Faith and Prayers Provide the Foundation for St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas Church is visible proof of the power of faith and prayer, the foundation on which it is built.
Unwavering faith brought a small, dedicated group of people to this day…a dream come true, a dream of a religious home that was more than 20 years in the making. Prayer kept that dream on the road to fulfillment.
Undaunted by trials and tribulations of the early days that saw them move from place to place as they gathered to worship their God in the way of the fathers, the ancient unchanging Antiochian Orthodox religion, the men and women of that hardy makeshift “parish” patiently held steadfast to their faith that brought them to this day.
Today’s religious complex is a monument to the faith and their belief in God and Orthodoxy. Their strength in the face of much adversity makes their reward all the more worthy and deserving.
Two Groups Come Together
Actually, it was the coming together of two small groups that was the birth of St. Nicholas Church…each going a separate path for a long time, meeting in borrowed and donated spaces that included clubs and homes.
Then they began to walk together toward the “dream come true” that is today. And God walked shoulder to shoulder with them. It was their belief that "if God is with you, anything is possible."
From sadness to joy was the route to today’s happy celebration…from death to life.
It began when Rev. Fr. John Hamatie of St. George’s Church in Orlando was called here to officiate at a funeral in 1976. When he learned that there was no Antiochian Orthodox Church in the area, he sought permission from His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP to start a mission in the St. Petersburg area.
The people who he befriended and for whom he sought a religious home were unhappy with the way they had been received in some of the churches of archdioceses other than Antiochian. They yearned for the “real thing.” Remembering the verse: “and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Acts 11:26.
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in St. Pete Beach served as the sight of the first gathering of the faithful with Father Hamatie coming down once a month to serve his adopted flock.
An accident that befell Father Hamatie, however, put the Mission on hold for several months until Rev. Fr. Christopher Penney came from Titusville on the east coast of Florida to fill the void.
Father Penney was followed by Rev. Fr. Nicholas Dahdal and Rev. Fr. Michael Courey, whose Khouriea, Josephine, is still a member of the parish and the Ladies Club even though she resides in Cleveland with her daughter.
It was at the time of Father Michael that the existence of the second group became known. The members were from places north of St. Petersburg, including Clearwater and Tarpon Springs. Father Michael was ministering to their religious needs at the same time that he was celebrating the liturgy with the St. Petersburg faithful.
Father Michael, affectionately known as the “slum priest” during his work with the people in the slums of Cleveland, had come to this area in August of 1982. In the fall of that year, he organized St. Michael the Archangel Pan-Orthodox Church Christian Mission in Clearwater to which some of the present day parishioners were drawn. Najib Jacob and Joseph Kassis were in leadership roles for the St. Petersburg group, while George Salem and Ann Salem served in the same capacities for the other group.
Forces Are Joined in 1983 - 1984
The two groups came together in 1984 with Father Courey as the mission priest. Liturgy was sung at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church of America in St. Petersburg until 1986, when a move was made to the auditorium of Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church also in St. Petersburg.
Following a heart attack, Father Courey was unavailable for some time, bringing Father Dahdal back until Father James Donnelly of Fort Lauderdale was assigned to the mission during the latter part of 1986. For a time, too, Father Michael, when he had recovered, came back to serve with Father Donnelly. Father Michael went to sleep in the Lord in April of 1988.
When Father Donnely left, Father George M. Corry served the parish from September, 1988, to January of the following year, at the same time guiding Fr. Nicholas Nichols, who was still a lay person, along the path to the priesthood. Father Michael had already introduced the latter to the parishioners of the mission prior to his illness.
Ordained as a deacon by His Grace Bishop ANTOUN in March of 1989, Father Nichols’ ordination into the priesthood took place in July of the same year.
Faith Shapes Fate of First Church
Faith more than money, shaped the fate of the church. Money was not always easy to come by, but it came, a little at a time…rarely in big chunks. It was just enough to keep the parish going and out of debt, enough to bolster the hopes and spirits of the people. But then faith was unwavering.
Even before there was a building plan, land was bought in 1983, and there was a groundbreaking ceremony on March 8, 1986 at which Bishop ANTOUN officiated. Other clergy in attendance were Archpriest Nicholas Dahdal and Father Michael Courey of blessed memory, who saw only part of his dream come true.
It would be four more years before a building would be on the grounds and another year before the first liturgy would be celebrated in the new religious home.
In the meantime, the faith of the people was nourished by these occasional services provided by visiting clergy who came to them, building on their dreams for the future.
“God will provide” became the premise by which they lived even as changes took place and priests came and went. Each filling a need in the destiny of the faithful flock.
First proof of “God will provide” came in 1990. A small bank building was promised to them. A hitch developed, and things looked bleak for a time. That’s when Edward Ameen, a parishioner, interceded, and the parish received the structure, which was then moved into place.
The “church of their dreams” slowly took shape on a quiet Pinellas Park street, adjacent to St. Petersburg. The structure was slowly enlarged and transformed into the “real” church the parishioners had long envisioned as their religious home.
“With their Own Hands” They Built Their First Church
Supported in spirit by His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP and His Grace Bishop ANTOUN, who provided guidance, the small flock of the faithful moved toward their goal.
For all practical purposes, the people built their First Church “with their own hands,” remodeling and adding to the small donated structure. The manual labor put in by many men and women of the community being served, provided the pivotal balance in what, at first, appeared to be an insurmountable task.
Before the building was moved into place, the late Richard Bashara handled many of the pre-construction and land clearing details.
Joseph Kassis, a member of the Church Council at the time took over the post of Building Chairperson, and spearheaded the drive to complete the edifice. At his side was George Salem, then Church Council Vice President, who, with Kassis, put in untold hours of hands-on work. Many other parish members also donated time and labor.
Prior to his death, Gene Mastry, well-known St. Petersburg businessman and philanthropist, served as advisor and consultant during the work. Also guiding them along much of the way was George Mitchell, a builder and good friend of the parish.
Najib Jacob, then President of the Church Council, maintained communication with the archdiocese and Metropolitan PHILIP, and handled the building fund program.
In addition to Jacob, Salem, and Kassis, the other members of the Church Council at the time were Kokab Kakesh, Treasurer; Helen Salem, Secretary; Louise Malouf, Ann Salem, Suhil Isaac and Fawzi Jacob.
First Liturgy Celebrated June 9, 1991
The certificate of occupancy for the First Church was obtained on May 8, 1991 and the first liturgy was sung there on the 9th of June by Father Nichols.
The dedicated parishioners even lived up to a promise they had made to themselves. That their religious home would be theirs free and clear of debt. Absent big donations, progress was “slow but sure” in the program of “pay as you go.”
A public relations drive was undertaken through news releases to the Word magazine and area newspapers to make local residents and area visitors aware of the new Orthodox Church, which was, until recently, the only Antiochian house of worship on the west coast of Florida.
With the approval of Metropolitan PHILIP, Father Nichols transferred to a larger Greek parish in New Port Richey in the fall of 1994, so that he would not have to maintain other employment also.
Rev. Fr. Richard Simmons, who had assisted at the church occasionally following his arrival in St. Petersburg from Long Island, was named pastor in October 1994. He remained until May of 1996.
Two retired priests who lived in Tampa shared the pastoral duties for the next three months. They were the Rt. Rev. Mitered Archpriest Basil Karpelenia and Rev. Fr. David Milligan. Fr. Basil has remained in touch, and often counseled Joseph. Father Milligan also visits occasionally.
Father Thomas assumed his local duties on August 15 of 1996 after having served for two years as assistant pastor of St. George Church in Houston, Texas. New life was breathed into the parish with his arrival, and extensive plans for the future were quickly put into place.
Women Serve as the Heart of the Church
The “heart” of the church, as is usually the case, was, and is, the women of the parish, who provided early financial assistance through weekly coffee hours after Sunday liturgy and monthly dinners.
They also ran bake sales and bazaars to add to the money that was raised yearly by the one “big” event, the December Hafli, conducted by the Church Council. They made robes for the altar boys and religious coverings for the altar and for the candle and Icon stands. They took over the duties of the Sunday School and provided for the dusting and the cleaning of the building.
In addition to her service with the women’s organizations, Alice Faccenda assumed the duties of Choir Director during her winter stay in the area, something that has been reflected in the improved performance of the dedicated body. Invaluable help to the choir has also been provided by khouriea Loretta Karpelenia.
Although all religious homes start as acts of faith, they often are tests of faith, too, needing Christ’s help in passing that test. St. Nicholas’ flock has passed with flying colors. Of that there is no doubt.
God Provides Again
God “provided” again when a former parishioner advised the pastor and council that a building in Seminole, about five miles away, could be obtained for a token fee, but would have to be moved from its location at 8877 Seminole Boulevard.
The unused structure had been completed as the first step in a proposed condominium complex that never got off the ground. Lack of funds put a hair to the construction. Pinellas County bought back its land and wanted the building removed. Demolition would have resulted in added expenditure to the county.
Parishioners viewed the building, and at a specially-called meeting pledged enough funds to support the council, which has been given an optimistic report on its chances of getting the structure. Financial projections showed that the cost of procuring and moving the building, even at more than $50,000, would be less than half that of building a structure of the same size and quality.
Led by President John Salem, the Church Council members acted quickly to get the wheels in motion, with parishioner Mitchell Azar and Father Thomas acting as liaison between the Council and the necessary regulatory municipal boards, Evelyn Salem dealt with the county authorities.
They contacted the responsible municipal and county people, and the Council took steps to sell a mobile home annex, up to that time the scene of church activities, meetings and the Church School.
On Thursday, March 20, the church made its offer to buy the building, a bid that was approved by the County Commission at its April 8th meeting.
All necessary paperwork was completed during the second week of April. The bill of sale was signed on the 10th of May.
New Building Moved Into Place May 25
The actual move of the building took place during the middle of the night May 25. With police cruiser lights flashing warnings to motorists, the movers negotiated the five-mile trip twice, because days earlier, the company has sliced the structure in half to transport it to its new home. The two trips were negotiated without incident for four hours.
The following several weeks were taken up with the installation of the building’s foundation and utilities to bring it up to code. The church facilities were immediately more than doubled.
Dedication and Mortgage Burning
The weekend of January 16-18, 1998 was the beginning of a new era for the faithful of St. Nicholas Church. The Church Council and Ladies Society hosted a banquet for the Rt. Reverend Bishop ANTOUN, as well as other distinguished clergy. Visitors came from as far away as New York, Boston and Pittsburgh to attend the festivities and witness the dedication of the Church.
The following year another major happening took place on January 20, 1999; His Grace Bishop ANTOUN accepted an invitation to our annual Hafli which was highlighted by the official burning of the mortgage. At an earlier meeting two of the very faithful members (Najib Jacob and Joe Kassis) surprised the congregation by forgiving the balance of the land mortgage, which led to the ceremony being incorporated into the social function. These were indeed two historical dates in the history of St. Nicholas Church.
The 1999-2000 year has been an exciting year.
The fall of 1999 brought the good news that our beloved friend, Dr. Miller Newton, converted to Orthodoxy and would be ordained to the Holy Deaconate and Holy Priesthood. Dr. Newton became Father Cassian and joined Father Thomas Joseph in ministering to our faithful.
Father Thomas and Dr. Herman Engelhardt joined together to plan a series of lectures providing information about Orthodoxy. A number of people have been brought to Orthodoxy through these sessions.
Father Thomas has worked with Father George Patides of St. Stefano's Greek Orthodox Church to restore our area Orthodox Clergy Association. This was the first year all the Churches in the area had Orthodox Sunday together after a four-year separation.
Our parish met in February 2000 and decided that a building program should begin. His Grace Bishop ANTOUN helped us inaugurate this program with his annual visit at our Hafli in March of 2000. A few weeks later, our brothers and sisters from St. Stefano’s Green Orthodox Church presented us with a check for $10,000 towards this building fund.
2001 sees the purchase of additional land
In the spring of 2001, we were blessed once again with a visit from His Grace Bishop ANTOUN. He met with the Ladies Society, Parish Council and Church School members and helped us raise over $75,000 in contributions toward purchasing land, which is adjacent to the present church site. In April 2001 we closed on the property and have hopes of utilizing it as either a parking lot or the site for the new church. On Palm Sunday, 2001 Father Thomas blessed the new property and by November 2001, the new property was cleared of excessive brush and undergrowth in preparation for future use. St. Nicholas is outgrowing its current location due to an increase in attendance of the Orthodox faithful of the St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay region. We have been discussing building plans with Father Chrysostomos from the Ocala Monastery. Bruce Foltz has been appointed by Father Thomas as the Chairperson of the Building Committee.
Through the generosity of a parishioner, St. Nicholas acquired a sixteen passenger van which the church has been using for transporting the Church School and Teen SOYO to regional events.
This has been an exciting year for the Teen SOYO. The teens participated in several competitions at the Southeast Regional Conference and came home with several awards for their talents in creative arts.
2002 sees formulation of building plan
Two historic meetings were held in 2002. Under the advisement of a civil engineer, in June 2002, St. Nicholas adopted a two phase building concept plan. In the first phase a church would be built on the front of our present property. The original church would be converted into a Sunday School facility while our parish hall would continue in its present use. In the second phase, a two storey hall, office and Sunday School facility would be built where the original church is located.
On December 1 the parish met again. This time Building Committee Chairperson, Seraphim Foltz recommended that our new church be built in the basilica style. The basilica style of church architecture is ancient. It is the original style of architecture used throughout the ancient world from Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to Constantinople, Greece and Italy. St. Peter’s church in Rome, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and St. Catherine’s on Mr. Sinai in Egypt are built in this style. A model of the basilica style is also the church of the Holy Archangels in Kendalia, Texas. Seraphim recommended we use this as our model. The parish agreed that an architect be commissioned to develop a building plan in this style.
Present Church Groundbreaking 2003
Groundbreaking Weekend took place on March 7, 8 and 9 and highlighted the year 2003. We were blessed with a visit from His Grace Bishop ANTOUN. The weekend included a celebration of Father Joseph’s 50th birthday and the ordination of David Talhouk to the sub deaconate. A special award was presented to the faithful of St. Stefano’s Greek Orthodox Church for the love they have extended to St. Nicholas down through the years. Dr. H. Tristram Engelhardt served as master of ceremonies for the weekend.
Building Chairperson Seraphim introduced the weekend by explaining that the new St. Nicholas Church would incorporate traditions of ancient Christianity in its design. Most of the original temples built for Christian worship, he explained, were in the basilica style. Although the design was later embellished to include such innovations as vaulted ceilings and domes, in the Middle East where Christian communities became isolated after the Islamic conquest, the original basilica style remained.
The exterior of the new St. Nicholas will be modeled after the Basilica of St. Symeon the Stylite built during the 5th century. St. Symeon stood praying on a 60-foot pillar for forty years. When he reposed, a church was built on the site where he had prayed. The interior of St. Nicholas’ new temple will be based on such basilica style churches as the 6th century St. Catherine’s on Mount Sinai in Egypt, where Moses encountered God in the burning bush, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s old city.
A very special elevation and Consecration in 2004
On the weekend of February 13 - 15, 2004 the parish community, family and friends of Father Thomas Joseph, celebrated his elevation to Archimandrite, a special honor for celebate priests, and at a special convention was held in Pittsburgh, PA in July, 2004 Archimandrite Thomas was nominated for one of the three newly created diocesan bishoprics. Four months later, he along with the other two nominated diocesan bishops went to Damascus, Syria where he was elected a bishop in the Antiochian Archdiocese. On May 6, 2005 at St George Cathedral in Pittsburgh he was enthroned as Bishop of Oakland, Charleston and the East.
The new present home for the parish was designed by Michael F. Sofarelli, who is an adjunct professor architecture at St. Petersburg College and also the proprietor of Sofarelli and Associates Architecture, Inc. in Largo, Florida. He is an experienced designer of church and commercial architecture. He was assisted by our own parishioners: Mona ElKhouly and her husband Mamdouh of Koly International Structural Engineers in St Petersburg, Benny Pandorf, mechanical engineer, and David Talhouk, civil engineer, all of whom donated their professional services. BuildCon General Contractors, Seminole, Wayne Ismark, President, was chosen to construct the building and the contract was signed on April 8, 2005. First Home Bank of Seminole provided the construction loan of $650,000.00 that became a mortgage in June 2006. The total cost of the new church was $1,000,000.00, $350,000.00 of which was already in the Building Fund of the Church when construction began on July 19, 2005.
When Father Thomas became Bishop THOMAS in December 2004, Fr John Winfrey was assigned as the interim priest. Fr Michael Massouh, Executive Director of Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania was transferred to St Nicholas as the proto presbyter in August 2005, and the foundation was already in place.
The present church faces the Orient, the east, the direction of the rising sun, symbolizing for us the rising of the Eternal Son of God. It also faces the direction of two holy mountains of the Christian east, mountains whose summits will each have offered us prototypes for the very temple in which we stand worshipping: Mount Sinai in Egypt and Qalat Siman in Syria.
BuildCon completed the new church on May 30, 2006, but landscaping, irrigation, and final drainage was not yet complete. When Bishop ANTOUN arrived for his annual visit on Thursday, December xx, 2006 he insisted we prepare the new building so that we could hold services there that weekend. A call went out and on Friday several parishioners hauled out construction trash, swept the concrete floor, washed the windows, dusted, moved chairs into the nave, set up a temporary altar, and a few icons for a temporary iconostasis. Vespers were held that Saturday evening in the new building, and the next day, Sunday, December y, 2006 we began Orthros in the “old” church and at the time of the Great Doxology, Bishop ANTOUN led the priests, the subdeacon, the altar boys, and the faithful – all of whom carried sacred vessels, the Gospel Book and antiminsions, the crosses, candles, censors, icons, and other religious items – in procession to the “new” church.
At its front doors, Bishop ANTOUN stopped, knocked on the doors, and repeated the dialogue from the midnight Easter service with the door keeper inside. We entered the new permanent home (totally unfurnished) for the Divine Liturgy. It was a glorious, special day, and an appropriate beginning to a new chapter in the history of St Nicholas.
Final drainage, irrigation, and landscaping were completed in January 2007, but we had to seek a variance from the City of Pinellas Park as the air conditioning units overstepped the necessary distance to the street. The City had approved the original placement of the air conditioning units, but new ordinances were now in effect.
On February 27, 2007 Fr Michael Massouh, members of the Building Committee and the Parish Council attended the meeting of the Pinellas Park Zoning Board and made their case. The Board was most encouraging, thanking St Nicholas for cleaning up the corner lot and providing an anchor for the neighborhood. It unanimously granted the variance, and we received the official Certificate of Occupancy on March 2, 2007.
Beginning in January 2007 and for the next few months, Mitch Kanaan coordinated the installation of the frame for the iconostasis and the installation of the hardwood floor and steps of the altar. Carpeting in the nave and tile in the narthex and in the restrooms was also installed. Mitch and James Calamas installed in June 2007 the hand crafted iconostasis. Existing icons were hung from it and beginning in June 2009, Leonidas Diamantopoulos, iconographer, began to install the first phase of the iconography for the present church with icons on the iconostasis, and up to the ceiling in the altar area. He completed the installation on July xx, 2009, and on his next visit Bishop ANTOUN blessed the icons.
The history of St Nicholas is a history of continuous struggles, set backs, and financial constraints, all of which were met and overcome through God’s grace and mercy. The founders and their children and newcomers have continued to support the church first as it met in private homes, then rented facilities, and finally its own sanctuary moved and renovated literally with the blood, sweat, and tears of its parishioners, especially Yousef “Joe” Kassis, and George Salem.
We look back and thank God each day for all our blessings. Today, St. Nicholas stands as a symbol of faith, a haven for the multi-ethnic religious family that calls the House of God its home. Its doors are open to all
people seeking to worship in the ancient Antiochian Orthodox faith. Parishioners come from throughout the St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay area and from as far away as Fort Myers and Spring Hill. They include cradle Orthodox from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Romanian, Serbia, Bulgaria and their children as well as converts from Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions.
With the “dream come true” there is no place to go but forward.
“Well done, thy good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of the Lord.”