TARPON SPRINGS — If you think St. Nick's busy season has just begun, think again.
People in Tarpon Springs know the world's most famous patron saint has had his hands full the last six months keeping residents safe from hurricanes.
Sunday's end to hurricane season marked 87 years the city has escaped a direct hit from a major storm — a Category 3 in 1921.
Legend has it the city is protected by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and its namesake, who is said to intervene on behalf of sailors who pray to him to ensure safe voyages and protection from storms.
"St. Nicholas is the patron saint of seafarers," said the cathedral's Father Michael Eaccarino. "So he has always protected Tarpon Springs."
Many believe the area has been spared nature's wrath since the new church was built in 1943 after the original church, built by Greek immigrants in 1907, burned down.
Much of the money for the new building came from boat captains and sponge divers.
Count the late Father Tryfon Theophilopoulos, who led the church for nearly 30 years, among the believers.
"Since it was built, we have never had a direct hit from a hurricane," he said shortly before his retirement in 2004. "Elena started coming here, but then it stayed out at sea."
Former Mayor Anita Protos said many a Tarpon Springs child has been comforted by the legend over the years. "As a little girl growing up in Tarpon Springs, we heard 'hurricane' and got scared," she said. "And at home, we'd hear 'Have no fear because St. Nicholas will protect us.' "
Michael Cantonis, who came to Tarpon Springs from Greece in the 1930s, has spent his life in the sponge industry. He said the protection offered by St. Nicholas isn't just a story — it's the truth.
"Oh, this is a well-known fact everybody believes," he said. "It's not only a legend, it's a belief that the minute that the hurricane gets near Tarpon Springs, Santa Claus chases it away."
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4162.