Springs High School, described rubbing his hand in the mud until he felt the cross' smooth paint.

"I didn't even know that I had it until my hand broke through the water," Petru said. "When I saw it out of the water in my hand, it was the best feeling in the world."

The third diver honored, 16-year-old Jared Alissandratos, is a freshman at Tarpon Springs High and is the son of longtime dive co-chair Aleck Alissandratos, who snagged the cross in 1977.

It's not uncommon for the divers to tussle under the water as they try to reach the coveted cross.

Alissandratos said later Friday that he was the first one to grab the cross, then Mailisand grabbed it. He has no hard feelings.

"It was just trying to get to the cross, and I understand. Louie, who got the cross, is my friend, and I respect him," he said.

Epiphany co-chair Helen Giakoumis said, "Both boys got their hands on it at the same time, but Louis yanked it away and came up with it."

Father Michael Eaccarino, dean of St. Nicholas Greek, likened it to two people stooping to pick up a pen at the same time, with one grasping the pen harder or more quickly from the other.

But he decided that Alissandratos should also be honored.

"It's always God's will," he said.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153.

Blessings times three 01/06/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 7, 2012 4:56pm]

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