PALM HARBOR — The crowd began gathering at 1100 Riviere Road a full hour before the ribbon cutting ceremony was set to begin on Jan. 25. Dozens of well-dressed parishioners trudged across a dirt parking lot in high heels and loafers to witness an occasion more than five years in the making.
The ceremony marked the reopening of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Greek Orthodox Church, which was deemed a total loss following a fire in 2014 and is now in the final stages of an extensive rebuild project. The rebuilt sanctuary is highlighted by Byzantine style architecture and features a 55-high concrete bell tower.
The late-afternoon event was attended by local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and Tarpon Springs Mayor Chris Alahouzos, as well as luminaries from the Greek Orthodox Church, including His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, Greek Orthodox primate of the southeastern United States, and Abbess Tabitha, head of the Holy Monastery of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene of Lesvos, in Mytilene, Greece.
“The fact that she’s here is huge, because she doesn’t leave Greece very often,” Erine Koulianos, a St. Raphael administrator whose father co-founded the church in 1996, said of the revered Orthodox nun. Abbess Tabitha is to the Greek Orthodox faithful what the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta is to Roman Catholics, she said.
Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, was declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 2016.
“With her and His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios here, it proves this is a big event for the church,” Koulianos said of Abbess Tabitha.
Indeed, the crowd continued to swell as the sun continued to set before Metropolitan Alexios led a prayer and a blessing prior to entering the 5,400-square-foot building, which was condemned following the electrical fire and eventually razed before literally rising from the ashes in the same spot.
“It’s a special day for all of us to be here, and we know God is with us,” the primate said. “This (church) is a wonderful thing. It’s a paradise …. and I am extremely blessed to be here.”
After saying some words in Greek and conducting the blessing, officials cut the ribbon and His Eminence entered the church, spraying holy water left and right as the crowd slowly filed in behind him.
Once everyone crammed into the open chapel space, the building was properly blessed, though the Metropolitan was forced to shush those murmuring about the high-ceilinged, all-white interior of the chapel several times.
Alahouzos, a longtime member of St. Nicolas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon has, like many local Greeks, been supportive of the St. Raphael’s rebuild, and after the ceremony he said the new church is a great addition to the area.
“This is a great church,” Alahouzos said as he surveyed the interior design elements with the architect, Efthymios Tsaparas, noting “it’s a beautiful Byzantine design with great acoustics. I know it’s not 100 percent complete yet but it’s waiting for people to come worship and it’s going to be a great addition to the Greek Orthodox faith in the area.”
Koulianos confirmed the ribbon cutting ceremony, which was held to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the church’s first liturgy, was purely ceremonial, as the rebuild is not yet complete.
“We have to raise another $600,000 for the parking lot and to finish the interior,” she said during a brief break in the festivities, which concluded with a massive banquet at St. Nicholas’ Spanos Hall. “But after that, we’re in. And when this church is finished it’s going to be amazing, thanks to the glory of God.”
For more information on St. Raphael’s rebuild, visit st.raphael.fl.goarch.org or call 727-789-5905.