The events about my priest-father related in this story took place almost a hundred years ago. The Greek Orthodox Church in the United States has undergone radical changes since then. Unlike the austere conditions priests faced during my father’s tenure, Orthodox priests today are often provided cost-free housing, an automobile, medical/hospital insurance, and upon retiring, a generous pension.
My father’s experience was starkly different. In a time when priests were much on their own, his story may prove useful as a morality tale on the ways that pettiness and intolerance can become entrenched within a parish.
As recently as a decade ago, while I traveled to lecture at Greek churches across the United States, I found a distressing number of parishes entangled in conflict. Most often the battle was between the parish priest and members of the Church Board of Trustees. The trustees felt their priest should be more active in raffle sales and other fundraising for church causes. Some priests refused, saying fundraising shouldn’t be the priest’s responsibility, but should be done by lay-people.
There was also disagreement on matters of church policy, as feelings became so inflamed that efforts were initiated to bar the priest from his own pulpit. If he fought against his dismissal, he could risk being locked out of the church.
Those grievances and complaints might begin with something as petty as the priest refusing a lunch or dinner invitation to a trustee’s home. Resentment spawned outrage and bred enmity.
These conflicts and confrontations I was told about during my lecture visits, recalled for me my father’s battles with his church Board of Trustees in the last years of his life.
My father was born in the village of Argyroupolis on the island of Crete in 1885. His father and grandfather had both been priests and when my father was seventeen he too began his studies for the priesthood. Before his ordainment, he married my mother, Stella Christoulakis from the village of Nipos. After his ordainment, my father served as priest to a parish in Rethymnon, Crete. In the years that followed, my parents had four children.
In the United States, a community of young Cretan men, brought to the U.S. to work in the western coal mines, had in 1915, built a church in the town of Price, Utah. They had no priest except for a circuit-riding cleric who came only for an occasional holiday service and for funerals.
The miners, separated from their families still in Crete, appealed to the Bishop in Crete to assign them a married priest with a family.
After the assignment had been refused by several priests in his Diocese, the Bishop appealed to my father to accept the relocation.
Fearing for their children, my parents struggled with making a decision. In 1916, Europe was still at war and America was expected to enter. German U-Boats roaming the Atlantic, attacked Allied ships without regard as to whether they were freighters or passenger vessels.
My parents finally consented to make the journey. Years later my mother told me they accepted the assignment because they believed America would provide greater educational opportunities for their children.
In the autumn of 1916, my family made the voyage traveling second-class, which provided a small, cramped cabin for the six of them.
The weeks of their journey were an ordeal. Cramped quarters, inadequate sanitation and rough seas caused the children to suffer seasickness.
When their ship arrived at Ellis Island, my family was met by a representative from the mining community who was to escort them by train from New York west to Salt Lake City. From there, they would travel by automobile to Price, 40 miles from Salt Lake.
After a three-day train journey, my family arrived in Salt Lake City, unaware that several hundred miners from Price had gathered to greet them.
In the West at that time, men carried guns. As the train pulled into the terminal, the miners let loose a thunderous volley of gunfire. My mother, thinking they had entered a war zone, became terrified for her children.
After she was reassured the gunfire was a greeting, my mother and my two sisters dressed in white lace dresses were the first of my family to descend from the train.
In later years, my mother told us that as she and my sisters walked through the crowd that day, men knelt and prayed in gratefulness. And some were so moved, my mother said, they knelt and kissed the hem of her dress as she passed.
My family served the community in Price for two years after which then my father was transferred to a parish in Savannah, Georgia. Serving there another two years, he was moved once again to a parish in St. Louis, Missouri where, in 1923, I was born.
Less than a year later, my father was reassigned still once more to Chicago, Illinois, to serve the South Side community of Sts. Constantine and Helen. That church would remain my father’s parish until his death in 1951. The last of my siblings, a sister, Irene, was born in Chicago.
In the late 1940s, after serving his church in Chicago for more than two decades, my father’s diabetes and heart problems, medical ailments he’d had for years, grew worse. At the same time, his disputes with members of his Board of Trustees became more bitter and intense.
I do not recall the exact reasons for these conflicts, which had been going on for some time. Perhaps my father bore some responsibility. He was strong-willed and felt he knew what was best for his parish. He incurred the wrath of board members by opposing their decisions on church matters that my father must have felt were wrong.
Board members, often the wealthiest members of the parish, were accustomed to getting their way without opposition. Seeing my father’s illness as an opportunity to get rid of a troublesome priest, the Board passed a resolution decreeing that because his ill health prevented him performing his parish duties, my father should resign.
My father might have been willing to retire, but our family was impoverished. Years of providing for a family of eight on a modest salary prevented my father from accruing any savings. Our family of eight survived precariously from paycheck to paycheck.
At that time, the Greek Orthodox Church had no provision for providing retiring priests a pension. Social Security had not yet been enacted. If he were to acquiesce to the Board’s wishes, my father would leave his church as a pauper.
In hope of improving his health, my father requested a year’s medical leave of absence. The Board refused, continuing to insist that my father resign.
After a stern letter from the doctor to the Board warning of the consequences if my father was not provided time to rest and heal, the Board begrudgingly granted my father a year’s leave of absence. His $200 dollar a month salary would continue to be paid for that year. When he returned, the board would assess his medical condition and make a decision as to whether he would be allowed to remain as priest.
In the late 1940s, in autumn of the year, my father left Chicago to settle in San Bernardino, California. He took lodgings in a small motel on the shore of a lake and spent his days fishing. As I remembered when I was a boy and we fished together, my father had no use for rod and reel, preferring instead a bamboo pole and worm-on-the hook. He enjoyed the serenity as much as the fishing.
His letters home told of the California sun reminding him of the sun above his island of Crete.
“I feel I am growing stronger, he wrote in one of his letters, the sun here is warm and soothing, burning away my sickness. I think by the time I return home at the end of the summer, I will have recovered and be able to return to my church.”
In the third month of his sick leave, my father received a certified letter from the Church Board. His enemies had prevailed. My father’s position as parish priest was being terminated for the reason that he could no longer perform his duties. Another priest from Crete had been hired, and was already on his way to take my father’s place. After heated debate within the Board, a hard-fought decision granted my father a year’s salary to be paid at $200 a month. After that year, the church would have no further obligation to him.
Bitter and feeling betrayed, in the midst of that frigid winter, my father returned from California to fight for his church. He had no savings, no prospect of being able to hold any other job, and no other means of supporting his family. He was fighting for his survival.
I witnessed my father’s weariness and his anguish during those weeks after his return from California. I’d come home at dawn after working a night shift at the Steel Mills to find my father already awake, sitting at our dining room table, various letters from the Board and from intermediaries spread on the table before him. He’d ask me, “What does this word say?” and “What does this sentence mean?”
A family friend who was an attorney offered to advise my father on his legal options, on possible ways to prevent the Board from carrying out its threat.
I remember the night the attorney sat in the dining room with my father, an array of letters and notes on the table before them. My father had never signed a contract obligating the Board to keep him employed.
“You got nothing to hold them responsible, Father,” the attorney friend said in frustration. “You got nothing but skata!” Skata!”
My father appealed to the hierarchs in the church, his Bishop and his Archbishop, pleading for their support. Unwilling to defy and alienate the wealthy board members whose financial contributions were important to the church, the response from his superiors was that my father obey the decision of the board.
My father was disheartened and felt abandoned. Within a few weeks of his return, he caught a harsh cold that developed into pneumonia. He was admitted into the hospital for what would become a confinement lasting three months.
Woodlawn Hospital on the South Side of Chicago where my father was a patient was only a few blocks from his church. His window faced west, and from there he could see his church bell tower. On one of my visits, no longer strong enough to walk, my father asked me to carry him to the chair by the window.
In his days of good health, my father weighed 180 pounds and I couldn’t have lifted him. But his body had dwindled to a much lower weight.
As I carried him from the bed to the chair, he spoke quietly and pensively. “As I once carried you in my arms, now you carry me.” In that moment I had a chilling premonition that my father was going to die.
During those months of his confinement my mother spent every day in the hospital with my father, screening visitors, making sure they did not stay too long. Among his visitors were remorseful members of the church Board of Trustees coming to my father seeking his forgiveness for their part in the betrayal. Not wishing to carry human grievances into death, my father forgave them and asked them to forgive his transgressions.
On the day in late May my father died, my mother had spent her usual day in the hospital looking after him. That evening she had arrived home when I returned from work. As we prepared to sit down to dinner, a call came from the hospital. My father was dead.
My mother and I rode in the cab to the hospital in silence. When we entered my father’s dimly lit room, his figure shrouded in shadows lay still and straight in the bed. A band around his head held his jaw in place.
My mother went to stand beside my father’s bed. She stood there silent and unmoving for what seemed to me a long time, and then she bent and kissed him gently on his cheek.
“Now he is at peace,” my mother said.
One might ask what use is it now to retrieve these old antagonisms between church board and my father? I bring them up because there are still parishes today in which these animosities and conflicts persist.
I am not suggesting that all priests are blameless. But too often parishioners envision the priest only in his gilded vestments conducting services on Sundays and during the holidays. They overlook the harried daily life of their priest and the burdens under which he works.
As a boy waiting for my father after church on Sundays, from a shadowed corner of the Sanctuary, through the thin partitions I could overhear the men and women waiting to speak to my father. I still remember some of their confessions.
A man dying of cancer asking my father to break the news to his family. A parishioner’s sixteen-year-old daughter raped and made pregnant and the girl unwilling to name the father. A woman weeping about her husband beating her and their children, a woman confessing infidelity with her husband’s brother, an old man, his voice trembling, seeking absolution for a murder he’d committed in Greece thirty years earlier and that still tormented him.
Even as a youth I understood the burden and heartache all these confessions and pleas placed upon my father as he sought to console and lighten their guilt and despair.
Once I heard my father wearily lamenting to my mother.
“Those poor souls come to me expecting I will offer the Wisdom of Solomon, “ he said, “God help me, most of the time all I can offer them is the grace of prayer.”
Meanwhile, parishioners continue to call their priest when a baby is to be baptized, call him when their sons and daughters marry, call him when a beloved Yiayia or Papou is dying, call him to intercede for them as they pray to be forgiven.
Yet they do not understand that anguish the mass of their confessions impose on the priest’s heart, a wrenching sorrow that only his death will heal.