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The 50-year story behind Tarpon Springs’ coveted Epiphany cross

The late Bill Paskalakis made the cross for 40 years, then passed the tradition to his grandson, Nicholas Souder. The grandson just made his 10th cross for Epiphany.

TARPON SPRINGS — For half a century, one Greek family has crafted an ornate wooden cross bearing the promise of a year of blessings.

It’s the main ingredient for the city’s annual Epiphany Celebration. The 114th edition takes place Monday, when up to 20,000 are expected to gather along the banks of Spring Bayou to watch dozens of teen boys dive into the water to retrieve it.

This year marks the first decade that Nicholas Souder, 33, has spent making the Epiphany cross. The honor was passed to him by his grandfather, Bill Paskalakis, who died in 2010 after maintaining the tradition for 40 years.

“It was one of the things he asked me to make sure got taken care of before he died, literally on his deathbed,” Souder said. “I told him not to worry.”

Nicholas Souder, left, learns from his grandfather, Bill Paskalakis, how to construct the Epiphany celebration cross in 2008. A lifelong woodworker who made the Epiphany cross each year for four decades, Paskalakis died in 2010. He passed the tradition on to Souder, who made his 10th cross for this year's Epiphany. [ Elaine Sarris ]

Souder now lives in Colorado and works as a fly fishing guide and bar consultant. But he remembers growing up around his grandfather’s workshop in Tarpon Springs. It was attached to the back of a house, beneath an overhang, and crammed with all sorts of tools.

Paskalakis spent his life as a master carpenter, teaching woodworking classes in local schools, after graduating from Tarpon Springs High School himself in 1954. It was there that he made his first Epiphany cross, inside the campus woodshop where he taught, said Elaine Sarris, his daughter and Souder’s mother.

“All the local boys at school would be excited,” she remembered. “They wanted to see it and touch it. They kind of felt blessed by it, just being able to watch.”

The Epiphany cross starts with a solid plank of white oak, Souder said. He cuts it into two pieces, the way his grandfather showed him. Then he joins them back together to form the cross shape.

He carves grooves into the wood, smoothing its edges. Then he drills into the cross and fills it with lead to ensure it sinks when thrown into Spring Bayou for the dive. The cross is finished with white paint and the year is engraved, glistening in gold.

Nicholas Souder, 33, holds the cross he made for this year's Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs. It will be thrown into Spring Bayou and dozens of teen boys will dive in after it. Tradition says whomever retrieves it will receive a year of blessings. [ Victoria Howlett ]

Paskalakis usually finished the cross by Christmas so he could bring it to family gatherings for the holidays. “He felt like it blessed our home,” Sarris said. Then he would deliver it to the priest at St. Nicholas Cathedral, near the bayou, a few days before Epiphany.

More than once, priests around the country contacted Paskalakis to ask him to make a cross for their Epiphany. He never said no, Sarris said, because “it was a blessing to be asked." Souder said he hasn’t yet received a similar request, but his grandfather gave him strict instructions to do as he did.

Souder said he was eager to accept his grandfather’s invitation to carry on the tradition. It created a “sacred trust” between the men and the Greek church, Sarris said, and Souder plans to eventually teach his younger cousins the craft.

“It’s a legacy that we’re proud of," Sarris added. “Dad saw it as a blessing and now Nicholas also sees it as a blessing. It’s part of stewardship, of contributing to the community, and they have considered that quite an honor.”

Nicholas Souder, 33, prepares to cast the cross he constructed for Tarpon Springs' 2020 Epiphany celebration into Spring Bayou as a test run in December. It is filled with lead to help it sink. Dozens of teen boys will try to retrieve it. [ Victoria Howlett ]

IF YOU GO: 114th Annual Epiphany Celebration

When: Monday

Where: St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36 N Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs.

Schedule: Orthos, 8 a.m.; Archierarchical Liturgy: 10 a.m.; Procession to Spring Bayou: 11:30 a.m.; Blessing of Spring Bayou (releasing of the dove and cross dive): 1 p.m.; Glendi festival: 1:30 p.m., Craig Park, 5 Beekman Lane. All times are approximate.

Special Guests: Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister of Greece, is scheduled to attend Epiphany. He will be the highest-ranking Greek official to ever attend. Archbishop Elpidophoros, who was appointed in June as the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, will be attending his first Epiphany.