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After 29 years, St. Nicholas to gain new leader

(ran South, East edition of Pasco Times)

In this community of saltwater bayous, sponge docks and last names that end with "s," Father Tryfon Theophilopoulos is a well-known, respected and beloved figurehead.

He has led the city's religious and cultural epicenter, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, for 29 years.

Now he is 69. His hair has become the color of snow; it complements his bronzed skin. His dark chocolate eyes still twinkle when he smiles. And with his trim physique, he looks like the picture of health.

But his looks belie reality. He is gravely ill. The man of miracles is in need of one.

Kidney disease has slowed him down considerably. He undergoes dialysis three times a week and hopes a new kidney may be found.

"I want to continue to help the church and community for as long as I can," he said.

Though not well, he is not retiring. Rather, he is being elevated to the cathedral's dean emeritus, where he will continue working on a limited basis performing sacraments, good works and such.

On Sunday, a new leader takes the helm. At the 10 a.m. service, the Rev. Sebastian Skordallos, Archimandrite, will be installed as the new dean of the cathedral.

The two men have been friends for 25 years.

The Rev. Sebastian, a native of Cyprus, wears a traditional beard, is celibate, does not divulge his age and is in line to become a bishop one day. He comes to this area from Marietta, Ga., where he served as parish priest of the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, a congregation of mostly young, second- and third-generation Greeks. Recently he saw the completion of a new Byzantine-style church with an amphitheater.

Now the bishop has asked him to pilot the mother church of 60 Greek Orthodox churches in the Tampa Bay area. The Tarpon Springs parish is the only Greek Orthodox cathedral in Central Florida, a title bestowed by a bishop in the 1970s. It is home of the largest Epiphany celebration in the nation.

"It is a wonderful opportunity," the Rev. Sebastian said. "This is a beautiful community, a Greek village where people are hungry for spiritual growth."

He looks forward to an Oct. 16 groundbreaking for the church's new parochial school on Keystone Road that will serve kindergarten through the eighth grade and eventually high schoolers. Another big event is the Epiphany centennial celebration in January 2006, which is sure to garner worldwide attention.

He wants to reach out to inactive members and revive the youth ministry. He hopes to increase stewardship among the congregation.

He will have large shoes to fill.

Father Tryfon came here as a priest in 1975, the same year Louis Pappas moved his famous restaurant to its current location. During his tenure, he has led efforts to build a $4.3-million community center, renovate the cathedral twice and erect the future parochial school.

"The community center is my baby," he said. "We fought for that one."

The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral Center seats 1,000 and is the home of the annual Greek festival, which raises thousands of dollars for the area's poor. Father Tryfon said it still needs more decoration.

"We hope to get a big beautiful chandelier," he said.

In 1993, Father Tryfon faced controversy when a $22,000 solid bronze statue of an Epiphany diver sculpted by artist Mitch Kolbe was erected on church property and unveiled in January 1994. Some thought it should not stand on church grounds. Others, mainly mothers, fought for a certain look.

"Everyone wanted it to look like their son," Father Tryfon said. "When the archbishop came, he thought it was fantastic the way it was."

Father Tryfon and his wife Helen have three adult children. Dean, a neonatologist, practices at Helen Ellis Memorial and Tampa General hospitals. Jerry is a lawyer. Daughter Kathy Boillot is a dentist.

Not bad for a man who did not know the language when he came to this country in 1961. When he arrived in the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., he had a note pinned to him that said, "Help him. He doesn't speak English."

His presence has become so well known in the community, even those who are not Greek and do not attend the church admire him.

"There is great concern in the community for his health," said Tony Leisner, a Tarpon Springs civic, social and business leader who is not Greek. "He is a very valuable asset to the community. He's done a tremendous job inspiring the young people to stay involved with the church and to maintain their cultural heritage. He's a humanist, not a political animal. He reaches out to everyone."

The two clergymen are hard to separate from the institution they represent. The original church was chartered in 1906. In the 1930s and early '40s, the sponge industry was at its zenith and Greek sponge divers tithing to the church were able to raise the $75,000 needed for the new Byzantine-style church, a replica of St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople.

Completed in 1943, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, at 36 N Pinellas Ave., is striking, with numerous stained glass windows and walls embellished with gold foil, decorative niches and fresco paintings. The domed ceiling is painted with a picture of God.

The focal point of the sanctuary is adorned with a marble altar, marble walls and benches. Originally used as a small chapel for the 1939-40 New York World's Fair and later stored in the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C., the 60 tons of Grecian marble were purchased for about $25,000.

Father Tryfon thinks the cathedral, named after the patron saint of seamen, protects the city.

"Since it was built, we have never had a direct hit from a hurricane," he said. "Elena started coming here, but then it stayed out at sea."

The Rev. Sebastian Skordallos will be the new dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and friend Father Tryfon Theophilopoulos the new dean emeritus.