The faithful come from near and far.
They slip inside the cool, dark shrine at 113 Hope St., a few blocks from the Sponge Docks. Some days a dozen come. Other days people pull up in buses and spill out to take turns in the tiny building, crossing themselves and lighting candles.
This stone chapel was built to fulfill a boy's promise made to the Archangel Michael during a vision as the 11-year-old lay near death. Steve Tsalickis was diagnosed with a brain tumor 75 years ago. Doctors told his mother there was no hope, yet he recovered and went on to become a popular middle school guidance counselor. His parents built the shrine in their back yard.
Since then, lured by Steve's story of faith, the devout recount many more miracles they say followed: Tumors gone, sight and hearing restored, the lame leaving behind crutches and walking out. Tears have flowed from the icons covering the walls, they say. Mothers previously unable to conceive bring their babies to pay homage.
Goldie Parr was a year younger than her brother, who died at age 78 in 2007. Steve was an ordinary boy, she remembers, who like the rest of the family had extraordinary faith. Parr, now 85, lives next to St. Michael's shrine and tends it daily. On a recent morning, she was baking pastitsio, a Greek pasta dish, for the shrine's biggest annual event, the feast of St. Michael, which the Greek Orthodox celebrate on Nov. 8.
On the eve of the feast, seven priests will lead a Vesper service at the shrine. Parr expects the usual 300 guests, overflowing the chapel into the courtyard. Parr will pass out take-home packages of pastries and cheese for the special mass, where the archangel's name is celebrated every year.
• • •
Steve's headaches had gone on for weeks. His fourth-grade teacher sent him home, his sister remembers, and a neighborhood doctor sent him to Tampa for tests. Parr remembers the needles that poked into Steve's back and the diagnosis of a brain tumor. His mother stayed by his bedside for months. One day, doctors told her the tumor was incurable.
Steve begged his mother to bring an icon of St. Michael, kept in their living room. When it arrived, Steve held it to his chest and crossed his arms over it. He said to his mother: "I have just seen St. Michael."
She thought it was the end.
"St. Michael is the angel of death," Parr said. "He takes our souls to heaven."
• • •
James Tsalickis (pronounced sa-LEEK-iss), was a sponge diver who had sent for a wife from Symi, a Greek island in a chain known as Dodecanese. He first saw Maria on the sponge docks when she landed in 1925. They were married and soon had four children. Steve was the second.
"A fixed marriage," said their daughter, Parr. "The best kind."
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Parr was a small child when a storm came up in the Gulf and James ran aground on a sandbar. When he returned to his family, he told them to pack their bags. James had prayed through the storm and promised St. Michael he would send a donation back to Symi for his safe return to shore.
So Maria boarded a ship with the four children and sailed to her homeland, where she presented $300 to the Abbot Prior of the Monastery in the Holy Abbey of Taxiarchis Michael of Panormitis.
"Back then, $300 was like a million dollars," Parr said. The abbot handed Maria a small silver icon.
The icon had a storied past and Parr tells it like this: 400 hundred years ago, a woman tilling the earth to plant a crop found the icon in the ground near the shore on Symi. The woman took it home only to find in the morning it had returned to the hole where she found it. After retrieving it several more times, a decision was made by the villagers: A church would be built at that site. As the story goes the abbot gave Maria the icon in that monastery,
Today, the icon hangs to the left of the altar in the shrine.
• • •
When Steve recovered, he told his family that St. Michael came to him as he had held the icon in the hospital. The angel showed Steve where he was to build a shrine.
• • •
After her mother died in 1994, Parr moved next to the shrine. She opens the doors at 7 a.m. each day.
Parr pulled a fat album from under a table, full of news clippings and pictures and letters. Typed on the first page is this:
"This book is dedicated to all who believe in a higher power; all whose belief enables them to bring the light of god into their own lives and the lives of others."
One clipping tells of an 8-year-old with a rare hip disease who visited the shrine, leaving behind a leg harness and crutches. In another, a deaf teen could hear after oil was dripped into her ear.
Among the clippings are letters of gratitude. People have come from as far as Canada, Parr said.
The doors to the shrine stay open all night before St. Michael's feast.
"This is the night when he does his miracles," Parr said.