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Greek CommunityCultureJohn Hittos of Clearwater Florida Retrieves Cross at 118th Annual Tarpon Springs...

John Hittos of Clearwater Florida Retrieves Cross at 118th Annual Tarpon Springs Epiphany Celebration

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By Dorie Klissas, Special to the Hellenic News of America

First Time in History that Two Archbishops Preside Over Festivities.

On January 6, 2024, 16-year-old John Hittos of Clearwater, Florida, retrieved the specially crafted white cross from the waters at the Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs, Florida, during the 118th annual Epiphany celebrations. Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.

“It is a blessing to have won,” Hittos said. “I didn’t see the cross go into the water. I just dove down and had a feeling. I couldn’t see where it was in the water, but then it was in my hand.”

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The celebration in Tarpon Springs is one of the largest Epiphany events in the world, bringing together communities of the greater Tampa Bay area and beyond. His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America officiated the Divine Liturgy and the blessings of the water. It is said that those who retrieve their cross – and their families – receive blessings for a year.

“The cross of our Lord, that draws us from every corner of the nation, and the universe, the holy cross that we cast into the waters, the cross by which we have all been saved,” said Archbishop Elpidophoros. “The cross is the single unifying factor that makes us equal in the eyes of the Lord.”

“Two days earlier, my brother had a dream that I had won,” said John, who triumphed over a group of sixty-six young men aged 16-18 who dove into the water from small boats. “I am blessed to have this opportunity and glad my parents encouraged me to dive. I am hoping for health and blessings for my friends and family.”

Hittos is the first in his family to retrieve the cross. It was also his first Epiphany dive, but his parents had prepped him for a while. “We started this family tradition when the kids were little, where John would jump into their cold pool since he was two years old, just getting ready to dive for the cross,” Sarah Hittos, John’s mother, said.

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Left to Right: Tarpon Springs Mayor Costa Vatikiotis, Ioannis Chrysoulakis, Secretary General of Greeks Abroad and Public Diplomacy, His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateria and Great Britain, US Congressman Gus Bilirakis, AHEPA Supreme President Savas Tsivikos, John Lelekis, President of Ephiphany City Chapter 16, Order of AHEPA, and His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros

Sarah Hittos said she knew right away it was her son who retrieved the cross. “I knew it was him when I heard his voice. I had a feeling he could do it.”

Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateria and Great Britain accepted an invitation to attend the festivities. He grew up in Tarpon Springs and retrieved the cross himself 50 years ago.

“Epiphany is the story of the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan,” said Archbishop Nikitas, who traveled from Great Britain to attend. “But it is also about reconciliation. When God gave his only begotten son of God so only those who believe in him would have eternal life. It is the moment in time when Christ came to earth – when the divine and the human join together – when the Holy Trinity appears, the voice of the Father, Christ in the river, and the Spirit in the form of the dove. Theophany invites all people to the moment of reconciliation to resolve problems, issues, and controversies.”

All were led from the church to the water through a procession led by clergy. Chloe Kotis, a 17-year-old Tarpon Springs native, released a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, just before the Archbishop threw the cross into the waters in this year’s ceremony.

Ever since the 1930s, the AHEPA Epiphany Banquet is held the night before the blessings of the waters. At that time, Epiphany was declared a local and national holiday in Tarpon Springs, with the Supreme President of the AHEPA in attendance.

“Theophany means baptism, but the cross represents unity and community and when we are all united we accomplish extraordinary things,” said Savas Tsivicos, Supreme President of the Order of AHEPA at the Banquet, which was held at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church’s Matheos Hall in Clearwater, Florida.

Archbishop Nikitas 50 Years ago when he retrieved cross

John Lelekas, AHEPA Epiphany Banquet Chairperson and President of the AHEPA chapter in Tarpon Springs, recounted the unique circumstances of the retrieval of the cross by Archbishop Nikitas in 1974. At that time, he was the St. Nicholas Cathedral parish president. Archbishop Iakavos, who for 37 years was primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in North and South America, presided over the ceremonies.

“It was the only time in my life I was on the platform standing next to Archbishop Iakovos,” said Lelekas. “He was a very strong man, and not very shy, and was intent on throwing the cross as centered as possible in the water. He wanted to give all the divers an equal opportunity to retrieve the cross.”

“The white cross that Archbishop Iakavos sank, and after two minutes, the divers still could not find it,” reported Lelekas. “Someone said to the archbishop that the boys were getting cold and tired. Archbishop Iakavos took the gold blessing cross he was carrying and tossed it into the water. It twisted two to three times and landed in Archbishop Nikitas’ arms.”

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John Hittos

“The gold cross landed perfectly into Archbishop Nikitas’s hands,” said Lelekas. “And that tells me that Nikitas did not retrieve the cross, but that Jesus Christ retrieved him.”

Lelekas continued, “In another astounding twist, the dove that was released by the dove bearer circled six feet above Archbishop Iakavos and landed on his liturgical headdress. The Archbishop, who didn’t notice the dove on his head, saw everyone looking at him and asked what was going on. ‘The dove is on your head,’ the group told him. The picture was eventually broadcast around the globe – and the Archbishop recounted it was the picture of the Holy Spirit landing on his headdress.

Savas Tsivicos bestowed a special honor on John Lelekas saying, “The AHEPA Heroes medal is reserved for those individuals who have shown exceptional service. There is a ‘commander’ here who has given most of his life working for AHEPA and working for our church. “He deserves to be recognized, acknowledged, and appreciated.”

“Thank you for bestowing this honor on me,” said John Lelekas. “I am surrounded by people who love the AHEPA and the Daughters of Penelope.”

Dolly Chiotis was awarded the “Daughter of the Year” pin by Marianthi Treppiedi, the Grand President of the Daughters of Penelope (DOP) “This weekend we celebrate ‘The Power of We…CommUNITY’ and this is a perfect example of the community coming together.”

Costa Vatikiotis (Dolly’s husband), the Mayor of Tarpon Springs, issued a proclamation: “The Epiphany of Tarpon Springs has earned its place in the history of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America.”

Others in attendance were Bishop Sebastian of Zelon, Bishop Theofranis of Philomelion, The Consul General of Greece Lucas Tsokas, the Secretary for Greeks Abroad Ioannis Chrysoulakis, and Congressman Gus Bilirakis, along with Loretta Christopoul, Epiphany Banquet co-chair.

Archbishop Elpidaphorus recognized the contributions of the entire community. “The cross is the single unifying factor that makes us equal in the eyes of God and at the same time allows each of us to offer our gifts to the community around us.”

It was also an opportunity for some to point out that Hellenism should be defended throughout the world. Archbishop Nikitas, who hails from England, said it was time “for all of us as Hellenes no matter where they live to do what is right,” and urged everyone “to take up every cause to have the Parthenon Marbles returned to Greece.”

“The marbles do not belong in London in the museum,” he said. “They belong to us and our heritage, and our children should see them.”

“Hellenism is everywhere but a big piece of Hellenism is still under occupation,” said Savas Tsivicos, reminding us that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey on July 20, 1974. “Hellenism is not simply an ethnic identity but an idea that we have to pass on to future generations. Let’s continue the fight and work together. Hellenism is under attack and we need to defend it.” Savas noted that 40% of Cyprus is still occupied by Turkey and will be in Washington on May 27th, 2024, to lobby elected officials.

With two archbishops on hand, the AHEPA banquet and festivities were historic. “This is an evening of celebrations, peace, recognition, and remembrance,” said Archbishop Elpidophorus. “I think I express the sentiments of all when I say that we are all delighted that His Eminence Nikitas accepted our invitation to share in this very special observance of the annual Theofany festivities in his hometown of Tarpon Springs.”

“Tarpon Springs is home and filled with love and warmth,” said Archbishop Nikitas, who was honored at the Epiphany Ball at St. Nicholas Community Center’s Theofilos Hall in Tarpon Springs. “I pray that God continues to bless the area so you remain faithful to our patriarchy, strong and faithful to the archdiocese, and strong and faithful to a united orthodoxy, a value system of trust that we have inherited from previous generations.”

The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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