Boys vie for blessed year on 101st Epiphany Day

Posted On January 6, 2007

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The Rev. Frank Kirlangitis can tell stories for hours about Epiphany Day celebrations in Tarpon Springs.

Beginning at 7 a.m. today, Kirlangitis, of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church on Lockwood Ridge Road, will be taking part in the occasion for the 26th straight year.

The 101st Epiphany Day in Tarpon Springs is highlighted when a cross is thrown into Spring Bayou, followed by about 50 teenage boys diving off row boats into cold water to bring it to the surface. The boy who recovers the wooden cross, which is weighted by lead, is said to have a blessed year, Kirlangitis said.

The successful diver is carried on the shoulders of the other boys up to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, about 300 yards away, for further blessings, Kirlangitis said. No boy from Bradenton or Sarasota is scheduled to dive this year, but Kirlangitis, as he has for 25 previous years, will help conduct the services, which recreate the moment when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove over him.

“It’s a marvelous spiritual experience,” Kirlangitis said of the event, which will start with services at St. Nicholas and continue with a procession to Spring Bayou, with the release of the dove and dive for the cross at about noon. After the procession and the dive, a Greek festival continues until about 5:30 p.m.

Last year, the crowd of more than 40,000 attended the 100th event, where His All Holiness Bartholomew, the leader of all Eastern Orthodox churches in the world, made his first ever visit to Tarpon Springs.

Liz Beahm, St. Barbara administrative secretary for the past 10 years, was invited to last year’s event by Kirlangitis and said it was an experience she’ll never forget. “I got to stand in front to watch them throw the cross,” Beahm said. “To see the boys balancing on the edge of their boats, waiting and holding their breath, was breathtaking. When the cross goes in the water, it’s a splashing frenzy, like fish being fed. The one who comes up with it has a face wet with water and tears. It’s a huge competition. It’s an honor for the boy and his church.”

Beahm was also entranced by the service at St. Nicholas. “There is a sea of priests, all dressed differently,” Beahm said. “I am Episcopalian, not Orthodox, so I didn’t understand all the symbolism, but I found it absolutely beautiful. It’s one of those things you have to be there to experience.”

This year, 30,000 to 40,000 are expected to see Archbishop Demetrios, the top official of the Greek Orthodox church in America, take part in the ceremonies, Kirlangitis said.

Kirlangitis recalls one year when the archbishop who threw the cross took a mighty swing and flung it into one of the little rowboats where the boys who dive stand at the ready. The boys all tumbled into the water and the crowd screamed that the cross was in a boat. “They did a ‘do-over’ on that one,” Kirlangitis said. One year the dove that is released circled and landed on the mitre of the archbishop, producing a photograph in Life Magazine, Kirlangitis said. “To see the Holy Spirit descending on the archbishop’s mitre was just remarkable,” Kirlangitis said.