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Her love is a blessing

Her world is small, roughly a square mile.

Every day she walks inside the corners of that world: her yellow house on Athens Street, one block from the tourist-packed sidewalks of the sponge docks; a bakery where she buys pillowy loaves of Greek bread; St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral and _ the farthest point _ Winn-Dixie, where she buys groceries and carries them home, a bag on each hip.

Kaliopi Skourellos is a vision from the 19th century, a tiny, square figure in a knee-length dress, sensible shoes and a plain white kerchief tied to her head.

Nearby hums the 24-hour buzz of U.S. 19: cars and malls and multiplex movie theaters. Kaliopi (pronounced kah-lee-OH-pee) lives in a different world. She has never owned a car. She doesn't wear a single piece of jewelry, has no use for the Internet.

What she has is abundant faith.

"I love the church," she says in Greek, through an interpreter.

She is nearing 70 and her weathered face bears a map of decades of physical labor. Smooth white hair peeks from under her kerchief. Her thin mouth curves into a smile only occasionally. There's a sense of quiet in her brown eyes, a dignity honed by years of devotion and duty.

She spends her days taking care of a one-room chapel on a side street in Tarpon Springs. It is one of the city's oldest landmarks, the Shrine of St. Michael's. The white brick church was built in 1941 by the Tsalichis family to thank St. Michael, whom they believe cured their son of an inoperable brain tumor.

Over the years, stories of miracle healings at the tiny church on Hope Street have attracted pilgrims from all over the United States. In 1979, several icons appeared to weep for several days, drawing worldwide attention. Hundreds of people flock to the shrine every November for the two-day Feast of St. Michael. (See box, .)

A Tsalichis family member, Goldie Parr, took over operation of the shrine after her mother died three years ago.

"When my mother died, Kaliopi asked me if she could come help me with the shrine," Parr says. "She's here every day except Sunday, when she goes to church at St. Nicholas. It's a blessing to have her."

Just before 5:30 a.m., a car pulls up in front of St. Michael's Shrine. Kaliopi climbs out of the passenger seat. Her friend Sevasti Kouremetis has driven her over, as she does every morning, for the first order of the day: opening the chapel.

Kaliopi stops at a recessed arch beside the church. A red glow flickers from dozens of candles placed on an altar before a collection of figures of saints. She bends over the gate and scoops up a $5 bill left by an overnight visitor.

Kaliopi unlocks the front doors, slips the money in a locked box and walks down the aisle between the pews, crossing herself. Her lips move silently. In one corner a tiny flame floats atop a bowl of holy oil. Kaliopi lights several white tapers from it, then sets them in a tray of sand. She bends to kiss the glass that covers hammered silver icons of Mary and Jesus.

She takes a cube of charcoal and holds it over one of the candles. After it sparks, she lays it in a small brass burner with several pieces of incense. Thick, aromatic smoke curls around her face. She walks around the church, waving the incense burner before each of the portraits of saints that crowd the walls: Constantine, Eleni, Nektarios, George, Catherine, Stephanos.

Then she steps outside the front door and waves the incense in circles toward a dark sky. St. Michael's is now open for the day.

After a cup of thick Greek coffee, it's time for chores. Kaliopi goes in a storage shed and gets an electric leaf blower. The job of clearing the courtyard takes almost an hour. She moves deliberately, methodically.

As she works, early-morning pilgrims stop by for a quick visit on their way to work. Most nod to her as they walk into the shrine. She greets each one with "Kalemera" (good morning).

After the sun rises, Kaliopi decides to clean the icons. She gets paper towels and spray window cleaner.

"You have to do it every day," Parr explains. "There is a lot of lipstick on them from people kissing them."

Kaliopi wipes the glass protecting each saint, then rubs fragrant rosewater on it, using a chamois cloth. The task is simple, but her attention is focused. She moves calmly, in no hurry.

As the sun climbs higher, shafts of purple and amber light slant from stained glass windows to the floor. Kaliopi looks around, her hands on her hips.

"Mopa," she says firmly. Time to mop.

She lugs a bucket of ammonia water into the shrine and dips an old mop into it. Gracefully bending her 5-foot frame in half, she wrings the mop with bare hands, in two precise twists. In a few minutes, the tile floor sparkles and a clean smell mingles with the incense.

She was born on Christmas Eve 1928 on the Greek island of Kalymnos, so close to Turkey that its shores were visible across the water. She was one of 12 children. The family was desperately poor. School would have been a luxury. Kaliopi never learned to read or write.

She was 15 when Petro Skourellos saw her walking through the village one day. He was 25. He immediately went to her parents and asked to marry her. That was unusual in an era of arranged marriages.

"He fell in love with me when he first saw me," Kaliopi says with a modest smile.

They had four children, but one daughter died.

"I raised them by myself," Kaliopi says. "My husband was always at sea, first sponge-diving and then with the Navy."

They had no indoor plumbing or electricity. Kaliopi carried water down from the mountains, in large clay jugs on her shoulders. She hauled firewood to stoke an outdoor oven.

In 1968, the Greek government offered incentives for people willing to move to America and help revive the disease-wracked sponge industry in Tarpon Springs. The Skourellos family emigrated, all but an older daughter who had married and wanted to stay in Greece. Kaliopi was 40, her children teenagers. She took one look at Tarpon Springs, where homes had bathrooms and electric lights and washing machines, and pronounced it "beautiful."

For 15 years she worked in a chamois packing house. She never learned to speak English. In 1978, she was diagnosed with skin cancer. A growth on her left cheek was removed. The kerchief today hides a long scar.

Her husband died in 1982 and Kaliopi eventually gave her house to her son and his family. She moved into a small apartment behind them.

She is not lonely, she says. Her other son lives in Tampa. There are eight grandchildren. Her sister lives across the street from the St. Michael's Shrine.

She is in good health, she says, crossing herself. No more cancer.

"I feel very strong by helping St. Michael," she says.

As the sun climbs toward noon, Kaliopi allows herself a short break. She sits in a folding chair at the back of the shrine. Lunchtime visitors trickle into the church, two or three at a time. Most drop a dollar into the box, take a candle and light it. They pause, heads bowed in prayer, before the icons.

Kaliopi bustles to the front of the church where Bill Tillias waits by the bowl of holy oil. She takes a cotton ball, dips it in the oil and, standing on her tiptoes, traces a cross on his forehead. Then she dabs the oil on his cheeks, his wrists, the crook of his elbows and on his arthritic knees.

"When they call her over to put the oil on them, she's thrilled to death," Parr says. "Even if they don't speak Greek, she manages to carry on a conversation with them."

For much of the afternoon, Kaliopi is alone in the shrine. She straightens the candles, removes ones that have burned down and scrapes off wax drippings. The doors stand open to a warm breeze.

A young woman, Maria Koulias, drops by. Kaliopi sits in a pew with her and talks in rapid-fire Greek. She tells Koulias about the pilgrimage she made last month to Jerusalem. The highlight was being baptized in the Jordan River by an Orthodox priest. She wore a long white gown. She will be buried in that gown, she says.

She told the priest about how she takes care of the shrine of St. Michael's, back home in Tarpon Springs.

"He said, when you work for the church, you're really blessed."

Special thanks to Goldie Parr for acting as translator for this story.