June 3 – Tarpon Springs
When we are out of town and have a bit of time, we like to visit other Orthodox churches. We enjoy that experience of celebrating the Liturgy a little differently and with different people. Over the years we’ve been to many Orthodox churches in the areas we’ve visited. In Pinellas County Florida, where my husband’s family has a home, we usually visit St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church. But, this time we decided to travel up to Tarpon Springs and visit St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. St. Nicholas is central to a thriving Greek community originating from Greek sponge divers who settled here around 1900. Today, there are four + generations of Greek families that live and work at the eateries, sponge docks, and shops in this bustling central Florida town.
Now, saying that you are going to visit a church 45 minutes away while on holiday and actually doing it are two different things! In vacation mode now, I was dreaming of a stiff caffeinated beverage at 7:45 am when my husband said, “We’ll be taking the Eucharist up there.”
Regrettably, I walked over and unplugged the full, steaming pot of coffee my mother-in-love had just brewed.
“I didn’t realize ya’ll weren’t having coffee this morning,” she said.
“Well, we can save this for tomorrow and turn it into a big jug of iced Jo, ” I offered, mustering up some energy and a smile.
By the grace of God, we managed to get everyone, even the surly 18 year old, into the car and we were off, husband at the helm. A fairly quick drive up the retail corridor of US 19 brought us to downtown Tarpon Springs. Then we turned the corner and there she was, a beautiful, ochre brick building accented with white marble, and a statue of a Theophany diver near the front. We really didn’t dally outside as it was already 9:05, and like any good Orthodox Christian, we were running a little late!
Inside the small narthex, families were lighting prayer candles and reverencing the icons. There was a buzz about this area with many parishioners entering to worship. As we stepped inside the sanctuary, we were in awe at the beauty of the marble, icons, columns, and generally the vast size of the church. Women were dressed handsomely and men wore jackets. Settling into our pew, we began to hear chanting that was so beautiful and even though I didn’t understand about 65% of it, it resonated peace and strength and Christ.
The readings were said in both Greek and English as was the homily, which encouraged us to become more saint-like through our participation in the fast.
Apart from the Czechoslovakian chandeliers and the Hagia Sophia inspired dome, the one distinctive thing I noticed was the sheer number of worshipers. We walked into the sanctuary at 9:10 and it was about 1 / 3 full. By 9:20 it was 1/2 full and by 9:35 it was at capacity. At 9:50, the aisles were crowded with parishioners standing, leaning on columns, clutching service books or bowed in prayer. This is a church that is bursting at the seams, its congregants seemingly alive with a fervor for God.
After communion, we witnessed a memorial service and a recognition of recent graduates and then it was off to a much needed coffee hour. Thankfully, I slipped out to the St. Nicholas bookstore and met Bill, my new bookstore mentor. He readily shared his wealth of publication and vendor information with this bookstore newbie. Then, he sent me out the door laden with a box of goodies and pointed me toward the sponge docks and the Greek eateries.
The streets down at the docks are vibrant with people, shops, food, boats for hire, and entertainment. We chose Dimitri’s Restaurant, right on the water, where we were greeted by a painting depicting that scene which occurs here every Theophany, January 6, also known as the blessing of the waters. Here, in the springs, the bishop tosses the holy cross into the wintry waters and a swarm of young men dive down to retrieve it. As tradition has it, the one who surfaces first with the cross in hand, will have a year of blessings.
An afternoon in Tarpon Springs wouldn’t be complete without a quick visit to the shops and a look at the sponges and the boats. There were a thousand wonderful photographic moments in this town, but a rain storm popped up and sent us running back to the truck. Still, this was a Sabbath made memorable by the warmth of our Greek brothers and sisters in the faith. The delicious food was a bonus as was the salt air and that feeling of being in a coastal village somewhere near Cyprus. I hope we can do it again next year.