TARPON SPRINGS — Father Tryfon Theophilopoulos first arrived at a Massachusetts theology school in 1961 with a note pinned to him that read, "Help him. He doesn't speak English."
Later, he became the beloved spiritual leader of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which is Tarpon Springs' religious and cultural epicenter. He led the church for three decades before he passed away in 2005 at the age of 70.
He also was the first person that his granddaughter thought of when she learned that she would be the dove bearer Monday at Tarpon Springs' 108th Epiphany celebration.
"I thought that my Papou and Yia-yia would be so proud," said Joi Theophilopoulos, using the Greek words for grandfather and grandmother. (The words have many English spellings.)
On Monday, 16-year-old Joi will release the white bird after leading a colorful procession to Spring Bayou, where dozens of teenage boys will dive for the Epiphany cross. The dive represents a rite of passage into manhood as well as an expression of their faith.
"I'm very honored to be doing this," Joi said, "and kind of nervous."
Tarpon Springs 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.
The Tarpon celebration is expected to draw as many as 17,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, residents and tourists to watch as barefoot divers, in a quest for a year of blessings from God, scramble to retrieve the white cross.
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 Joi embodies.
"Everything she does, she does with a passion," Katie Faklis, St. Nicholas' choir director since 1971, said of the teenage soprano. "She is a very devout Christian. She's very active in her school. She's just very committed to anything she does."
Joi is the junior class president and editor in chief of the yearbook at Tarpon Springs High School. She grew up in Tarpon, although she was born in Gainesville because that's where her parents were doing their medical residencies. Her father, Dean, is a neonatologist. Her mother, Ellyn, is a pediatrician.
Because she sings in the choir at St. Nicholas, she knows some of the previous years' dove bearers. They've given her advice. Don't squeeze the dove too hard, one of them told her.
"It means a lot to be a part of this," Joi said. "Especially because of my Papou. I wish he could be here."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected]om or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.