By Catherine Tsounis
Old fashioned, old world values are cherished, as a community becomes second and third generation American, with the ancestral language no longer spoken in the home. The Very Rev. Paul Palesty combines old world values of his family and religious tradition with the realities of American life. Father Paul, as his community at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Flushing, New York, knows him is celebrating the twenty-five years of his Ministry on November 2nd at the Sand Castle catering establishment in Franklin Square, L.I.
Father Paul is married to Anastasia Topsidelis, a native of the island of Crete. Their two children, Christos Nikolaos and Maria Kiriaki are college students. “Our son was born on the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day. Maria was born on August 15th. We gave our children names associated with these religious feast days.” This custom is common among Chians and Aegean islanders with roots in Asia Minor.
Our family name is Palestidis (PALAISTIDHS) that means prize wrestler. We had a great uncle who was famous in the sultan’s court for his wrestling feats. Palestidis replaced our family name, Xanthopoulos. I was named Parashos after the wrestler. The name Paul was assumed upon my ordination as a priest.”
Father Paul’s father is from the Pontus, on the Black Sea in Turkey. Historical research in 1995 shows that the Pontic Greeks are of Arcadian descent. His Mother was an orphan born on the island of Chios. His mother’s family came from Tseme and Katopanayia in Asia Minor.
“I was born in Hoboken, N.J., Frank Sinatra country. Our family moved to Astoria in the 1950’s. At that time the Astoria community was very tight. Father Demetrios Frangos had an impact on me. I was impressed with his silent, calm manner. His religious service was beautiful. When I was an altar boy, Archbishop Iakovos visited St. Demetrios on the feast day. The Archbishop was impressed by my devotion. He said to the congregation, “this young man will become a priest.” I loved the Greek language. Mr. Constantine Parthenis, my Greek school teacher, said I was his best student,” he explained.
He attended P.S. 7 in Astoria. “I was an honor students at Half Hollow Hills High School in Long island, Hellenic College and Holy Cross Theological School in Boston, Mass. My postgraduate school studies were conducted at the University of Geneva. I was awarded a “Certificate of Theological Studies” there. In 1977, I represented the Greek orthodox Archdiocese at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.”
Mount Athos has always been a magnet to theologians. Currently, the European Union would like to pass a law allowing women to visit the religious area that has only been open to men. Father Paul had the unique opportunity of serving in the monastery of St. Grigorio. “It was a wonderful experience. This was my opportunity to come into the spirituality of the Holy Church and meet enlightened Holy Fathers. The religious treasures of the orthodox church are there, such as a 6 foot bible given to the monastery by the Tsar of Russia.”
“On March 26, 1978, I was ordained to the deaconate by Archbishop Iakovos. My ordination as a priest was on May 28, 1978 in San Jose, California by Bishop Meletios of Tripodakis,” he said. Upon completion of his post graduate work, Father Paul began his ministry at St. Niholas in San Jose, Cal., St. Nicholas in Lexington, Mass., St. Demetrios in Merrick, L.I. and currently in St. Nicholas in flushing, N.Y. While serving in Lexington, Mass., he founded the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at Tufts University in 1987. He served as the Fellowship’s religious advisor from 1987-89. Father Paul served as President of the Clergy Syndesmos of New York from 1993-96.
“My parents were excellent role models,” he recalls. “My Father, a Chian, worked as a ship and airplane mechanic. My Mother read us stories of the lives of the Holy Saints during my childhood. She explained how the Panayia (Virgin Mary) was an important figure in her life. My Mother was a refuge from Asia Minor. Her mother passed away at 32 years old as a result of the Catastrophe, leaving her an orphan. It was 1922, the years of displacement for Greeks who had lived in Turkey for over two thousand years. The Turks publicly beheaded my grandfather, on my Mother’s side. Faith in god helped her survive. My Mother’s religious faith has stayed with me. This faith has been transmitted from generation to generation by example.”
Father Paul has the deepest respect for women because of the strong women in his life. “My wife, Presvitera Anastasia, shares in my ministry. She comforts me in a silent way. She criticizes me with love and keeps me balanced. Presvitera has a life of her own as a New York City public school educator.” Presvitera Anastasia holds a Master of Science degree in Education from St. John’s University.
He continued saying that “a presvitera is a person in the public eye. They are under close scrutiny. My Presvitera is supportive: she encourages, enables and criticizes me. I have always served large parishes. The workload is demanding. I leave my home at 7 a.m. and return midnight everyday. Presvitera Anastasia plays a major role in keeping a disciplined home and strong family life.”
His philosophy centers on the role of the persons of his community. “The faith and commitment of the community have inspired me. Persons make a parish. I listen to their needs and attempt to expand the community. My ministry has survived, because I do not seek to please people, but the Lord. I seek the approval of God and in this way people approve of my work. I am constantly learning from the Holy Scriptures.”
Father Paul was born on September 8th, 1951, on the feast day of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin. He believes “the nature of woman is to nurture. The first woman to nurture us is «Eκκλησία» (the church). In Greek, Church is spelled in the feminine case. All the nurturing sources in Greek have the feminine character. The soul “H YUCH” is in the feminine case. This is why the Greek language is important. It was not by chance the New Testament was written in Greek. It is the only language that can express the deeper meanings of Christendom.”
The soft-spoken priest is honored to serve the largest Greek orthodox parish in the United States with its varied ministries. “Every priest should be as blessed. I was given a thriving community. My parishioners have worked with me to expand. We have opened the Doulaveras Preschool Center. A “Joy” youth organization for children from the ages of 7 – 12 years of age was formed. We now number 200 children.”
Rev. Paul Palesty explained, “we have big plans for St. Nicholas Church’s expansion. Project. The Doulaveris Center will be demolished and replaced by new buildings housing a library. In addition, a Cultural Center, more classrooms, gymnasium and parking facilities will be built. Our current facility does not meet needs of the community. This is approximately a 3 million project that will be ready in two to three years. “The William Spyropoulos School is one of the top ten best non-public schools in N.Y.C. This is based on N.Y.S. 4th grade reading tests. We have 480 students in our school. There are 60 students in Doulaveris preschool program and over 325 students in the Greek Afternoon School.”
“I was nurtured by Holy Hierarchs. Archbishop Iakovos, Spyridon and Demetrios helped me throughout my ministry. I have always respected my bishops and been loyal. Part of being a priest is to be obedient. If I do not respect my hierarchy, how can my community respect me? I am a priest. I am called to serve and respect the traditions and canons of our Church. We serve the people,” said Father Paul.