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Blessings surface for cross bearers

Published Sep. 28, 2005

"The voice of the Lord thunders over the waters, saying, "Come all, receive the spirit of wisdom, the spirit of understanding, the spirit of fear of God, of Christ revealed.' "

_ from an early 20th-century Greek Orthodox Epiphany hymn written by

Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem

TARPON SPRINGS _ Every year on Jan. 6, a local Greek Orthodox boy is thrust to the center of the Western Hemisphere's grandest celebration of one of his faith's holiest days.

In front of thousands of spectators, dozens of 16- to 18-year-old boys dive into Tarpon Springs' Spring Bayou on that day, each hoping to be the one who surfaces to hold the carved white Epiphany cross high into the air.

Greek Orthodox believers view the cross retriever as chosen by God.

Epiphany celebrates Christ's baptism by John in the Jordan River, when the Bible says God announced that Jesus was his son, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove.

The boys who dive from a semicircle of dinghies into the murky waters of the bayou symbolize Christ's burial.

The boy who manages to wrap his fingers around the cross and burst to the surface with it symbolically proclaims Christ's resurrection, then kneels to receive the blessing of the church's archbishop for North and South America.

The intensely emotional experience may become a pivot in that boy's life, a designation of greatness to live up to as he becomes a man, a caution to cease harmful behavior, an encouragement that God intends his life to have meaning.

Wednesday will be the last Epiphany before the year 2000. The ceremony's organizers this year tried to contact each of the cross retrievers from the 80 previous Epiphany celebrations in Tarpon Springs to invite them to return.

At least 20 of the retrievers have died; many are old men now. Those who return Wednesday will together rejoin the traditional procession from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral to Spring Bayou.

They will walk solemnly behind the 64 teens who will dive for the cross this year, each man recalling the day he emerged from a crowd of boys to become God's chosen.

Prevailing over doubt

and disappointment

Mike Skaroulis was 19 when he burst to the surface of Spring Bayou clutching the Epiphany cross in 1955. He is 63 now, retired from a three-decade career in elementary education, including years as principal of Plumb and Safety Harbor elementary schools.

The cross he retrieved 44 years ago hangs framed in the living room of his Clearwater home, symbolically near the center of his life.

The 1955 dive was to be Skaroulis' last of four dives because he had reached the maximum age then permitted by the church.

That morning, while Skaroulis was kidding around with the other boys, swimming among the dinghies in Spring Bayou, the crucifix pendant he had worn since being baptized as a baby slipped from his neck and was lost forever.

Later that day, Skaroulis says, God sent him a cross to replace it. He remembers the scene as a white dove was released over the bayou and the archbishop reached the part of the service when he threw the cross.

"I was on the (dinghy) nearest the dock where the cross was thrown," Skaroulis remembers. "There were five other guys in my boat. He threw it, and he threw it in the middle, and I thought, "There is no way I'm going to catch this cross.' "

He dived in and began to swim.

"As if a spotlight had focused on the cross, I saw it," he said, recounting how the cross seemed to float above another boy's shoulder in the murkiness of Spring Bayou. "I reached out and got it."

When he is asked to recall how he felt after climbing out of the water, his voice breaks.

"I was blessed by the archbishop," he remembers. "It was the greatest moment of my life. Even as I remember it now, I get choked up."

Skaroulis' account of catching the cross contains threads that appear in many retrievers' stories about the experience: not expecting to be the successful diver at first, seeing a white glow around the cross and suddenly discovering it within reach.

Compare Skaroulis' story with that of John Korfiatis of Tarpon Springs, not yet born when Skaroulis retrieved the cross.

It was Korfiatis' last year to dive in 1982 because he was 18, then the maximum age for divers (the maximum age has changed over the years).

"Every year, I had made sure I jumped off the boat first," he recalls. "But that year, I was praying instead of thinking about jumping. I looked over, and I was the only one left on the boat."

He dived in and began to swim.

"I saw a glow and reached over and grabbed it," he says, telling the story as he clutches the same white cross wrapped with blue and white ribbons, now wrinkled. "It was a perfect fit. As I'm telling you right now, I'm getting chills. I still get excited."

A source of safety

and much success

Hercules K. Ypsilantis of Holiday, the 1949 cross retriever, believes he received a blessing in his occupation.

He is retired now, but for more than 30 years, he drove a Greyhound bus.

"In my case, I have been very fortunate in my field of endeavor," he said. "In 1983 I was picked driver of the year of North and South America."

During his career, Ypsilantis said he drove 2,860,000 miles without an accident. "They thought that was quite an accomplishment," he said.

He tried to explain to colleagues over the years how his experience at Epiphany made that possible.

"They would tease me when I said something like, "I was blessed,' " he recalls. "They can't understand. But if you believe in something, like your religion, anything is possible."

He will return to Tarpon Springs for Epiphany this year, as he has every year for the past 10.

"I make it a point, since I retired, to come back to Epiphany to see which other young man is fortunate enough to retrieve it," he says. "Once you have done it, the thrill of the new retriever is in you also."

New life stems

from the cross

Much of the meaning of being the cross retriever comes years after the successful dive, says John Saclarides, who retrieved the cross in 1976. He is now a senior vice president with NationsBank and lives in Charlotte, N.C.

Cross retrievers evaluate their lives and look for the ways they have been blessed. It is, by necessity, an inexact exercise.

"Who can say how things would have turned out otherwise?" Saclarides reflects. "You don't know that."

He has seldom been able to return to Tarpon Springs for Epiphany recently, and he will not make it this year, either. But each Jan. 6 is still a day to reflect on the Epiphany when he caught the cross and the years that have unspooled since.

"I really thought about it on my 20th anniversary of it," he says. "All I do know is that I could not ask for anything different and wouldn't want anything to be any different."

Perhaps he is referring to his impressive job at the bank?

"I married a great woman," he corrects. "We've been married now 17 years. We've got two great kids, 13 and 10. That's the core. Everything else is superficial."

An everlasting,

quiet fraternity

Anestis Anastasios Karistinos, 24, got the cross in 1991, and Andrew Nikiforakis, 23, followed suit in 1992. The two were friends before each of them dived for the cross. Now they are roommates in a house on Spring Boulevard in Tarpon Springs near Spring Bayou.

Both young men own their own businesses. Karistinos is a sponge and charter fisherman and captain of his own boat. Nikiforakis and a partner own the home and car stereo business on U.S. 19 where he has worked since he was 15.

The trophies they received for being cross retrievers sit side by side on top of their television set.

"It makes you feel real special, and it gives you something to thrive on, to go with," Karistinos said of being blessed by the archbishop.

He earned money to buy and refurbish his boat by working hard aboard his father's sponge boat and saving his share of the profits from each haul. Two years ago, he bought his own 20-year-old vessel, gutted it and spent a year refitting it with a friend.

For his part, Nikiforakis says his business is growing, expanding from car stereos to home theater merchandise.

Besides success at a young age, the two share membership in the fraternity of men who understand the blessing of the cross dive.

"I know a lot of people who caught the cross," Karistinos says. "These are people that I see all the time. We've always got an extra squeeze in the handshake for each other. We all know the feeling."

Nikiforakis agrees, "It's definitely a brotherhood. When you talk to past retrievers, it's a common thing. We all smile and wink."

As Skaroulis points out, the veteran divers' walk to Spring Bayou together this year will convene that fraternity. And after the dive, they will receive a new member: one of those 64 hopeful boys.

"Every time you watch it, you get a good feeling," Karistinos says of the cross dive.

"When you catch the cross, it's a feeling that you want everyone to have the chance to experience. It's too bad that it's only got to be one person a year, but I guess that's part of what makes it special."