TARPON SPRINGS — Epiphany is turning into a family affair for this year's dove bearer.
Evelyn Bilirakis, granddaughter of former U.S. Rep Mike Bilirakis and niece of current U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, is following in the footsteps of her namesake grandmother, who carried the dove in Tarpon Springs' 1957 celebration.
On Sunday, Evelyn will release the white bird after leading a procession to Spring Bayou, where 48 teen boys, including Gus Bilirakis' son and Evelyn's cousin, 18-year-old Theodore, will dive for a cross as part of a tradition that represents a rite of passage into manhood as well as an expression of their faith.
Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias, a Tarpon Springs native who is Evelyn's godfather and her grandmother's first cousin, will help lead key events throughout the weekend celebration, including the solemn church service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral preceding the dove release.
"Ever since I was my little sister's age (9), I wondered whether I would be that girl, would I get to hold that dove," said Evelyn, a 15-year-old Palm Harbor University High School sophomore. "For me to get this chance is a miracle, is a blessing to me."
Tarpon is home to one of the largest Epiphany celebrations in the western hemisphere, headlined by the blessing and throwing of the cross into Spring Bayou. Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
On Sunday, Tarpon's 107th Epiphany celebration is expected to draw as many as 17,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, townspeople and tourists to watch as barefoot divers, in a quest for lifelong favor from God, scramble to retrieve a white cross from the bayou.
But first, the dove bearer walks in a half-mile procession from St. Nicholas to the bayou. Her release of the white dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit's flight over the water.
Each year, the church bestows the honor of dove bearer on one young woman, usually high school or college age, who is a member of the choir. Typically, she is unmarried, academically successful and active in the church — attributes that family and friends say Evelyn embodies.
"She's been a very devoted choir member," Katie Faklis, St. Nicholas' choir director since 1971, said of the teenage soprano. "And she's full of life. It just means a lot to her."
Like the elder Evelyn Bilirakis, nee Miaoulis, Evelyn started singing at age 8 in St. Nicholas' English-language second service. She switched 18 months ago to the Greek morning service.
"I'm surprised, because she's one of the youngest in the choir. They must think a lot of her," said Evelyn's 78-year-old paternal grandmother, who was named dove bearer at age 22. "I'm proud of her."
In addition to choir, young Evelyn volunteers with her Sunday school teacher mother, Maria Bilirakis, and at church festivals and other events. At school, she recently volunteered at an anti-discrimination leadership conference with a multicultural club that encourages appreciation of diverse cultures and religions.
When the phone rang with the news that she'd been chosen for this year's ceremony, Evelyn said her racing heart nearly fluttered right out of her chest.
The Palm Harbor teen with a shy smile said she typically eschews being the center of attention, but will gladly step into the limelight to carry the dove, which she'll meet for the first time on Epiphany day.
"Nervousness and excitement at the same time," she said, admitting the same fears as past dove bearers that the bird will prematurely fly away from her grip or unleash a call of nature. "But my godfather is a metropolitan, so he'll be up there with me."
Her mother, her father Dr. Emmanuel Bilirakis and her sister Stella are equally excited and humbled.
"We look forward to (Epiphany) anyway. It's part of our faith," Maria said. "But now, obviously, it has extra special meaning, seeing as our daughter will partake in it in an extra special way. … It's a blessing not only for her, but for our family."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.