Tarpon Springs, Fl.- 17-year-old Louie Pappas, the great-grandson of Louis Pappas, founder of the renowned namesake restaurant in Tarpon Spring, besting 75 other teenaged divers retrieved the Cross during the 105th annual Epiphany celebration the Cross, last Thursday. A crowd of about 12,000 attended the ceremony at the Spring Bayou, in a breezy and mostly cloudy day.
Tarpon Springs’ Epiphany Day celebration is the largest in the United States. It started Thursday with a morning church service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral presided by Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. There was then a procession through the town to Spring Bayou where a single white dove was released.
After the cross was retrieved, 105 white doves were released in commemoration of the 105th celebration.
The divers were led by last year’s cross retriever Dimitri Kalogiannis of New Port Richey.
The trophy given to the 105th Epiphany cross retriever bears his great-grandfather’s name, Louis M. Pappas. His grandfather’s name also is on the trophy because some 30 years ago, Jack Louis Pappas, 81, started donating it in support of the Greek Orthodox tradition of diving for a white cross to represent the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
Now Louis “Louie” Nicholas Pappas’ name will be added to the gold cup. Whoever retrieves the cross is said to have favor from God.
“I’m just really thankful that my grandfather was here to see this,” Pappas said, still in the dripping wet T-shirt bearing a blue cross he wore for the dive. “He’s been so supportive. I’m really happy I can do this for him because I and my grandfather are really close.”
It was an extra special day for Jack Louis Pappas, who was overjoyed that his grandson emerged from the 62-degree waters, besting 74 other boys between the ages of 16 and 18, with the cross in his hand. Thursday was his 81st birthday.
“I just can’t tell you how I feel,” Jack Louis Pappas said. “I’m overwhelmed. I just can’t tell you. And on my birthday. It’s just overwhelming.”
By all accounts, Pappas is popular. Given the enthusiastic reception he got from his fellow divers and the hundreds of people who crowded into the church, this victor deserved the honor.
Friends and family described Louie, one of four children of Louie and Rosanne Pappas, as the “real deal” and “genuine.”
“Everybody loves Louie,” said his uncle, Chuck Sullivan, a lawyer. “He’s the kind of guy who looks out for the kids who are not part of the ‘in’ group. He’s just a good kid.”
Sullivan treated his law office staff to a day off to attend the Epiphany festival. Several took him up on the offer and got to see their boss’s nephew get the cross.
A junior at Tarpon Springs High School, Louie is the quarterback for the Spongers football team. Both his father and grandfather played the sport there as well, and both went on to play for the University of Florida.
“And that’s what we hope for Louie,” his proud grandfather said. “Three generations of Gator football players — now that would be something.”
Pappas wasn’t feeling well Wednesday night and contemplated not diving. His parents said it would be okay if he opted out. But a conversation with his cousin Tommy Koulouris, 25, helped him see things clearer.
“You only get a few chances to try and retrieve the cross,” Pappas said of the conclusion of the conversation. “I decided to go ahead and do it.”
Once the signal was given Thursday, Pappas made his way to the first boat on the left. Inside the boat, he waited as prayer was said and a dove was released. Another prayer was said and then the cross hit the water.
“I just swam in the direction that it hit the water, and I just went under,” Pappas said. “I opened my eyes, and there it was on the bottom. It was a blessing.”
Pappas isn’t the only member of the family to retrieve the cross. In 2001, his cousin, Lucas Louis “Luke” Pappas, 28, was the retriever.
Louis Jack Pappas, 51, and his wife, Rosanne, 50, were both joyful and speechless of their son’s accomplishments.
“You never think one of your children will be the one to get it,” Louis Jack Pappas said. “I can’t explain it, but it’s a feeling that I’ve never had in my life. It’s been an unbelievable time for Louie, but this trumps everything. This is the highest honor he could ever get in his life.”
Nicholas Souder was just as pleased about Thursday’s event but for a slightly different reason. It was the first time that he made the cross that was thrown. His grandfather, Bill Paskalakis, made the cross for 40 years. He died last year. Souder carried on the tradition of making the cross.
“It was amazing to watch,” Souder, 24, said. “I’m happy and honored to be a part of it.”
Louis Nicholas Pappas made his way to the home of John and Cyndi Tarapani, longtime family friends. That’s where his family and friends awaited him. They hugged and kissed him. He showered, changed clothes and headed back to the church and community center.
Once there, everyone was waiting to hug and kiss him with the hope that his expected blessings also will pass to them.
“In the shower, I put my head in the towel and when I looked up, it was still surreal,” Pappas said while walking back to the church. “It’s something that everyone dreams of growing up in Tarpon. To be able to get it out of 75 guys is surreal.”
The Tarpon Springs festival is the largest of its kind in the country, opening with a traditional liturgy in the cathedral and ending with an eight-hour Glendi at the Spanos-Pappas Community Center with live music, dancing and food. This year’s event had a special addition: the release of 105 doves after the cross dive to mark its anniversary.
“There’s nothing like this anywhere. Not even in Greece,” said Maria Boffil, whose son was one of the divers. “This is part of our religion, part of our culture. It makes you feel so proud to be Greek.”
Maria Kaliambou, who teaches modern Greek at Yale University, turned the Epiphany into a field trip. Four of her students accompanied her from the Connecticut Ivy League school to witness the celebration firsthand.
“You can read about it and discuss it, but there’s nothing like experiencing it,” she said. “This particular ritual is so unique that I thought the students should take it in as part of their studies. Yes, it’s a pretty cool field trip.”
Lynn Kopala moved to Tarpon Springs a few years ago from Washington, but she’s never had a chance to take part in the event. She teaches government contracting across the country and usually is on the road.
“This time, I scheduled my whole week around this,” she said. “My husband and I have fallen in love with this community. And a day like this, even if I’m Swedish, makes me feel such a part of it.”
Jack and Martha Young of Morrisville, Pa., are spending the winter in Palm Harbor in their recreational vehicle. They decided to brave the crowds to take in some of the local color.
And they weren’t disappointed.
“This is like party time for the Greek church,” Young said. “God bless them. This is a chance to show their faith and have some fun.”
As for the teens diving in the water? Not for him, Young said.
“I’m no polar bear,” he said. “But I’m happy to sit back and watch them and wave.”
Nothing could keep Eleni Papadakis away, though. A Greek native who lives in Indiana, she comes to Florida every winter, timing her visit to coincide with the celebration.
“I participate in everything when I come down here,” she said today. “From the church service to the big party. And being that it’s Epiphany, I leave with a blessing on me.”
BLESSING OF THE BOATS
Taso Karistinos, a sponge diver for 38 years, said Wednesday’s blessing of the city’s famed sponge boat fleet by the Rev. Vasilios Tsourlis of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is an important part of the community’s Epiphany celebration.
“It’s special for the sponge divers, for the whole sponge fleet in Tarpon Springs,” Karistinos said. “We believe in our faith; by being blessed by the priest special this day, we’re going to have a good year,”
The procession wound along Dodecanese Boulevard and into several of the small Greek-owned businesses.
The blessing is one of many events leading up to Epiphany celebration, commemorating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.