TARPON SPRINGS, FLA. – New York can be a difficult place in which to work, as Father Anastasios “Taso” Gounaris found out while serving in the high-profile position of Dean of the Holy Trinity Archdiocesan Cathedral.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Gounaris told TNH, because as “honored and privileged as I felt at the Cathedral, more than anything else I just want to be a simple parish priest.”
The Cathedral “is more an institution than a parish,” Gounaris said. “The parish council is not chosen by the people, but by the archbishop. Here [at the St. Nicholas Cathedral, where he was recently transferred] in Tarpon Springs, I can be a simple parish priest again.”
Over the years, some congregants or employees at Gounaris’ parishes in Indianapolis and New York City relayed to The National Herald confrontational instances involving Gounaris, which he unequivocally asserts never happened.
In one instance, Gounaris in Indianapolis in 1999 allegedly pushed a parish council member to the floor in a heated moment, after which he reportedly apologized to the man, kissing him and even licking his face.
“All I can say is that absolutely never happened,” Gounaris told TNH. Losing one’s temper is regrettable, but at least understandable, but licking another person’s face is downright bizarre. Gounaris agreed, and said neither of those things happened.
But why would the man make up such as story? “We made major changes in Indianapolis, relocating our church from where it had been for over 50 years to a new state-of-the-art facility that involved the purchase of new land,” Gounaris said. “The man was one of those who resisted the change. Sometimes, those who resist change are small in numbers but make a lot of noise. And one of their stated goals was to railroad me.”
Gounaris says he would completely understand why many might be skeptical if, shortly following the allegation, he was ordered transferred elsewhere. “But I was there for 14 more years, and I left voluntarily,” to accept the position at the Cathedral.
The initiative to purchase the new land and relocate the church was a 10-year project, Gounaris said, “that required 98 or 99 percent of the people to be behind me. Why would the vast majority of the parishioners be supportive of me if any of that were true?” Moreover, “why would Archbishop Demetrios have appointed me to such an important and high-profile position if any of that were true? The record speaks for itself.”
Once at the New York Cathedral, Gounaris was accused of another altercation, during which he reportedly took the cell phone of another employee and threw it against the wall. “That never happened either,” Gounaris said. As to the motive? Sensitive to not disclosing personnel details, Gounaris simply said it was a case of a “disgruntled employee.”
AS GREEK AS ANYONE
Gounaris responded to the criticism some had made of him, that he is “anti-Greek” in the sense of wanting to “Americanize” the liturgy to the extent of substantially if not wholly eliminating the Greek language. “That is not true,” said Gounaris. “Again, the record speaks for itself. Why would Archbishop Demetrios send me to Tarpon Springs, one of the most passionately Greek communities in the country, if I were anti-Greek?” Why would Metropolitan Alexios – who is as Greek as Greek can be, who was a bishop in Astoria and knows the Greek community so well – want me to be in Tarpon Springs if I were anti-Greek?
“My wife is Greek – our families are Greek, we taught our children to speak Greek,” he continued, “and I am very interested in preserving Greek-American history” for future generations. Gounaris mentioned that he knows TNH columnist Steve Frangos, who writes a regular column about Greek-American history and folklore, and expressed interest in reconnecting with him. “He is based in Chicago, right?” he asked. “I think the National Hellenic Museum [also in Chicago] is the finest institution of its kind here in the United States in terms of preserving Greek memorabilia, and more people ought to donate their own items there.”
Though he is no relation to the renowned Greek singer Nikos Gounaris, “my father used to say ‘we slept under the same roof,’” because the two had stayed – at different times – at the same establishment. Nonetheless, he does have a collection of old Greek 78s, and noted that Frangos “is an expert” in that area.
Although Gounaris wholly denounced the aforementioned allegations, he acknowledged that there were indeed tensions between him and the Archdiocesan Cathedral Parish Council. Gounaris attributes the problems the Council had not only with him, but with his predecessor, Frank Marangos, of whom Gounaris modestly said “was even more qualified than me” to be the Cathedral Dean, because “both of us replaced Robert Stephanopoulos, who had been there 25 years. It is tough to fill someone’s shoes like that,” he explained. “Just like Archbishop Spyridon had a very difficult time, because he replaced [the highly-regarded] Iakovos.”
SPRINGING PLANS IN TARPON
Nowadays, Gounaris counts his blessings for being transferred to as wonderful a community as Tarpon Springs. In fact, Gounaris believes one of the main reasons he was transferred there was because of the ease with which he alternates between the Greek and English languages. “I plan to maintain the homogeneity between the two languages, because my goal is to serve all of my parishioners,” he said.
Gounaris also wants to preserve the rich history of the St. Nicholas parish, which is steeped in Kalimnian rituals, such as a Holy Thursday chanting of “what sounds like a combination of kalanta and Holy Friday lamentations.”
But not all traditions are so well-received. Tarpon’s Greeks take their Easter celebrations very seriously, particularly at the midnight resurrection liturgy. Massive amounts of firecrackers and other holiday explosives are ignited – often drowning out the chanting, and sometimes in unsupervised areas. That can be a danger to the celebrants and innocent bystanders, “and non-Greek residents are often fearful,” Gounaris explained. “On the other hand, law enforcement has used police helicopters and police dogs to monitor the situation, making some local Greeks feel oppressed.
“I plan to take the lead on this,” Gounaris said, “because the priest of a church should act as a leader.” He hopes to bring the groups together and reach a reasonable consensus so as to prevent misunderstandings for Easter 2015 and beyond.
GOD ROLLS HIS EYES
The conversation shifted to theology: does Gounaris believe in universal salvation – meaning that everyone eventually will be with God, or will some be doomed to irrevocable eternal damnation? Gounaris answered with an analogy, drawing on his own experience as a youth. “We’d [he and his siblings] do some things wrong, and our parents would punish us, and then we’d plead with them to reconsider – to allow us to do something we wanted to do,” such as go to an event with their friends, etc. “My dad,” and Gounaris choked up recalling this, “would just roll his eyes, and say ‘okay.’ Well, God does a lot of ‘eye-rolling,’ too.”
Accentuating his conclusion, Gounaris added: “could we, imperfect humans practice forgiveness, but our Father God, who invented love, would be so hard-hearted? He would have to be a real sicko! If I thought God was really like that, I would turn in my collar, because that’s not the kind of God I would want to follow.”
A woman at the next table overheard our conversation and joined us. She is not Greek Orthodox, but she liked Father Gounaris’ explanation of God’s forgiveness. “I don’t think Greek Orthodoxy is perfect,” he said, “but it makes things easier. For instance,” he said to her, “if you are a great baker and I’m only a novice, I could make a better cake using your recipe, but eventually I’d figure it out on my own, too. So, Greek Orthodoxy is not the only path, but it is a better path.”