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A sacred vision

A series of dreams leads a New Port Richey man to a mountain near his birthplace in Greece. There he makes an amazing discovery.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Steve Triantafyllou holds a picture of the icon at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in New Port Richey.
NEW PORT RICHEY -- In Steve Triantafyllou's dreams, the Virgin Mary hailed the retired laborer to a gnarled, lightning-split cedar near the Greek village of his birth.

Triantafyllou obeyed what he deemed a divine summons. He took a flight to Greece and drove the mountain roads to the village of Stromi. His reward came swiftly.

On a rocky mountainside a mile above sea level, beside a tree recognizable from his dreams, he and five friends unearthed Mary's image on an engraved copper icon dated 1775.

"Mother of us all," said the writing in Greek over Mary's haloed head, which is nuzzling the Christ child, surrounded by six copper angels and metallic rosettes.

"To me it's a miracle," Triantafyllou said from the waterside New Port Richey house he shares with his wife, Vasiliki. "I'm not trying to change anybody's religion. People can take it as they want."

Thanks to televised news reports in the southeast European country of 10-million, thousands of Greeks have made the icon, dubbed the "Virgin Mary of Stromi," into an object of national veneration.

Its weathered brownish-orange surface shines from the touches and kisses of countless faithful, so much so that caretakers felt compelled to cover it in glass.

Like much of Greece, Triantafyllou's village, Stromi, drips with legend. From its village square, dominated by a stone Greek Orthodox church, you can see the peak of Mount Oita.

Here, ancient Greek tradition holds that Hercules burned himself to death on a funeral pyre. In one version of the tale, Hercules' reward was to be lofted to Mount Olympus, where he dwelled forever with the gods.

Forty-five minutes east of Stromi is Delphi, home of the "Oracle at Delphi," one of the ancient world's foremost pilgrimage sites. Kings and emperors such as Alexander the Great and Nero had their fortunes told there.

Triantafyllou, now 70, grew to adolescence in Stromi. The Nazi invasion of Greece in 1940, and later the Communist-inspired Greek civil war, forced his family to flee, ultimately to Akron, Ohio.

Fifteen years ago, while working at Babcock & Wilcox, a defense contractor near Akron, Triantafyllou had what he considers his first significant dream.

He saw himself at his grandfather's farm near Stromi, looking toward a half-burned cedar. It suddenly lit up. The Virgin Mary, blazing like the sun, rose from the ground toward the heavens. Three angels hovered on each side.

Triantafyllou kept the details mostly to himself. "I didn't say much about it," he recalled. "I was kind of shy."

Five years ago, after he had moved to New Port Richey, he saw Mary in another a dream. She stood near the same spot and told Triantafyllou that a church would be built there.

Then came May 13, 2001: Mother's Day. It was about 3 a.m. In his dreamscape, Triantafyllou was at the farm again. He heard a noise like thunder. He said Mary told him, "I came to you twice and you didn't set me free."

Triantafyllou awoke in a sweat, speechless for several minutes. Hearing the story, his wife insisted he return to Stromi.

The morning of June 27, 2001: Triantafyllou and five childhood friends, who had plotted a plan of action at an outdoor cafe in the village square the day before, arrived at a mountain 15 minutes away from Stromi.

Carrying a shovel, pickax, saw and video camera, the men trudged along a pine needle path, past a boar's nest, to the old farm. It had lain fallow for 50 years. Pine and wildflowers choked old wheat fields.

"What now?" asked his friend, Yiannis Dokatzis, who had expressed doubts about his friend's premonition.

Triantafyllou said, "Give me a few minutes to catch my breath and collect my thoughts."

He soon spotted the cedar, dead, gnarled and damaged by lightning. The men started digging on the left side of the tree. No luck. Then they moved to the right side.

"As I was scratching down I just felt some kind of metal with my hands," Triantafyllou said.

Some of the men feared it was a land mine left over from the civil war. As they scratched away the dirty crust on the object, they saw things more clearly: Pinned under several tree roots gleamed the face of the mother of Jesus.

"It's an icon of the Virgin Mary!" two of Triantafyllou's friends said.

The video of the discovery shows the men's emotions. They break into sobs and kiss the icon. So overcome is Triantafyllou, the camera wobbles and jerks. His legs give way, and he slips down the slope on which the cedar stood.

The men sped back to Stromi, dashed to the bell tower of the church and yanked the rope. To the peals of the bell, villagers spilled from their houses. Many proclaimed it a miracle.

Stromi's village priest and bishop held a service to celebrate the unearthing of the icon. Greek TV descended on the mountain community. Soon thousands of religious Greeks arrived as pilgrims in buses, taxis and cars.

According to the director of the Athens Byzantine Museum, the icon was wrought in the artistic style of Byzantium, the Greek-speaking empire that thrived in the Middle Ages.

Apparently the work of a local craftsman, whose initials are etched in the copper, the icon stems from 1775. It once had a wooden backing, evidenced by metal studs on its flip side.

The mountain on which the icon was found is known locally as "Eklissias I Rahi," or "Church's Clearing." It's possible a church once stood there and that the icon was part of its ornament.

Why was it buried? No one knows for certain, but there are clues. Historians say Turkish soldiers rampaged across central Greece in the decades after the icon was made. Greece was then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and suffered sporadic anti-Christian violence.

To Triantafyllou, it's significant that he, a Greek-American, was chosen to unearth the image.

He returns to Greece next month to oversee construction of a domed chapel near the site of the discovery. The icon now rests in the bishop's safe in Greece, but it's destined for the chapel.

As for a deeper meaning of the re-emergence of the icon, Triantafyllou isn't sure. But he can't resist linking it to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, which occurred more than two months after his trip to the mountain.

The parallels are tempting to those of a religious bent: A powerful symbol struck down by fanatics, inspirationally rising from the ground.

"It's something she's trying to tell us," Triantafyllou said. "The Virgin Mary assures us that good will prevail."

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