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EPIPHANY 1997 // A blessed return

About 36 years ago, a serious 17-year-old Greek boy stood on a platform here at Spring Bayou dressed in the garb of an acolyte from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral downtown.

Surrounded by crowds celebrating Epiphany, the boy solemnly prayed with the church's two priests and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, leader of the church's faithful in this hemisphere. The clergy performed the traditional blessings for Epiphany, celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ and the beginning of his ministry.

Today, the same boy returns to celebrate Epiphany in Tarpon Springs. But today, the acolyte from years ago has a ministry of his own. He wears the mitre, the gilded, dome-shaped hat of the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church of America.

An estimated 1.5-million Greek Orthodox in America now know the Tarpon Springs altar boy, George Papageorgiou, as Archbishop Spyridon. Enthroned three months ago, the 52-year-old spiritual leader of the church in America is the top Greek Orthodox hierarch in this hemisphere. He represents a new era for Orthodoxy in this country.

"I'm working hard trying to assess the situation around us," Spyridon said after his arrival in Tarpon Springs Friday. "These three months were a sufficient introduction to my ministry. A time of decisions has come now."

He promises to emphasize the spiritual above the ethnic and political aspects of the church, which were important to the waves of Greek immigrants of yesteryear. He vows to bring back hundreds of thousands of those immigrants' children and grandchildren who have become estranged from a church at a crossroads.

Many people see him as a breath of fresh air. He seems more approachable, more modern than retired Archbishop Iakovos. He is the first American-born archbishop, the fifth since the archdiocese was established in 1922. Although he spent the last 34 years in Europe, he speaks English without an accent.

He perfected his English in Tarpon Springs, spending two years at Tarpon Springs High School relishing the typical adolescent experiences of 1960s America. So his official visit to Tarpon this week as archbishop is especially sweet.

"It's exciting to come back, regardless of one's position, to some place I haven't been in years," Spyridon said. "There are a lot of relatives here, people I went to school with. These things do not leave you."

For three days he has been wined and dined, hugged and kissed, given dozens of gifts and bouquets of flowers. Gala banquets and packed luncheons have filled his schedule.

Spyridon will leave Florida Wednesday with the key to Tampa and the lock on many people's affection in Tarpon Springs for coming home.

Although he has been chosen to shape the Greek Orthodox Church in America _ and in that role may walk in the company of presidents and world religious leaders _ Spyridon is humble and down-to-earth.

When he speaks, his deep voice carries the intimidating note of authority. But he laughs easily, and he dryly admits a day at the office can be, well, "monotonous and dull."

While his predecessor had a reputation for aloofness, Spyridon has made a point of being accessible. When he arrived at Tampa International Airport from archdiocese headquarters in New York City Friday night, a crowd of children, relatives and priests crushed him with roses and good wishes. Spyridon took the hand of 8-year-old Andriana Tassopoulos of Tarpon Springs and greeted everyone.

"He was so nice," Andriana said. "I've never had an archbishop holding my hand. He is really wonderful."

Friday night he made time for family members to have coffee with him as he relaxed after his trip. A family dinner and a coffee with his high school friends are planned Tuesday.

While Greek Orthodox faithful rush to kiss his hands and address him as "Your Eminence," Spyridon notes he is no closer to God than anyone else.

"We're servants of God and Christ, but that doesn't mean we should brag of a special relationship to God," he said. "We're in the service of our community."

As if proving that point, on Sunday Spyridon surprised St. Nicholas parishioners who had expected him at morning services by instead driving to St. Petersburg's St. Stefanos Greek Orthodox Church to say the service there.

Later, he told aides he didn't want to steal the spotlight from another hometown hierarch, Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias, who will soon be in charge of organizing the Greek Orthodox Church in China. Lulias, also in town for Epiphany celebrations, was born and raised in Tarpon Springs and was scheduled to say the divine liturgy at St. Nicholas Sunday while Spyridon watched.

Behind the traditional countenance and Byzantine vestments worn by bishops for ages, Spyridon is a modern man. His computer skills are noted on his resume.

"We can do a lot with the Internet," Spyridon said. "I did my whole home page myself."

He takes a moment to explain: "If you write a page and put it on the Internet, it will not come out the way you want it to. You have to put a few commands in brackets. It's interesting."

Father George Papaioannou of Bethesda, Md., remembers encountering Spyridon working on the Internet when he visited him in Venice, then the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Italy, which Spyridon headed before coming to America.

Papaioannou, who has written about the history of the American archdiocese, believes that Spyridon is in touch with trends shaping the '90s Orthodox Church.

"The future belongs to this American-born generation," said Papaioannou, 62. "He is the future."

George Papageorgiou was absent from last July's 34th reunion of the Tarpon Springs High Class of 1962. In a directory printed for the reunion, "Unable to locate" is written beside the high school photograph of Papageorgiou, who played on the football team and sang with the Glee Club.

The classmates who prepared the book evidently had not been reading the papers. Papageorgiou, who took the name of Spyridon after the patron saint of the island of Corfu, had just been elected Archbishop of America by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, the church's ruling body.

Spyridon had a belated reunion with some classmates at a luncheon Saturday given by the St. Nicholas Philoptochos, the church women's auxiliary. The archbishop recalls his Tarpon Springs years fondly.

"A living experience cannot be put into words, but I do remember those years with pleasure and nostalgia," he said. "They were happy years of my life. Years without great concerns and worries."

Speaking in Greek, he told the luncheon crowd that he believed God had played a role in bringing him to the city where he could serve as both an altar boy and an archbishop _ and as a defensive halfback for the Tarpon High Spongers.

"Football had a very important part in my life at that time," Spyridon said. "I liked it, I loved it, but we weren't outstanding. I think Tarpon Springs had its worst years when I was on the team."

Spyridon also sang in the chorus, directed by longtime Tarpon Springs teacher Henry Kelly, 82, who remembers he was a good tenor.

At first, former classmates were nervous about the archbishop's visit, fearful he had forgotten them.

"He recognized me; I was so surprised," Ted Tsardoulias said emotionally at the Saturday luncheon. The Palm Harbor resident was a center on the football team with Spyridon in 1962.

Spyridon had an after-school job at D&R Appliances in town, he reminded owner Costas Dalacos.

"I helped you put up antennaes," Spyridon told Dalacos, startling him at the luncheon.

During his years in Tarpon, Spyridon lived with the family of his uncle, George Tsourakis, a former mayor and parish council president. The Tsourakises had two sons, Dean and Nick, who remember the archbishop through the eyes of kid brothers.

"I looked at him with a kind of hero thing," said Dean Tsourakis, who was about 5 then. "This is the guy who walked me to school the first day. This is the guy who taught me how to ride a bike. He taught me how to kick a football."

Spyridon was a fun-loving, robust youth, Tsourakis said.

"He knew what his career path was going to be and he was getting a lot of things out of his system," Tsourakis said. "He never got into any real trouble, but he used to pull stuff around the house. He was a pretty normal teenager. He had a great sense of humor."

When the archbishop looks back at the people who influenced him most in his life, he looks to people in his family and his church.

One of his mentors was his father, the late Dr. Constantine Papageorgiou of Rhodes, Greece. He was an example of "honesty, decisiveness, intelligence, and a deep dedication to the church," Spyridon said.

The archbishop was the third of six children of Constantine and Clara Papageorgiou, who had familial ties to Tarpon Springs. The couple moved to Warren, Ohio, where the archbishop was born in 1944. He attended elementary school in Steubenville, Ohio, before they returned to Greece.

"I remember people saying their home was always stacked with books," said Nickollet Henderson of Tarpon Springs, a first cousin. "He came from parents who believed that education was important."

Remaining in Tarpon Springs today are two aunts, an uncle and dozens of cousins.

"Who would have thought after all these years he would be the one taking over for Archbishop Iakovos?" said Elaine Tagarelli, a first cousin. "We are humbly proud."

Spyridon said he never had to make a decision about becoming a priest. He always knew that was his calling.

"I was always very close to the church since I was a small boy," Spyridon said. "Even before I remember, my mother recalls I would go around the house with religious objects. Ever since I remember, I was an altar boy. There was no decision to make."

While in Tarpon Springs in the '60s, Spyridon served at St. Nicholas Cathedral, looking after the younger altar boys and participating in the city's yearly Epiphany celebration.

At his enthronement in September, the new archbishop thanked Father Constantine Raptis, who was priest at St. Nicholas in the 1960s, for his guidance. On Saturday Raptis, teacher turned student, gave Spyridon a gift from his family: a gold crucifix and an ornate pendant worn by bishops, studded with green jade.

"I was elated for our church when he was selected archbishop," said Raptis, now retired in Las Vegas. "I feel certain our people can relate to him because he understands our thinking."

The archbishop took a vow of celibacy and was ordained a priest in 1976 after studying at the famed Theological School of Halki in Greece and pursuing graduate studies in Europe. He worked at the World Council of Churches and later as a liaison to the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church.

As archbishop, Spyridon will have to strike a balance between the traditions of the church, which traces its roots back to the apostles, and modern society.

With an intermarriage rate approaching 80 percent and a declining Greek population, some criticize the church for failing to reach out to non-Greeks to keep Orthodoxy alive in America.

Spyridon's top goal is an outreach department to bring people back to the fold. He also wants to improve religious education so all Orthodox better understand their faith, he said.

The archbishop may incorporate more English into services to serve the church's changing membership, and encourages the church to welcome the spouses in interfaith marriages. He also wants more cooperation between the Greek Orthodox Church and other ethnic branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church in America.

But the path is not likely to be easy, and many church experts and parishioners say it is too early to judge what kind of era Spyridon will bring to the church.

For Spyridon, the reponsibility and the celebrity of being archbishop are a a big change from the life of the altar boy who stood at Spring Bayou decades ago.

This weekend in Tarpon Springs, he had few moments of free time, grabbing 15 minutes of rest here and there between appointments. A brief moment of solitude at the downtown Tampa Hyatt Regency found him holding his head in his hands, reviewing the notes for a banquet speech over a glass of Perrier.

Taking on his new ministry is tiring. Living in New York after Venice is a change in lifestyle.

But Spyridon is glad to be back in America.

"I think the American way of life offers many possibilities that you don't have in other parts of the world. There are many positive sides to the American way of life," he said.

But he added thoughtfully, "It's just a matter of getting accustomed to them slowly but surely again...


The meaning of Epiphany

Epiphany is a feast day marked every Jan. 6 by the Greek Orthodox Church to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ. The celebration in Tarpon Springs includes:

8 a.m. _ noon: Religious services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Pinellas Avenue (Alt. U.S. 19).

12:15 p.m.: Procession to Spring Bayou, followed by the colorful cross diving ceremony. The teenage Greek Orthodox boy who retrieves it is said to have a year of good luck.

Until 6 p.m.: The Glendi, or Epiphany festival, at Craig Park with refreshments and live entertainment. A $1 donation is requested.

8 p.m.: The Epiphany Ball will be held at Matheos Hall, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Clearwater. Tickets are $30 and can be reserved by calling 937-3540.