By Sophia A. Niarchos
Oyster Bay, N.Y. — It is rare for a parish priest to die in his prime. It is rare for a Greek-American community of parish leaders to be united. But those two rarities have been reality at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Resurrection in Brookville on Long Island since the communityʼs leader for three decades, Fr. Emmanuel Gratsias (Fr. Manny as he was affectionately called), died last fall. The communityʼs loss of the man who set the direction and navigated the ship that the church is for them presented its leadership with challenges it has met with abounding support since the known onset of his illness. They create an opportunity for the areaʼs faithful to reflect upon and learn about the impact of the changes on the community and the resourcefulness with which they were met.
When asked whether there was anything that could have been done to better prepare for his possible absence, Parish Council President Jim Gabriel described the situation in the seven months before Fr. Mannyʼs illness became known to the whole community and how the dichotomy of faith and organizational structure and practicality presented itself.
“We are in fact operating a ʽcompany,ʼ that is, in the historic sense of the word, a group of people who gather together and break bread together,” he said. “And we have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that this enterprise is successful. How do we define success? We are a church. As we were reminded by Fr. Milton [Stamatis, a retired priest who spent the fair-weather months in New York, supporting Fr. Manny in recent years], in his series of December sermons, we must always have Faith, Hope and Love, and our love for the man who guided us for 31 years demanded that his well-being remain our #1 concern. Had we started planning for his departure before he was ready, we would have taken away much of his hope that through his faith in God, he could beat this horrible disease.
“My main regret is that Fr. Manny did not have more time. With more time, he might have been able to formally train us, to guide a successor. However, for the first seven months his main concern was to be here for his parishioners; and after he broke the news he only had two months. It is certainly hard to accept what happened to him; but his faith never wavered so neither should ours.”
According to Mr. Gabriel, a long-time member of the community, at the core of what he believes has been an amazing transitional period, was every parish council member and every organization leaderʼs incredible love of their priest.
“We succeeded in dealing with running the church after Fr. Mannyʼs death because of his influence on all of us,” Mr. Gabriel said.
Bishop Savas, who has provided guidance and supplemental leadership for the parish council, described Fr. Manny as someone who did not hoard leadership, but considered it his responsibility to “inspire the baptized to recognize their giftedness and use their gifts for the good of the Body of Christ.
”His was a unique ministry, one that I havenʼt seen in my experience, of a single pastor with a thirty-year, parish-defining history, and there was no end in sight; as a matter of fact, he and the people of the community felt they had just begun and had a bright future.”
Those sentiments were critical in the Parish Councilʼs coming together within hours of Fr. Mannyʼs passing not just to get the job done, but to do him proud.
“Within the first five hours after we learned he had died,” Mr. Gabriel remarked, “the Parish Council had a meeting and teleconference; we brainstormed and assigned responsibilities, which everyone was anxious to fulfill…. We joked that he would let us know if we did anything not to his liking.”
Once the immediate work of preparing for a major community leaderʼs wake and funeral were addressed and completed, “reality hit,” and the parish leadership met and made a list of the things that Fr. Manny had always done that they would have to take up until a new priest is found.
“It was a very long list,” Gabriel sighed. “Fr. Manny took on such efforts as getting on the phone to solicit contributions for foods sold at the annual church festival and even had a unique method of getting water bottles for Epiphany…through a medical supply company he was referred to by Dean Mihaltses, a long-time member of the Parish Council and a pharmacist.
Each parish council member demonstrated a spirit of cooperation and a strong desire to serve as the result of Fr. Mannyʼs inspiration. Although the emotions of losing him were necessarily present and respected, the question of “how can we survive without him” was answered with, “we have to succeed because if we donʼt, weʼll be letting him down.” That attitude was additionally supported by the long history many of the 15-member leadership body shared and their willingness to increase their commitment as volunteer leaders, adding additional meetings each month to their Executive Committee and Parish Council schedules.
“It was important to us that the community, which had worked so hard to create the programs we have, could rest assured that we werenʼt coming to a standstill,” Mr. Gabriel explained, noting the extraordinary service of the church secretary, Effie, who had always worked in partnership with Fr. Manny, and the many supportive members of the church who came to assist her until a part-time secretary could be added to the staff.
The Parish Council and community (parish council past-presidents, youth commission and other leaders especially came to the fore with great support to keep things moving forward) were also fortunate to have the benefit of Fr. Miltonʼs desire and commitment to provide the communityʼs youth with the consistent presence of a clergyman, in addition to celebrating Divine Liturgy.
“Youʼd never guess it, but Fr. Milton is over 80, and he had been retired; yet he was willing to sacrifice his retirement for as long as he could, especially for the youth of the community,” Mr. Gabriel indicated.
Mr. Gabriel also recognized the critical support of other area clergy who, when they were needed to perform sacraments or provide spiritual counseling to members of the Church of the Resurrection community, could be counted on to give generously of themselves.
With no formal education preparing clergy to construct structures that might assist those they leave behind in carrying on when they are no longer alive, one can safely say that the key ingredients for surviving the loss of a priest are uniting those in a position to lead, asking for and receiving community and archdiocesan support, and taking a stand that the goals he set for his community not be forgotten
As Bishop Savas of Troas stated, “a priestʼs way of preparing for the possibility of his non-being is the same as any other human being: take seriously the notion that your work will survive you.”