TARPON SPRINGS — A young woman has to be a lot of things to be chosen as a dove bearer for the annual Epiphany ceremony: unmarried, an active member of the church and academically and socially well-rounded.
Having steady, gentle hands isn't part of the criteria, but it's something most dove bearers fret over in the days and weeks leading up to the Orthodox Christian holiday.
This year's bearer knows just what it feels like.
"I'm kind of scared of letting the dove go," said Ioana Bociu, 18. "That's my primary fear, is something happening to the dove. That would be horrible."
Bociu will cradle a white dove — symbolizing the Holy Spirit's presence — in her hands today during the procession from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral to the banks of Spring Bayou.
Once there, she'll release the dove before the Epiphany cross is tossed into the water. Sixty-five young men between the ages of 16 and 18 will leap into the bayou to retrieve the cross, an expression of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.
The dove bearer is selected each year from the choir at St. Nicholas, which hosts one of the largest Epiphany celebrations in the world.
Choir leader Katie Faklis said Bociu exemplifies the qualities the dove bearer should possess, including sincere piety.
"She is a very dedicated, devoted and devout young woman," Faklis said.
Bociu, who came to America with her family from Romania in 2000, said she has dreamed of being the dove bearer since she moved to Tarpon Springs five years ago.
"I'm very honored to do it," Bociu said.
Bociu is the first dove bearer who is not of Greek heritage, said the cathedral's Father Michael Eaccarino. A senior in the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High School, she is president of the drama club and a member of the diving team. She plans to attend Florida State University, where she wants to major in international affairs.
She is the daughter of Father John and Liliana Bociu of Tarpon Springs. Father John Bociu, who was the previous assistant priest at St. Nicholas, is the spiritual leader of St. Stefanos Greek Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg.
Bociu, a member of the Levendia Greek dance troupe and the Young Adult Ministry at St. Nicholas, said she's hoping her experience holding chickens as a young girl will help her as she handles the delicate bird today.
"I think once I get there, I'll be fine," Bociu said. "It's just until that actual moment, I'm kind of freaking out."
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4162.