TARPON SPRINGS — When 16-year-old Colten Sakadales dove into the Spring Bayou with 54 other boys during the 115th annual Epiphany celebration on Wednesday, he said he opened his eyes underwater and saw the white cross appear to be glowing.
Fellow parishioners of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral had joked earlier it was his turn to find the cross, and receive the year of blessings that tradition says go along with it, since his brother, Hunter Sakadales, 19, retrieved the cross last year.
So when he emerged from the 63-degree water clasping the cross thrown into the bayou by His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the Tarpon High School junior was stunned.
“Here I am with it, honestly I don’t believe it,” Colten Sakadales said in a later news conference. “I feel very blessed.”
Tradition continued amid the coronavirus pandemic as Tarpon Springs’ Epiphany celebration went on with a law enforcement requirement that it be scaled down from the typical mass gathering that attracts more than 20,000 spectators. A new tradition was created as well, as two brothers retrieved the cross back to back for the first time in the 115-year history, Epiphany media and publicity director Johanna Kossifidis confirmed.
“The look on my face must have been total shock and awe,” Hunter Sakadales said of watching his brother’s feat. He recalled screaming “that’s my brother!” as Colten emerged from the water.
The cathedral closed the event to the public, normally the largest in the Western Hemisphere that celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, and only distributed about 400 of the 800 tickets created for parishioners.
But by the time the four-hour Mass ended around noon, about 1,000 spectators were spread between Spring Bayou and the area outside of the church.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen said they were pleased with how attendees handled the event.
“They’re doing it today in a safe way which we 100 percent support,” Gualtieri said.
Before the 55 teens descended upon the bayou, Emanuel Gombus pleaded with onlookers through a microphone: Face masks up — and those who aren’t family of divers or a parishioner, stay outside of the established barricades.
He said organizing this year’s event took a lot of coordination with the City of Tarpon Springs and Sheriff’s Office. The least spectators could do was put a mask on.
”If Christ were here — and he is — he would want you to follow the rules that are in place,” said Gombus, who is a chairman for the church. As he spoke, some spectators pulled their masks up from their chins. Face coverings were present throughout the event — just not always over each person’s nose and mouth.
Ahead of the celebration, organizers urged members of the public to stay home and watch online. Only St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral parishioners with tickets were allowed to gather at the bayou.
The procession from the church to the water, normally a parade of dancers, costumes and thousands of cheering spectators, was limited to just divers and their families, who traveled in shifts.
This year, the Cathedral also canceled the Glendi festival that usually closes out the day with Greek dancing, music and food. The dive did not feature a dove bearer, a girl normally chosen from the choir to release a white dove to symbolize the Holy Spirit’s flight over the water.
Although the Archbishop traveled from New York, no dignitaries or clergy came from Greece as they traditionally do.
During his blessing of the Spring Bayou before the dive, the Archbishop also prayed for medical workers and first responders fighting the coronavirus pandemic. When they climbed out of the water, the boys initially adhered to the cathedral’s morning instructions to not hoist the cross retriever on their shoulders like normal. But once past the Bayou steps, boys lifted Sakadales up on his shoulders for some moments as he clutched the the cross and trophy.
The other divers huddled around Sakadales and ascended the stairs of the Bayou, then walked back to the steps of the cathedral to receive one more blessing from the archbishop.
Even with the restrictions, James Kavouklis’ said he still felt the same rush of excitement as he did last year.
Kavouklis, 17, missed the thousands of spectators who normally line the Spring Bayou to wait for the boys to dive. Although the public celebration was canceled, “It’s still a time we can share with our families.”
“It’s about celebrating Jesus Christ and I try to get emotionally connected to the liturgy service before the dive.”
A third-generation diver, the Berkeley Preparatory School junior said he was diving this year for his grandmother, who passed away Dec. 22.
”This is the one time of year you get to see everyone come together as a community to celebrate,” he said.
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