Tarpon Springs Epiphany cross is retrieved under blue skies

Photo of author

By journalsofus.com


We’re at the 118th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs. It is the largest commemoration in the Western Hemisphere of Jesus Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, and last year drew 20,000 spectators.

The Orthros service began at 8 a.m. at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral followed by the Divine Liturgy. Around noon, clergy, parishioners in traditional garb and spectators will begin the procession to Spring Bayou for the blessing of Tarpon Springs, the highlight of this tradition for many.

That’s when 65 boys from the cathedral will climb into dinghies waiting in the bayou. Another boy is participating but not diving. The Archbishop will bless the waters before tossing a white cross into the water. The boys will dive in and try to retrieve the cross, and whoever finds it is said to receive a year of blessings.

This year the cathedral is hosting the homecoming of His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and Great Britain, who was born in Tampa and attended Tarpon Springs’ Epiphany as a child. In 1974, he dove into the bayou and retrieved the cross, making this year’s celebration the 50th anniversary of his retrieval.

The ceremony is expected to take place despite stormy weather. Earlier in the week, St. Nicholas spokesperson Johanna Gatzoulis said “weather does not stop our religious event.”

1:29 p.m. Back at the church

John Hittos, when asked how he prepared for the dive, said, “I prayed.” The 16-year-old is a student at Calvary Christian.

“It means a lot,” Hittos said, holding the cross in the cathedral, surrounded by peers.

“I didn’t see where the cross went into the water. I didn’t know where it was. But I had a feeling and I just went down. I couldn’t even see anything but it was in my hand,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”

John Hittos holds the cross back at the cathedral.
John Hittos holds the cross back at the cathedral. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

1:05 p.m. As close as they could get

George Christopoulos came to Tarpon Springs from Toronto with his family to watch the dive. As a boy in Greece, Christopoulos used to participate.

“This is the closest one in North America, so we came down,” Christopoulos said, as divers splashed in a race for the cross. “I brought my girls so they could see it.”

He made a video of John Hittos getting the cross.

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

12:57 p.m. The cross is retrieved

John Hittos, 16, has emerged from Spring Bayou with the cross.

His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateira and Great Britain places a necklace on John Hittos, 16 after retrieving the cross during the 2024 Epiphany at Spring Bayou on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 in Tarpon Springs.
His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateira and Great Britain places a necklace on John Hittos, 16 after retrieving the cross during the 2024 Epiphany at Spring Bayou on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 in Tarpon Springs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
John Hittos, 16 celebrates after retrieving the cross during the 2024 Epiphany at Spring Bayou on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 in Tarpon Springs.
John Hittos, 16 celebrates after retrieving the cross during the 2024 Epiphany at Spring Bayou on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 in Tarpon Springs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
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12:35 p.m. On the move

The procession of clergy, Greek dancers, divers, parishioners and spectators have arrived at Spring Bayou to prepare for the cross dive.

Chloe Kotis, 17, leads the procession to Spring Bayou.
Chloe Kotis, 17, leads the procession to Spring Bayou. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]

12:15 p.m. “It’s about blessings”

The cross dive is certainly the main event for many spectators, it drew 20,000 last year. But Anastasios Damianakis, 18, said the cross dive is more of a religious experience. 

“It’s part of the service. It’s not like you’re winning the Super Bowl or anything. It’s about blessings.”

— Tracey McManus, Times staff writer

Anastasios Damianakis, 18, said to him, the dive is about the blessings.
Anastasios Damianakis, 18, said to him, the dive is about the blessings. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]

12:05 p.m. No more chill

Lisa Moerchen cooked soup this morning in preparation for the cold weather.

“But now it looks like we won’t need it,” she laughed, sitting on a tarp with family.

Lisa Moerchen, left in white, with family at Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs. Her grandsons are diving for the cross.
Lisa Moerchen, left in white, with family at Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs. Her grandsons are diving for the cross. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

Today is a special one for her family. Her grandsons, Athos Karistinos, 16, and Stasi Karistinos, 18, will be diving for the cross.

The boys’ dad, Anestis Taso, was the cross retriever more than 20 years ago.

“It’s like a family reunion,” Moerchen said of the celebration. “We all know each other and all of the boys have grown up together.”

Moerchen said her grandsons have been preparing for the dive — spiritually and physically — for a long time. But, she joked, they are tight-lipped when it comes to their tactics.

“They won’t tell me what their strategy is,” she said.

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

12 p.m. Why don’t girls dive in Tarpon Springs?

If you’re wondering why only boys dive for the cross, Times reporter Tracey McManus wrote in 2019 about why girls are barred from diving with their male peers. The Tarpon Springs parish is one of the few — if not the only — Greek Orthodox churches in the U.S. that affords the honor only to boys.

11:55 a.m. The Holy Spirit

Chloe Kotis, 17, is preparing to lead the procession with the white dove she will release over the bayou, a representation of the Holy Spirit.

“I’m nervous but I feel good. I’m happy to hold something that means so much.”

— Tracey McManus, Times staff writer

Chloe Kotis, 17, is preparing to lead the procession with the white dove she will release over the bayou, a representation of the Holy Spirit.
Chloe Kotis, 17, is preparing to lead the procession with the white dove she will release over the bayou, a representation of the Holy Spirit. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]

11:50 a.m. All the way from Greece

Theo and Popi Vavlas traveled with their children from Kalymnos, Greece, to visit family in Tarpon Springs and celebrate Epiphany.

Theo Vavlas said the celebration looks different here than it does in his family’s hometown. This celebration is bigger, he said. In Kalymnos, there are fewer boats, it’s less of a spectacle.

Theo and Popi Vavlas came from Greece to visit family and celebrate Epiphany in Tarpon Springs.
Theo and Popi Vavlas came from Greece to visit family and celebrate Epiphany in Tarpon Springs. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

“We are very excited,” Theo Vavlas said, while sitting crouched on the sidewalk along the water.

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

11:43 a.m. Divers are ready

The divers have gathered, barefoot, outside of the church to prepare for the procession to Spring Bayou.

For two brothers, it is the first dive for Luc Boillot, 16, and the last for Andreas Boillot, 18.

It is the first dive for Luc Boillot, 16, and the last for Andreas Boillot, 18, brother from Tarpon Springs.
It is the first dive for Luc Boillot, 16, and the last for Andreas Boillot, 18, brother from Tarpon Springs. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]

Both say even the opportunity to dive for the cross is a privilege.

“It’s really about spreading blessings around the city,” Andreas said.

The tradition also runs deep for their family. The boys’ grandfather is the Rev. Fr. Tryfon Theophilopoulos, the cathedral’s late longtime clergy whose name is on the church hall.

“He’s our grandfather but he’s the pappoús of Tarpon Springs,” Andreas said, saying the word for grandfather in Greek.

— Tracey McManus, Times staff writer

11:32 a.m. A change to the number of divers

Originally, 69 boys were participating in the service this morning, with 68 diving for the cross. Three divers are sick and cannot attend. There will be 65 boys searching for the cross in Spring Bayou and one more participating.

The area around the bayou is filling in with spectators now, all eagerly awaiting the dive.

11:05 a.m. Just like Greece

Laura Layton came to Tarpon Springs from Ocoee with her friend Shirley Parker, who lives in Claremont.

Layton, who grew up in South Africa, is half Greek. After moving to Florida in 1995, she’s taken trips to the area to visit the Sponge Docks.

“I used to bring my mom here because we’d really feel like we were in Greece here,” Layton said. “I love Tarpon Springs.”

Layton attended an Epiphany celebration here years ago. For Parker, this Saturday will mark the first time she’s seen the dive.

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

Laura Layton, left, and Shirley Parker came to Tarpon Springs to watch the dive with Layton’s two dogs.
Laura Layton, left, and Shirley Parker came to Tarpon Springs to watch the dive with Layton’s two dogs. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

11 a.m. A manatee distraction

Dave and Pam Bracken, both 53, moved to Tarpon Springs from Nebraska 16 years ago to escape the cold. Despite living in town, this is the first Epiphany celebration that Dave has been able to attend.

“It’s exciting that it’s on a weekend because I don’t work,” Dave Bracken said.

Below, in the water, two manatees in the bayou came up for air.

Pam and Dave Bracken of Tarpon Springs wait for the Epiphany cross dive on Saturday morning at Spring Bayou.
Pam and Dave Bracken of Tarpon Springs wait for the Epiphany cross dive on Saturday morning at Spring Bayou. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

“That’s what makes it easy,” Pam Bracken said. “Watching the manatees while we wait.”

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

10:50 a.m. Church service at capacity

Parishioners watch His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateira and Great Britain walk down the aisle during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs.
Parishioners watch His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateira and Great Britain walk down the aisle during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Anastasia Giannakouros traveled on a bus with 50 others from The Villages to celebrate Epiphany. When she arrived around 10:30 a.m., she couldn’t attend the church service because the cathedral was at capacity. But she said the cross dive is just as special a tradition, which she also observed in her birthplace of Sparta, Greece.

— Tracey McManus, Times staff writer

Anastasia Giannakouros (center) traveled from The Villages but couldn't attend the church service — it was full.
Anastasia Giannakouros (center) traveled from The Villages but couldn’t attend the church service — it was full. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | TImes ]
The Divine Liturgy takes place during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs.
The Divine Liturgy takes place during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Maria Megremis, 67, of Chicago, Ill., attends the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs.
Maria Megremis, 67, of Chicago, Ill., attends the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Becky Georgas, 85, of Chicago, Ill., lights a candle during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs.
Becky Georgas, 85, of Chicago, Ill., lights a candle during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Parishioners listen to the Divine Liturgy during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs.
Parishioners listen to the Divine Liturgy during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Becky Georgas, 85, of Chicago, Ill., lights a candle during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs.
Becky Georgas, 85, of Chicago, Ill., lights a candle during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, leads the Divine Liturgy during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs.
His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, leads the Divine Liturgy during the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateira and Great Britain arrives and prepares for the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs.
His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateira and Great Britain arrives and prepares for the 118th annual celebration of Epiphany at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

10:30 a.m. Slow morning for business

Typically The Bayou Cafe in downtown Tarpon Springs is packed for Epiphany morning as spectators grab coffee or a breakfast scramble before the cross dive.

But the rain made for a slow morning.

The Bayou Cafe in downtown Tarpon Springs was empty Saturday morning, with the rain keeping visitors away. It's normally  packed on Epiphany morning.
The Bayou Cafe in downtown Tarpon Springs was empty Saturday morning, with the rain keeping visitors away. It’s normally packed on Epiphany morning. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]

Server Melissa Wright said they brought in extra staff in anticipation of the annual rush, but it never came. She said the regulars also skipped out thinking the place would be swarmed, leaving the cafe without even its most loyal customers today.

“I’ve worked many Epiphanies and this is a strange one,” said Wright, a server here for 11 years.

— Tracey McManus, Times staff writer

10:07 a.m. A chilly plunge

A Florida Fish and Wildlife officer told reporter Tracey McManus that the water in Spring Bayou is 65 degrees this morning.

10 a.m. Skies are bluer

The skies over Spring Bayou are bluer now as the rain has cleared up.
The skies over Spring Bayou are bluer now as the rain has cleared up. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

About a few dozen people in total are gathered on the grass around Spring Bayou. That’s dwarfed compared to years past when the sun has been out, but as the rain pauses, more people are crawling out of their homes and hotel rooms and walking the sidewalks toward the water.

Melissa Verboon (L) of Holiday tries to say dry with her daughter Azalea Verboon (R) and her friend Addison Potts as they await Epiphany divers on a rainy morning in Spring Bayou on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 in Tarpon Springs.
Melissa Verboon (L) of Holiday tries to say dry with her daughter Azalea Verboon (R) and her friend Addison Potts as they await Epiphany divers on a rainy morning in Spring Bayou on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 in Tarpon Springs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

9:40 a.m.: A lifelong celebration

Epiphany is a lifelong celebration for many residents.

Andrew Nikiforakis grew up in Tarpon Springs and retrieved the cross during the dive in 1992, when he was 16. Now he volunteers for the church as the dove caretaker.

Normally the supplier, Lakeland’s A Touch Above, delivers the bird to the church on Epiphany morning. But due to the rain, Nikiforfakis picked up the dove yesterday and kept it at his house overnight. He set the cage on his armoire, out of reach from his dog, fed and watered it, and felt the weight of the responsibility.

When the dove is released over Spring Bayou before the cross dive, it represents the Holy Spirit. Nikiforfakis will also help this year’s dove bearer, Chloe Kotis, 17, handle the dove as it moves in the procession with clergy and spectators from the cathedral to the bayou.

“It’s a big responsibility,” Nikiforfakis said. “We’re in charge of the Holy Spirit.”

— Tracey McManus, Times staff writer

9:33 a.m. Spectators are arriving

Colorful umbrellas are starting to speckle the lawn overlooking Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs. There’s been a steady drizzle, but — so far — no downpour. Those gathering are in high spirits as many prepare to watch the dive for the first time.
Colorful umbrellas are starting to speckle the lawn overlooking Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs. There’s been a steady drizzle, but — so far — no downpour. Those gathering are in high spirits as many prepare to watch the dive for the first time. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

9:27 a.m. A destination

Sister Peggie Martin, left, and Alexandra Harris drove from Alabama on Saturday morning to witness the cross dive in Tarpon Springs.
Sister Peggie Martin, left, and Alexandra Harris drove from Alabama on Saturday morning to witness the cross dive in Tarpon Springs. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

Peggie Martin and Alexandra Harris huddled together under umbrellas, overlooking the bayou.

The sisters drove hours from Alabama this morning to witness the dive. They left at 5 a.m.

“It just seemed like something you have to see,” Martin said. “We’re happy to be here. I’m not made of sugar. I won’t melt in the rain.”

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

9:16 a.m. Their first Epiphany visit

Sisters Nikki and Roni Bailey grew up in Clearwater, but this is their first Epiphany.

“It’s a bucket list item,” Nikki Bailey said. “We had heard about it, but decided it was finally time we come see for ourselves.”

Nikki Bailey of Clearwater came to Tarpon Springs with her sister to watch the cross dive for the first time.
Nikki Bailey of Clearwater came to Tarpon Springs with her sister to watch the cross dive for the first time. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

The Bailey’s drove out to Tarpon Springs last night to scope out a spot. They came back this morning and they’re not letting the weather dampen their experience.

“We looked up the meaning of the dive and its history. We’ve gotten really into it,” Roni Bailey said. “The divers are excited to be here so we are too.”

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

9 a.m. “It just looks clean”

Outside of Copenhagen Cafe, Nick Gombos, 62, stands and looks out on the cathedral as the rain fluctuates in intensity.

“It doesn’t even look wet, it just looks clean,” Gombos said of the cathedral to a passerby. “It’s clearing up. I bet there will be sun by 11:30.”

“What’s a little water gonna do to you?” the man responds.

“As long as the boys dive! That’s what matters,” Gombos cheers back.

Born and raised in Tarpon Springs, Gombos dove for the cross from 1975 to 1979. ”It shows you how strong your faith is when you come even when it’s raining,” Gombos said. “Nothing will stop the dive.”

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

Nick Gombos, 62, stands and looks at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday morning in Tarpon Springs.
Nick Gombos, 62, stands and looks at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Saturday morning in Tarpon Springs. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

8:56 a.m. The dove

Before the cross dive, a white dove will be released over Spring Bayou to represent the Holy Spirit. This year, Chloe Kotis, 17, was chosen to do that honor as the dove bearer. Right now the dove is waiting for its moment in the cathedral office.

The dove waits for its moment at the church in Tarpon Springs on Saturday morning.
The dove waits for its moment at the church in Tarpon Springs on Saturday morning. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]

— Tracey McManus, Times staff writer

8:48 a.m. Not worried by the rain

Nomikos Christoforos ducked into Copenhagen Cafe across the street from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral just after 8:00 a.m. on Saturday. The pitter-patter of rain echoed outside. Christoforos, 22, first dived for the cross in 2018.

Now, he’s on the Divers Committee, a group of men — most past divers — who help prepare the boys spiritually for the day. “My first year diving, it rained the whole morning. It was cold. But when we got down to the bayou, the sky cleared and the sun came out,” Christoforos said.

He’s not worried about the weather today. Sitting at a table with Christoforos, Michael Achilleas Hollis and Savas Amorginos nodded in agreement. Amorginos first dove in 2005. He’s been involved ever since.

“The divers join the brotherhood whether they retrieve the cross or not,” Amorginos said. “It’s just a blessing to be here.”

— Lauren Peace, Times staff writer

Savas Amorginos (left), Michael Achilleas Hollis (middle) and Nomikos Christoforos (right) ducked out of the rain and into the Copenhagen Cafe in Tarpon Springs on Saturday morning.
Savas Amorginos (left), Michael Achilleas Hollis (middle) and Nomikos Christoforos (right) ducked out of the rain and into the Copenhagen Cafe in Tarpon Springs on Saturday morning. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

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