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A big start for new leader

(ran North, South editions of PASCO TIMES)

Today, just as generations have done for 98 years past, the Greek Orthodox faithful will celebrate here in Epiphany City.

But a new face will oversee the tradition. The Rev. Sebastian Skordallos, Archimandrite, now at the helm of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, will watch the world-heralded event for the first time.

In the days leading to Epiphany, Father Sebastian guarded the cross-divers' trophy and hid the hand-made cross that Archbishop Demetrios will toss into Spring Bayou this afternoon _ tasks the beloved Father Tryfon Theophilopoulos managed for 29 years before retiring this summer.

"I need to experience the 99th so that it will be my training, so we will have the perfect one at the 100-year anniversary," said Father Sebastian, who was named cathedral dean in August.

Epiphany is a full day of liturgy and processionals that builds to the moment when 45 Greek Orthodox boys ages 16 to 18 dive into Spring Bayou to retrieve the cross. The day, which is always Jan. 6, celebrates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.

This year, as they celebrate the baptism of Christ, the congregants also will pray for those affected by the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Archbishop Demetrios said.

"Here in Epiphany we have the element of waters," he said. "We are going to be aware of the potential that water has of becoming a blessing or a very dangerous element."

On Tuesday, the day before he welcomed Archbishop Demetrios, the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox community in the United States, Father Sebastian said he was excited and anxious that everything goes according to plan.

The weather should help him with that, according to forecasters.

By this afternoon the temperature is expected to warm to about 75 degrees and the sky should be partly cloudy, according to the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Before he was named dean of the mother cathedral of 60 Greek Orthodox churches in the Tampa Bay area, Father Sebastian was a parish priest in Marietta, Ga.

He visited Tarpon Springs just once, in 1979 as a theology graduate student on a Florida field trip that included Disney World, Busch Gardens and this Epiphany City.

The Cyprus native understood what he was getting into when he took over St. Nicholas, the church that hosts the biggest Greek Orthodox Epiphany celebration outside of Greece.

"We know this is a church that is a landmark," Father Sebastian said. "It's a lighthouse not just for the whole state of Florida, but also nationwide."

As he prepared to celebrate the 99th Epiphany, Father Sebastian was forced to look to next year's centennial celebration.

Rumors are swirling the 100th Epiphany celebration could include a visit from the spiritual leader of world Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

Archbishop Demetrios said he will visit Constantinople next week and will tell the patriarch "these people in Tarpon Springs are very eager to know what you are to do."

If he did come, it would be only the third U.S. visit from a Greek Orthodox patriarch. It would be akin to a visit from the pope.

Organizers say they hope to know by the end of this month if he will come.

But even without a visit from Patriarch Bartholomew, the 100th Epiphany celebration will be a major event.

Father Sebastian envisions a weeklong celebration with cultural activities including concerts, theater, exhibits and a dance competition. He has called a town meeting for Jan. 18 to begin brainstorming.

But for now, as much as he can, Father Sebastian is focusing on today's celebration.

On Wednesday he welcomed the archbishop, who flew in from New York. Father Sebastian will attend all the Epiphany events and spend time with the visiting dignitaries, who include the Metropolitan of Spain and Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta.

In the Greek Orthodox Church, a metropolitan is the spiritual leader of the church in a designated area of the world. For example, the Metropolitan of Atlanta oversees the Greek Orthodox community in seven states, including Florida.

Father Sebastian, noting he is an Epiphany novice, said he sought advice from his predecessor. Father Tryfon, who is recovering from a kidney transplant, is not expected to attend Epiphany.

"He cautioned that it will be an overwhelming experience, and to really focus on the important things that need to be done," such as making sure the Divine Liturgy goes smoothly, he said.

Archbishop Demetrios, who will toss the cross today during his fifth visit to Tarpon Springs' Epiphany, said he would tell Father Sebastian to keep on with this tradition in such a special city.

"I'm telling him that he's a very blessed priest, being a priest in Tarpon Springs," Archbishop Demetrios said. "Say thanks to God for being here."

Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story. Nora Koch can be reached at nkochsptimes.com or (727) 771-4304.

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