Tarpon Springs, Fla. -- Two years and thousands of hours of work by parishioners of St. Nicholas Cathedral came to fruition January 6 with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Epiphany celebration in the community coinciding with the first visit of an Ecumenical Patriarch.
On his third day in Tarpon Springs, Patriarch Bartholomew officiated at events associated with the feast day, including the archierarchical Divine Liturgy, the Water Blessing Service that immediately followed, and the traditional diving for the cross in nearby Spring Bayou.
From there, the Patriarch, Archbishop Demetrios and other hierarchs and priests proceeded to the heart of what is known as "Greek Town" the area around Dodecanese Avenue that includes the sponge docks, where he viewed several groups of accomplished Greek dancers. The day's events ended in the evening with the Centennial Epiphany Reception held in Tampa.
"I'm touched by the visit of His All Holiness," said William Planes, chairman of the Centennial Committee that planned the events surrounding Patriarch Bartholomew's five-day visit. "He's a wonderful person." Mr. Planes noted that, as a result of the Patriarch's visit, a family member who had not received Holy Communion in 50 years, did so at the Epiphany liturgy. "He brought my family together," he said.
At the Divine Liturgy, which began at 9 a.m. and was broadcast live, Patriarch Bartholomew was assisted by Archbishop Demetrios, who joined him at events throughout the day, and four other bishops, five priests and four deacons. About 100 priests were present in the altar for the service.
Following the Liturgy and the Blessing of the Waters, which included participation by all Metropolitans present, the clergy and divers lined up on Pinellas Avenue in front of the church for the 20-minute procession to Spring Bayou on a morning when the temperature had dropped to the mid-'50s, with a steady north wind. The hierarchs, priests and divers were joined by choir members and other church officials.
Upon arriving, the Patriarch blessed the 56 teen-age boys who kneeled on the steps leading down to the water, then the boys raced to jump into the water. The Patriarch led a brief service that included hymns and the reading from the Gospel from the Blessing of the Waters. At the proper moment, a girl from the community released a dove, signifying the description of the Holy Spirit in the Bible, who descended "like a dove."
Moments later, the Patriarch tossed in the cross and the waters were quickly churning with the rapid movement of the boys as they headed for the cross. A few seconds later, 16-year-old Zacharias Vasilaros surfaced holding the cross aloft. It was his first try as a cross diver. He was quickly hoisted on the shoulders of several other boys, who bore him all the way back to the cathedral where he received a special blessing from Patriarch Bartholomew.
Clergy and lay people then proceeded to Dodecanese Avenue, a street along the water lined with Greek specialty shops and restaurants. A large tent was set up on a parking lot where the Patriarch and Metropolitans viewed several groups of Greek dancers, some traveling from as far as Astoria, N.Y., and Cranston, R.I.
In the evening, a motorcade transported the Patriarch, Archbishop, and other hierarchs to a banquet facility. Master of ceremonies was Fox-News anchor Ernie Anastos of New York. In his introduction of the Patriarch, Archbishop Demetrios discussed the significance of the Ecumenical Patriarch and St. Sophia Church, which dates back to the Emperor Justinian and the Byzantine Empire at its height.
Patriarch Bartholomew, discussing the significance of Epiphany, said the feast day was not only a celebration of Christ's baptism, but is "also a revelation of the Holy Trinity and our own baptism." He also noted that because many people in the United States have taken an interest in Orthodoxy, "It is our brotherly duty to witness to them the beauty and content of the faith." Praising Archbishop Demetrios for his ministry, the Patriarch said his mind is "at ease" knowing the Archbishop is leading the Church in America. Several presentations to the Patriarch concluded the banquet, including the presentation of the key to the city by Mayor Beverly Billiris.