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Sacred celebration

With the patriarch on hand on a sunny day, finding the cross is particularly meaningful for a Clearwater teen at Tarpon Springs' 100th Epiphany.

Published January 7, 2006

  Photo gallery | Special Report

TARPON SPRINGS - To retrieve the Epiphany cross in any year is considered a great honor, but to come up with a cross thrown by the Orthodox patriarch is especially blessed.

Friday that honor belonged to Jack Vasilaros, 16, of Clearwater, who retrieved the cross during the 100th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs.

"Today all is sanctified," His All Holiness Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 250-million Orthodox Christians worldwide, said before he threw the cross into Spring Bayou. The town's Epiphany celebration is among the largest in the world.

The dive came on a sunny day when the outside temperature was 59 degrees and the water in Spring Bayou was about 64 degrees. Fifty-six local boys ages 16 to 18 churned through the water before Vasilaros emerged with the cross about 10 seconds after the throw.

"This is going to change my life forever," Vasilaros said after retrieving the cross.

Vasilaros, a sophomore at Calvary Christian High School, was one of the smallest and youngest of the divers. He ended up with several other boys in a boat that overturned and was swamped.

It was tricky to clamber atop the overturned dinghy, stay balanced and ignore the biting chill before the patriarch threw the cross, he said.

"It was so, so, so cold," he said. "I was frozen."

Vasilaros, an avid fisherman and free-diver, is the son of Jack and Sophia Vasilaros.

"I didn't expect it, but I have a lot of faith in Jack," his mother said. "He's a very determined young man. Whatever he sets his mind to, he accomplishes."

Two police divers had scoured the silty, rocky bottom of the bayou Friday morning to clear the water of dangerous objects.

They found nothing, not even the manatees that often congregate at the bayou during winter, but reported that visibility in the water, even with a swim mask, was perhaps 2 feet. Once in the water, Vasilaros almost swam past the cross, but looked down and saw it, he said.

The crowd, estimated at 50,000 to 55,000, began arriving early.

Ally Cunningham, 18, was among a group of seven who came at 6:30 a.m. - and they were the second group there. She lives eight houses from the bayou and came prepared, with blankets and coolers. She comes every year because "it is a very spiritual and unique experience."

Her mother, Lisa Weiser, 42, said she always roots for the underdogs among the divers. She waits until they jump in the bayou and looks for the one who has some trouble getting into the boats.

To accommodate the extra people and high-profile visitors, organizers built a new platform at Spring Bayou and put law enforcement spotters on rooftops. At one point, a suspicious package was found in a Dumpster behind a hotel. A bomb squad destroyed it.

Organizers also put in a new sound system and a huge video screen, which at one point Friday morning was broadcasting NFL highlights. An anchor desk was created for two broadcasters from the Orthodox Church. Visiting clergy included 13 metropolitans, five bishops and six deacons, organizers said.

Among the dignitaries was Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., who made his third trip to see Epiphany in Tarpon Springs.

"This is a major event," Sarbanes said during an interview this week. "For the ecumenical patriarch to come is a tremendous recognition of this community's importance. He's a man of great stature and great importance."

The dive, however, was not the most amazing thing the boys did, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios said. A few moments in the water is nothing compared to the long walk back to the cathedral, their wet clothes clinging to their skin.

"They are remarkable boys," the archbishop said Thursday. But, he added, "if you have a warm heart you cannot feel the cold."

Frankie Giallourakis, 5, and a friend, Ava Zitis, 6, wore folk costumes for the procession leading from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral to Spring Bayou.

Frankie's parents took him to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Wednesday to greet the patriarch. When the patriarch emerged from the jet with his distinctive full white beard, Frankie said, "Here comes Santa, Mommy."

His mother, Arty Giallourakis, said the 100th Epiphany is "really special for us because my husband (Michael's) family was one of the pioneer families of Tarpon Springs."

For many Tarpon Springs residents, the day was bittersweet because it did not include two Greek Orthodox clerics long associated with Epiphany.

Father Tryfon Theophilopoulos, for three decades the dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and Archbishop Iakovos, who shepherded the Greek Orthodox Church in America for four decades, both died last year.

Before the cross dive, one of Father Tryfon's sons said the day was very difficult. "It's very sad," said neonatologist Dean T. Theophilopoulos, 39, of Tarpon Springs. "We all have heavy hearts, but we all know that he's here.

"It's very nice that the patriarch mentioned Father Tryfon today. He'd be very proud of seeing all this. You have to hold back the tears.

"I can't tell you how many people came up to me and said they wish Father Tryfon was here, and that's when I tell them that he is here."

Staff writers Tamara El-Khoury and Katherine K. Lee contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 7, 2006, 01:30:26]

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