An array of boxes, papers and photographs were scattered around Father Demetri Kangelaris’ office the other day. “Forgive the mess,” he said. “Thirty years is a long time.”
Indeed it is. Kangelaris has served since 1990 as pastor at — if you’re neither Greek nor Orthodox, odds are you know something of the parish through its annual three-day festival — and is stepping down at month’s end.
Thirty years is a long time.
It’s roughly three times longer than Kangelaris expected to be in Winston-Salem. Every photo and scrap of paper on his desk represents a memory; it’s a lot to pack in just a few short days.
Naturally some are more fun than others. Mementoes and keepsakes from such happy occasions as marriages and baptisms — he baptized actor Telly Savalas’ grandkids and officiated at the wedding of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson — are in his office.
So, too, are memories about the tougher occasions, illness and loss, that makes the priesthood so challenging.
Thirty years gone. Where did the time go?
“It was in Winston-Salem that we fell in love,” Kangelaris said. “The people. The parish. The city. Our children grew up here. It’s a lot to digest.”
It only takes minutes before guests can see why the folks at the Greek Orthodox Church are so attached to Kangelaris.
Father Demetri to generations, the 64-year-old native of Israel wears an easy smile and laughs generously. He’s self-deprecating with his humor. He pulls out the official invitation to his retirement luncheon and points to the oil painting of himself that’s on the front.
“The artist gave me more hair than I have! If I would have known that, I would have asked for more!”
Father Demetri is comfortable talking about his lifetime in the priesthood, his time in Winston and his plans for the future — the reason for the visit — but it’s obvious that he would just as soon hear about his guest. A kind heart and well-honed, well-used listening skills come naturally to him.
“He is a great leader, and he’s presided over a long period of peaceful growth,” said Father Costa Shepherd, the parish’s assistant priest. “Those are important things. But at the heart of it, he has been a good shepherd for the community.”
Kangelaris was born in Jerusalem, and immigrated to Maine, of all places, in 1973. The United States, he said in a 1990 interview, afforded great religious freedom and economic opportunity. He studied at the University of Southern Maine and received a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in education.
“That’s why I have an affinity for the New England teams,” he said, reeling off the recent successes of the NFL’s Patriots, hockey’s Boston Bruins and of course, the Red Sox.
He married his wife Olga in 1977, the same year he entered seminary. His first assignment after ordination was a doozy — St. Sophia Cathedral in central Los Angeles — and the source of some very interesting factoids.
Namely, the April 1988 wedding of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who worked with young adults in the church through Kangelaris’ time there. Hanks hit it big with the movie “Splash” in 1984 and his second blockbuster “Big” was set to debut when Wilson reached out to ask Father Demetri a big favor.
Kangelaris had moved in 1986 to Oklahoma City, and he was hesitant. “Once you leave a parish, you leave it,” he said. “You can’t go back and forth.”
But Wilson insisted. She knew Father Demetri and she didn’t know the new priest as well. Kangelaris relented, and asked who Wilson was marrying.
“I did not know who he was, I’m embarrassed to say,” he said. “When I told my secretary she about fell over. It was a neat experience.”
The church in Los Angeles, he said, lent itself to that sort of thing. A snapshot with actor Telly Savalas — Kojak! — that he pulled from a shelf offers further proof.
“The church attracted a congregation that lent itself to those things,” he said with a shrug.
Growing a community
The life of a clergyman can be itinerant. Assignments, particularly for a young priest, can be short.
Life in Los Angeles, Kangelaris said, was good. But it was also expensive for a young man with a young family. So when he saw the chance to build a church, he took it. “A career bucket list thing,” he explained.
Kangelaris grew St. George Greek Orthodox Church and stayed through 1990, when he moved to Winston-Salem. Here, he found a bustling church bursting at the seams.
He had an opportunity to manage the growth and further nurture the natural sense of community that exists in the Greek church. Children learn Greek and embrace their ethnicity.
“For orthodox people, the church becomes the center of their life for many reasons,” he said in 1990. “It’s a place where you can find jobs, establish contacts.”
The heart of that to outsiders and neighbors is the church’s annual festival. It attracts thousands of the hungry and the curious. The festival is a major fundraiser for the parish helping to support its operations and such worthy causes as the Brenner Children’s Hospital.
He won’t say so himself — “Every Greek church has a festival” — but Father Demetri recognized it as an opportunity to educate and to build community. He helped scale it to size and sharpen its focus.
“You have to be careful of overreach and be mindful of the cost,” he said. “It’s a three-day festival. You spend the first day and a half making costs back. The ladies bake twice a week for six months. It’s a lot of work.”
Ultimately, though, it succeeds and supports the church in its larger mission — tending to the parishioners.
“Father Demetri has been instrumental in change for people at a personal level,” Shepherd said. “For me personally, he’s been a huge mentor. He has affected me in my life more than any other man outside my father.”
At his recent retirement luncheon, Father Demetri was able to hear that and other such heartfelt tributes freely given by those he’s cared for these 30 years.
“My brother was here for that and he made sure to point out that they said all the nice things you hear at a funeral,” Kangelaris said. “Only you got the blessing of hearing them.”
Once he finishes the immediate task for packing away his memories, Father Demetri will move on just as he has twice before. He said he’ll split his time between his home in Winston-Salem, his daughter’s house in Richmond and at North Myrtle Beach.
It will be a well-earned retirement.
“God will show the way,” he said. “I’m really not worried. You can only plan so much.”