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For 99 years, a sacred sport

For many of the thousands who will flock to the Epiphany City, Thursday will be a day of glorious Greek revelry topped by the thrill of the legendary cross toss.

But to the faithful, Epiphany is one of the year's holiest days, one steeped in generations of tradition and two millennia of divinity.

"Sometimes people forget it's not an athletic event, it's a religious event," said Vasile Faklis, a lifelong member of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the person handling public relations for this year's church celebration.

Each year Greek Orthodox dignitaries and up to 30,000 spectators come to Tarpon Springs' Epiphany, the largest such celebration this side of Greece.

The 99th Epiphany will be a typical one, said Emmanuel Gombos, who dove for the cross more than three decades ago and today is the chairman of the Epiphany celebration. That means a full day of liturgy and prayer, processionals, the ceremonial cross retrieval and afterward, partying Greek-style.

"There's no Epiphany that's a regular Epiphany," he said. "They're all special."

For the Velardocchia family, this year's Epiphany is especially blessed. Daughter Catherine, 14, has been selected as this year's dove bearer. She follows in the footsteps of her mother, Maria, and an aunt who carried and released the bird in 1981 and 1980, respectively. This also will be the first year that Catherine's brother, Anthony Velardocchia, 16, will dive for the cross.

"It's going to be a busy day, an exciting day, a day that we will remember forever," said Maria, a second-grade teacher at Tarpon Springs Elementary School. "Whatever is God's will, that's what will happen."

No one can remember a time when the dove bearer's brother retrieved the cross. But it's an honor just to have both children involved in this year's celebration, say Maria and her husband, Sal.

"If Anthony did retrieve the cross, then double the blessing," Maria Velardocchia said.

The church has been central to her children's lives since they were both baptized at St. Nicholas, and the Tarpon Springs High students have been at every Epiphany celebration since birth. Each joined the Levendia dance troupe at 5. At 8, Anthony became an altar server. Catherine took up choir at the same age.

Four generations of her family will watch Thursday when Catherine releases the dove before the archbishop tosses the cross into Spring Bayou.

The Epiphany has a strong family bond in this city's close-knit Greek Orthodox community, but it also has deep religious meaning.

On the Orthodox calendar, the day is called "Theofania," the manifestation of God. In Tarpon Springs, the day's traditions remain true to their origin in Christ's baptism in the Jordan River in 30 A.D.

Tarpon Springs' Epiphany will begin at 8 a.m. in St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, when the devoted will trickle in for Orthros, two hours of morning prayers and chants to prepare for the Divine Liturgy. After the service and sermon, Greek dancers will lead a procession down to Spring Bayou. There, Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox church in the United States, will bless the bayou and the boys will dive.

After the cross is retrieved, the congregation will go back to church to conclude the ceremony before the Glendi celebration in Craig Park.

The boy who finds the cross will be the star of the day. He will be one from a group of 45 boys, from 16 to 18, who have proved to their church that they are worthy. To qualify for the dive, the boys filled out a form, attended a religious seminar with a priest and wrote an essay about what Epiphany means to them.

The dive is important, but it's not about who is the strongest swimmer or who moves the quickest to catch the cross, Gombos said. He's been helping put on the day since 1975, and each year, he watches the dive and remembers his own.

"You remember the cold water, you remember the dove flying, the retrieval," Gombos said.

"Anyone who has dived for the cross, it feels like you're getting ready to dive again."

And for Gombos, watching the dive also leaves him with an uplifted spirit and a remembrance of why they are there.

While Epiphany may be the church's holiest day of the year, it's undeniably Tarpon Springs' largest event.

The crowd varies from year to year, depending on the weather and the day of the week, said police Sgt. Jeff Young.

The Police Department kicks into high gear for the day, with at least 30 officers of their own on the street plus about the same number assisting from other law enforcement agencies.

Whether visitors are Greek Orthodox or not, there for the sport of the day or the chance to pray, Gombos hopes they take part in the spirit of the celebration.

"I want them to walk to walk away with a religious message . . . (about) the baptism of Christ," Gombos said.

"We've got to stop and remember his commitment to us."

Nora Koch can be reached at nkochsptimes.com or (727) 771-4304.

Tarpon Springs' 99th Epiphany

Thursday is the annual Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, commemorating the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River. It is one of the Greek Orthodox Church's holiest days of the year, and Tarpon Springs hosts the largest celebration this side of Greece. Organizers expect about 20,000 people.

SCHEDULE

+ Wednesday

Epiphany banquet, hosted by the local chapter of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. Cocktails at 6 p. m. and dinner at 7 p. m at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral Center, 348 N Pinellas Ave. Tickets are $ 40 and can be purchased at the door. Call ( 727) 4206204 to buy tickets in advance.

+ Thursday

Epiphany day kicks off at 8 a. m. at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36 N Pinellas Ave., with Orthros, the morning preparatory service. The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil will follow at 10 a. m. Around 12: 15 p. m. the procession to Spring Bayou will begin, and the blessing of the bayou waters and cross toss will follow. Glendi, a festival of food, music and dancing, will be in Craig Park after the cross retrieval. There is a $ 2 entrance fee to the Glendi and Greek food and drink will be for sale.

+ Friday

Epiphany Ball, 7 p. m. in Theophilos Hall at the cathedral center. Tickets cost $35 for adults and $25 for children under 12. Call ( 727) 9373540.

Sources: St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Tarpon Springs Police Department, Times files

PEOPLE TO WATCH

Archbishop Demetrios, who will lead the Divine Liturgy and throw the cross.

Dove bearer Catherine Velardocchia, 14, a choir girl who will release the bird during the ceremony at Spring Bayou.

James Hughes, 17, who retrieved the cross last year. The boy who retrieves it this year will be one of 45, ages 16 to 18, who dive for the honor.

The Very Reverend Sebastian Skordallos, cathedral dean, who is celebrating his first Epiphany at the helm in Tarpon Springs.

Chris Palaidis holds his crutches Thursday while he and Pete Tassopoulos plant poinsettias around a statue of a cross diver at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Epiphany preparations are extensive, as Tarpon Springs gets ready for the 20,000 spectators who are expected to attend the three days of events. Thirty Tarpon police officers will monitor the festivities, along with about 30 law enforcement officers from other departments.

Thursday's Epiphany celebration will be a special one for the Velardocchia family. Catherine, 14, was chosen as the dove bearer and her brother Anthony, 16, will dive for the cross. They are the second generation of their family to take part in the holy ceremony. The siblings' mother and aunt were both dove bearers. "It's going to be a busy day, an exciting day, a day that we will remember forever," said their mother, Maria Velardocchia, a second-grade teacher at Tarpon Springs Elementary School.

Holiday resident Bill Gatlin, an employee of the Tarpon Springs Parks Department, retrieves cones from Spring Bayou. In addition to its cleaning, the bayou will be blessed before the cross dive by Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox church in the United States.

Parks employee Norm Dicks paints a stairway at Spring Bayou. The cross dive in the bayou's waters is often the most anticipated event. It symbolizes the baptism of Jesus Christ in 30 A.D.

This 1981 photo shows Maria Velardocchia, left, preparing to join the Epiphany procession. Lena Saroukos, Mike Theodore and Nick Krouskos also participated. Velardocchia is the mother of this year's dove bearer.

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