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    Native son returns for Epiphany

    Along the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs, the Metropolitan Nikitas revives the tradition of blessing of the boats.

    [Times photo: Douglas Clifford]
    Diver Tasso Karistinos, center, watches as Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Nikitas leaves the Tarpon Spring's sponge docks after Sunday's boat blessing. The diver said the blessing made him wistful for Greece. "It made me homesick."

    By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 6, 2003

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    TARPON SPRINGS -- His Eminence walked the sponge docks in long black robes, followed by the faithful who knelt to kiss his jeweled cross and receive his blessing -- old women, small children, waitresses, fishermen, sponge divers.

    Among the crowd was his sixth-grade teacher, who sometimes forgets to call him "His Eminence," and his parents, who still live in Tarpon Springs. His mother wept.

    Sunday's blessing of the boats, which extended to the shops and restaurants around the sponge docks, revived an old tradition in the celebration of Epiphany, which continues today with the Divine Liturgy at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral at 10 a.m. and the cross dive in Spring Bayou this afternoon.

    But Sunday's blessing also was a homecoming for a local boy who grew up to be Metropolitan Nikitas of Hong Kong, one of the highest-ranking hierarchs in the Greek Orthodox religion. Metropolitan is a rank between bishop and archbishop.

    "It's heaven," said his mother, Kali Lulias, when she saw her son walking toward her by the water with his jeweled gold cross in one hand. "I'm so proud."

    She used to bring young Nikitas Lulias to Epiphany as a child. He was an altar boy and always very religious, she said.

    In 1974, he dove for the cross in Spring Bayou with the other Greek boys. That year, the wooden cross sank and, for a while, no one could find it. Archbishop Iakovos said it was God's will that a second cross -- a gold one -- be thrown into the waters. Nikitas retrieved the first gold cross thrown in 50 years.

    His mother cried then, too. "Such a good boy," she said. Now 47, her son presides over the largest and poorest diocese in the world.

    Nikitas used to watch the blessing of the sponge boats as a little boy, he said. But the tradition died. Locals say it has been 15 or 20 years since the boats were blessed in a ceremony like this.

    "We should not allow a tradition to die out of recklessness," Nikitas said.

    He paused to bless an old woman with a walker. She stooped to kiss the cross he carried, and he sprinkled her with a handful of basil dipped in holy water.

    "Traditions add color to our lives," Nikitas said.

    The blessings began at the west end of Dodecanese Boulevard, across from the Sponge Exchange.

    "Today, all creation is blessed," he said.

    He sang In the River Jordan in Greek, the hymn that describes Christ's baptism in 30 A.D. It is the same song Archbishop Demetrios of America will sing as he throws the wooden cross into the bayou in today's cross diving ceremony. Epiphany is the celebration of Christ's baptism, and its observance in Tarpon Springs is the largest in the western hemisphere.

    "En Eeorthani baptisomenete sou kirie is tis triados efaneros . . ." he sang as he blessed the boats: the Agios Pandelemonas, the Susie Sea, the Agios Kostandinos, the St. Michael, the Agios Nikolaos, the St. Phillip and others, scattering pigeons and camera operators as he walked.

    Sponge diver Tasso Karistinos came off the St. Nicholas IV in his orange diving suit to be blessed, crossing himself as tourists snapped pictures. He said the blessing made him wistful for his homeland in Greece. "Beautiful," he said. "It made me homesick."

    His Eminence crossed Dodecanese Boulevard and went in and out of the stores, leaving behind the smell of basil in the air. The Epiphany dove bearer, Kally Flytzanis, kissed the cross and joined the crowd, which included state representative Gus Bilirakis and his family. Bilirakis' mother is the metropolitan's first cousin, he said.

    "It reminds me of the old days when we were growing up," said Bilirakis, who said he cried when Nikitas spoke at Sunday morning's service at the St. Nicholas cathedral. "I can't help it, it's family."

    Nikitas took his blessings past Zorbas lounge and restaurant on Athens Street, into the coffee houses where the Greek men gather to play pinochle. He had to backtrack a few times, as some people who missed the blessing cried for him to return.

    He passed a waiter shouting "Opa!" and a little boy who covered his ears as his father's eyes teared up. He blessed vendors at a stand selling T-shirts for the Athens Olympics, and someone thrust a cell phone at him to offer blessings to friends in Greece.

    He blessed a waiter whose name he remembered from long ago. "Do you recognize who I am?" he asked her.

    "Oh, yes," she said.

    He has not celebrated Epiphany here in six years, he said. But he hopes the boat blessing tradition will continue in his absence.

    "Our lives can not just be fast food and Internet," he said. "Our lives need meaning, color and tradition."

    Behind him, his mother crossed herself again and again, singing quietly.

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