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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Interviewee: The Very Reverend Dimitrios Couchell
Interviewer: Larry Odzak
February 20, 1991
O: This interview is being conducted on the 20th of February 1991 with the Very
Reverend Dimitrios Couchell. [I am Larry Odzak.] For the past ten years Father
Couchell has been executive director of the St. Photios Shrine, a Greek Orthodox
chapel and museum located in old St. Augustine in the Avero House. Here the first
Greek Orthodox emigrants to America met for prayers back in the 1770s. In
addition, Father Dimitrios was appointed to be the executive director of the new
Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Mission Center and is involved with mission work
from Alaska and the Caribbean in this hemisphere to a number of countries in
Africa and Asia. The mission center is headquartered in its own building at 92
Cedar Street in St. Augustine, Florida. This interview is being conducted in the
office of Father Dimitrios at the mission center.
Father Dimitrios, what is your full name?
D: Well, Larry, my legal name is James George Couchell, but my ecclesiastical name
is Father Dimitrios Couchell. When I was ordained, the archbishop asked that I start
using the Greek form of my name, Dimitrios, instead of the anglicized form of
Couchell is a fake name, a name that my stepfather made up in fact. In Greek the
name was Koutsogiorgas. When he came to America he adopted the name Couchell,
and so have all the relatives. So now any Couchell in America is a relative.
O: A former Koutsogiorgas.
O: I understand that you were born in Greenville, South Carolina, and that you just had
D: Yes, I just turned fifty-three on Sunday, and I was born in Greenville. I did not live
there very long. My parents, unfortunately, separated when I was just about one year
old, so I do not remember my father very well at all.
O: What were the names of your parents?
D: My father was George Pleicones, Pliakonis in Greek, and my mother was Virginia,
or really Iphigenia Trakas.
O: Were they married in South Carolina or in Greece?
D: No, they were married in South Carolina. They were both born in South Carolina.
O: I see. So you are, one might say, a third-generation American, then.
D: Yes. All my grandparents on both sides are from Greece. My mother and father
were born in South Carolina, and they were married in Spartanburg, where my
mother was born.
O: I understand that the family house is also in Spartanburg.
D: Yes, and it is very important for us in a way. It is the house my grandfather built
before he went back to Greece and brought my grandmother over in 1906. He had
come in 1896 himself, or 1894--1 am not sure.
O: Is that on your mother's side or on your father's side?
D: My mother's side. And this home is still our home. It is the clan's home in a way.
It is where we go back for reunions and Christmastime, or any major feast days. My
mother lives there now.
O: Even during these years?
O: That's beautiful. So you have a house that has served as your family home for over
eighty years, eighty-five or so.
O: You spent your early youth, then, both in South Carolina and in New York. Could
you tell me about those years, the 1940s?
D: Yes. The early years were in South Carolina. My mother and father were divorced.
In those days divorce was difficult to obtain; South Carolina did not even grant
divorces. My mother and I spent six months in Mississippi to establish residence.
She obtained her divorce in Mississippi.
Then we returned to Spartanburg and lived with my grandparents, her parents. She
went to work for my grandfather, and that is really where I had my basic early
education, living with my grandparents and my mother. My grandfather took over
the place of my father, really, and was my father.
O: How was he making his living?
D: At that time he ran a liquor store. When he first came to America, he had been in
the fruit and produce business and the candy business, and had made a lot of money.
He had brought over many relatives. He was the first one to settle in South
Carolina, the first Greek, and he brought over many relatives. Then he lost it all
in the Depression because he had invested heavily in stocks. So at this time he
owned a liquor store, right off the main street in Spartanburg, and my mother went
to work there.
O: In what year were you actually born?
D: In 1938, February 17.
O: So at this time, you would be still about nine or ten years old, perhaps?
D: Oh, not even that old. I went through first grade in Spartanburg, and I guess I was
seven. I think. After I finished first grade, my mother remarried that summer, and
we moved to Schenectady, New York. I began second grade in Schenectady, New
O: Did you feel any anxiety in leaving the place that you were brought up in?
D: I am sure I did, but also there was excitement of moving to a new place. At that
age, wherever my mother went, I went.
O: So how was Schenectady for you?
D: Oh, I did not like it. My stepfather was a much older man. The marriage had been
an arranged marriage. His relatives spoke with my grandparents, and the whole
thing was arranged the way many marriages were in those days.
O: Did your mom ever meet him before the marriage?
D: Well, before the marriage he came down maybe a few weeks. It might have even
been a few months; I cannot recall exactly. He came down and met my mother.
They had the engagement, and then he came back for the marriage. He was a florist
in Schenectady, New York.
O: Did you manage to develop a good relationship with him?
D: Only in the final years. We did not have a good relationship in the early years.
O: I guess you were still yearning for your own father.
D: I guess, all those things that are involved in that. We very soon had a new brother,
a sister first and then a brother, whom I helped raise really, because my mother had
to start working a few years later.
O: During the 1950s then you moved back to Spartanburg?
D: Well, I went through grammar school and junior high school. I was in high school
and finished eleventh grade when my grandfather died. There was no one to go live
with my grandmother. My youngest uncle, her youngest son, was a dentist. He was
in Korea at the time, and they asked if I would go live with her for that year, until
he returned. So I completed high school, my senior year, back in Spartanburg,
where I began. Some of my classmates were people who had been in my first-grade
O: Almost like coming home again.
O: Did they remember you?
D: Well, a couple of them said they did. They remembered the name, they remembered
where I lived, and all of that.
O: So you were really not only going to school but also looking after your grandmother.
D: Well, I did not have to do a lot of looking after her. She cooked meals for me. She
woke me up in the morning. But it was just that someone was [always] there with
her. She had never learned English; she never did learn English. She could speak
very brokenly to the mailman or somebody who might come to the door. She had
never been shopping in her life. Either my grandfather or her children--she had ten
children--had done all of those things throughout her lifetime.
O: Was there a fairly large Greek community in Spartanburg?
D: No, about seventy-five families. They finally built a church in the early 1940s. I
think about 1943 or 1944 they opened the St. Nicholas Church. My grandfather's
name was Nicholas, and he was the major benefactor of the church.
O: I see. But you also had, from what I read, an excellent senior year in school.
D: Yes, I did enjoy it very much. I do not know [if it was] the southern hospitality or
what it was exactly, but I fit right in again. I was very active at school, in many
activities, in chorus and special little dramatic groups and in the church, the local
church of St. Nicholas. It was a very good year for me. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
O: I understand that you also learned to play and were practicing violin.
D: In my early years. I think in fourth grade I began taking violin.
O: That was back in Schenectady?
D: Yes, and I continued to play through junior high school. I was in the junior high
school orchestra and the all-city orchestra for that age group.
O: So you were musically inclined.
D: I enjoyed it. One of my secret wishes had always been to play the piano, but we did
not have a piano in those days. Finally when my sister was growing up we got a
piano, and she took piano.
O: I did not ask, but what was your sister's name?
D: My sister's name is Theophania, but we called her Fanya.
O: Then there is a younger brother?
D: My brother's name is Jonathan, and we just call him Jon.
O: There is something else that really intrigued me. You said that you had an invitation
from each one of three girls to the prom, and you took all of them to the prom.
How did that come about?
D: Well, as I said, I was very popular in my senior year. All three of these girls were
in the dramatics class where we were very active together in different plays. They
could not go if somebody did not take them. You had to have an escort, and all
three of them asked me. So I said, "Why don't we all go together?" We had a lot
of fun, and it was safer that way, too.
O: I imagine. Were you then thinking of college?
D: Well, yes. I had applied to several colleges to see if I could get some kind of
scholarship to help me go to college, because I had to do it on my own. I knew that
I could not expect a lot of help from my parents. The best offer came from
Northwestern [University] in Evanston, Illinois, where I entered the School of
Speech, studying in the field of radio and television.
O: This was what you felt, at that time, was going to be your career, possibly?
D: I felt so, because I had enjoyed all the things I had done in the dramatics department
that year, directing plays and taking part in them.
O: You must have also been good at English drama and the readings. Did you enjoy
D: Yes, I did. In fact, I wrote the senior class poem in Spartanburg. In the senior
album I have a whole page to myself, with my poem and my picture. I was very
pleased that I had been able to do that, in just the one year that I was there.
O: This would have been 1956?
D: Yes, 1956.
O: When did you actually start your college at Evanston?
D: I went to Northwestern in the fall [of 1956] and entered the School of Speech. I
found that I was not really very happy there. There were 15,000 students at
Northwestern at the time. I do not know how large it is now. I felt more like a
number in the classes where there were more than 100 students. Not being a very
outgoing person, the professors did not notice me. As a result, I did not end up
getting very good grades. I managed to maintain the scholarship, but nothing
outstanding. I discovered that what I thought was something that I would enjoy for
life was just a hobby. It was fun, but [it was] not what I wanted to spend my life
O: Did you, in fact, at that time decide that priesthood would be your life's work?
D: Yes. I did go to church every Sunday, to the closest Greek Orthodox church in
Chicago, and even took part in the choir there. I think it was during Holy Week that
year that I finally decided that I should do what I knew I wanted to do and not
continue to waste my time at Northwestern. So I applied to our Greek Orthodox
seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts.
O: Holy Cross [Orthodox Theological Seminary]?
D: Yes. I studied some extra Greek over the summer and entered the next fall.
O: You spoke some Greek, I take it, simply because of the family and grandmother?
D: Yes, [I had learned some] from the grandparents. My parents did not actually speak
Greek in the home very much at all. But I did go to Greek school throughout my
youthful days. At that time, most Greek Orthodox churches had an afternoon Greek
school, so in the daytime we went to the American school, and from 3:00 to 6:00, or
from 4:00 to 6:00, every afternoon we went to Greek school.
O: I understand that it is still, even today, a requirement at Holy Cross that students
study and speak Greek.
D: Well, certainly. In fact, I think most theological schools will require that a person
study Greek, because the New Testament was written in Greek, so to be able to
study from the sources itself, you need to take Greek. But we have even more
incentive, because many of our people are still first-generation people from Greece,
and their major [language] or mother tongue is Greek.
O: I understand that you spent five or six years at Holy Cross.
D: Six years.
O: Six years, and you graduated in 1963?
O: Was Hellenic College part of Holy Cross at that time?
D: No. At that time Holy Cross granted a B.A. degree in theology after six years of
study, and that is what I graduated with. It was three or four years later that they
established Hellenic College with a four-year bachelor's program and a master of
divinity degree at Holy Cross.
O: So then, to do some postgraduate work, I understand you decided to go to Yale, that
you were accepted and attended Yale for a while.
D: Yes. I was nearing completion at Holy Cross, and I thought that I wanted to
continue my studies. I was not ready to be ordained or to go out to a parish. At
that time I thought I would continue studying, and I applied to Yale Divinity School.
I was accepted and studied there for a year.
O: At Holy Cross, during the six years of study and as you were getting towards
completion, did you then think that you would ever be cut out for parish priesthood?
D: Well, that was what I anticipated, yes, that I would get married and become a parish
priest. That is what you did.
O: But it somehow changed over the years, I guess.
D: Yes, it certainly did.
O: You have much more interesting work ahead of you, as we will see, rather than a
parish that you would stay with for a number of years.
D: Well, it has been probably more interesting and more varied, but really, though, the
main work of the church is being done by the parish priest. If it were not for them,
we would not have people believing, so there would be no use for people like me
administering things at a national level. So I really admire and respect the parish
priests as the people who are doing the most important work.
O: On the other hand, as you know, I am also attending the Greek Orthodox church
from place to place where I have been. You are very much admired in these circles
as a man who is doing more important "work" than a parish priest, you see. So I
guess it depends what side [of the church] you look from.
O: Then, in fact from 1964 to date, you have worked for the Greek Orthodox
archdiocese and Archbishop lakovos. But your work really seems to have taken you
to many places and several continents, from what I can see. I wonder if you could
tell me a bit about that.
D: Yes. You often hear people say, "I have joined the navy to see the world." I say
that I have joined the church to see the world, because I really have been fortunate
to see a lot of the world. When I finished that year at Yale, I really did not know
what I was going to do, and I went home for the summer. I had gone to interview
in Charlotte to be their Greek school teacher and their youth director. There was
a large [Greek] community in Charlotte, North Carolina, [which was] very close to
my home. The very next day I got a call from the archdiocese, from Mr. Ernest
Villas, who was the director of the youth department, saying, "Would you like to
come and work for the archdiocese?" I immediately said yes and got on the very
next bus. I called Charlotte and said thanks, but the archdiocese has called, and I
have to go.
When I got to the archdiocese, Mr. Villas took me to see the archbishop, Archbishop
lakovos, and he said, "Well, what do you want to do?" I had expected him to tell
me what he wanted me to do. So I said: "Well, I would like to work with college-
age people. I would like to organize a college program." He said "OK. Go do it."
So for the next seven years, I learned a lot about college students. Those were the
exciting college days, the late 1960s, with Vietnam and all the other activities that
were taking place on campus.
O: It was a turbulent time all around.
D: Well, for me it was exciting. I had to work with those students. They were thinking,
at least. Maybe not always correctly, but they were thinking and acting. I learned
a lot from other churches, what they were doing. What Protestant groups were doing
with college people was very similar in that they had college student movements.
There was even a World Student Christian Federation. I began to make contacts
with these different groups and to learn from them so that I could take from them
what I could apply to our own situation.
The next seven years I visited about a thousand campuses, from coast to coast, and
met thousands of professors and students. In some places they had already organized
student groups--Orthodox Christian Fellowships, they called them (OCFs)--and I
began to provide coordination and publish a newsletter for them. After a couple of
years we began publishing a quarterly magazine called Concern, which is a phrase
taken from a book by Father Alexander Schmemann to show concern for the life of
O: And so you adopted the ...
D: Just the word Concern as the title of the book. "For the life of the world" was a
O: It seemed to fit the situation or the times.
D: The times. And it was a very well-received magazine by all the Orthodox, not just
the Greek Orthodox. In fact, from my second year of work at the archdiocese, this
work was adopted by all the Orthodox, by the Standing Conference of Canonical
Orthodox Bishops. So in fact I was considered an employee of SCOBA [Standing
Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America] rather than of the Greek archdiocese,
and I was working on behalf of all the Orthodox.
O: I understand that you also hosted on a weekly basis a half-hour program on TV.
D: Well, that was a little sideline. The Department of Press and Public Relations had
been approached by some Greek Orthodox person to take part in this new program
that the New York City Council of Churches was putting together. They sent me
down to interview for it, and they accepted me, so I took part in that for, I think,
about two years.
O: I was wondering whether during the turbulent 1960s you felt at any time that the
political situation was interfering, or do you think it was, in fact, aiding the work of
the church, that is, the organizing of the Orthodox? There were radicals; there was
the left. There were, in fact, a lot of people who did not believe at all, not only
atheists, but anti-Christians.
D: Well, I think it depended on your point of view. For instance, there were a lot of
conscientious objectors, and peace fellowships were at their peak in those days.
Many Orthodox do not believe that a person can be a conscientious objector. In
Greece, for instance, it is not even allowed. You are jailed if you choose not to
serve in the armed forces. As a Christian, I believed that you could be a
conscientious objector, and I helped form the first Orthodox Peace Fellowship in
New York City. It is still going today, and, in fact, there is an International
Orthodox Peace Fellowship that has resulted. It is headquartered in the Netherlands
now. It is a very small, loose organization, but it still exists from those days. And
I thought our people should know that that was an option for our young people as
I was blasted by our hierarchs for publishing such an editorial once in the student
newsletter; especially theologians attacked me. I really could not understand it,
and I cannot understand it to this day. Because certainly our church, especially in
the early church history, has a clear tradition of being anti-war, that people can
choose whether they wish to participate or not. And the church, in fact, encourages
non-participation, because the canons say that a person who kills cannot receive
communion for one or two or three years. I mean, that is a very severe penalty.
O: Well, talking about the movement that has continued and spread to Europe, you also
traveled to Europe within the next few years with the youth organization: Syndesmos.
D: Yes. Syndesmos is the Greek word for "bond."
O: Yes. Did you get involved or start off with this youth movement during your work
on campuses, or was that a separate part of your work with the archdiocese?
D: It was combined with it, a part of it. I found out about Syndesmos when several of
their leaders came to America trying to involve American youth movements,
Orthodox youth movements, in Syndesmos. It had started in the 1950s and called
itself a World Orthodox Youth Fellowship, but it had no American members yet.
And they were trying to reach out to America. Being in the position I was in at that
time, I met those leaders and got to know them well over the week that they were
here, and I became very interested in Syndesmos. So I attended their next general
assembly and went to one of their conferences in Geneva, Switzerland, and began
to become involved internationally and to get our young people involved a little bit.
Eventually I was elected to the executive committee of Syndesmos. For the first
time, in 1971, we hosted the general assembly in America. It was the first time that
a 150 Orthodox young people from all over the world came to America.
O: You organized the whole assembly in the States?
D: Yes, with a lot of help. I must admit that I could not have done it alone, but I was
the coordinator, the one who helped get it off the ground and made sure that it took
place and was successful. Later on, in 1977, I became president of Syndesmos for
one three-year term.
O: As we were talking before, doing double work, I understand during this time you also
edited the Orthodox Observer and were involved with all the youth work.
D: Well, after doing the student work for seven years, I began to feel that I was growing
older and that I was getting a little out of touch with what was happening on campus.
When you work with students, they change every year, or every four years, so all the
people I knew had graduated and gone on. Some others had come aboard, but now
they were leaving too. And I do not know if it was just that I did not have the
stamina to do it all over again, to find new people to work with, or [if I] really was
out of touch. I do not know. At any rate, I asked the archbishop to be reassigned.
At that time the archdiocese was just beginning to establish a biweekly newspaper,
the Orthodox Observer, which had previously been a monthly magazine. I suggested
that I could serve as English editor, and he said yes. So for the next close to ten
years I was the English editor of the Orthodox Observer, putting out a newspaper
every two weeks.
O: And successfully so, because I understand that the readership increased by leaps and
D: Well, it was the first time that our people had a newspaper available to them with
all the news of what was going on all over the country and worldwide.
O: In the different parishes and dioceses.
D: Yes. The magazine previously had been more of a historical document carrying
letters and encyclicals of the archbishop or lengthy theological articles that the
average person did not feel inclined to read. But a newspaper with shorter articles
that could attract their attention was appealing to them.
O: Yes, with more current events and articles.
D: Yes. So it quickly grew to about 120,000 circulation.
O: And it is still a popular paper. Even today, I know we are getting it. I understand
that by 1980, toward the end of your three-year term with Syndesmos, you ended up
with a whole World Orthodox Youth Festival in Finland.
D: Yes. During my term, I think we revitalized Syndesmos. For a number of years--
more than fifteen years--the headquarters of Syndesmos had been in Beirut,
Lebanon, and with all the difficulties existing in that country--the war and
disruptions--Syndesmos had not been able to be very active. General assemblies
were postponed from year to year. There had not been one for seven years. When
we finally convened one in 1977, I was elected--opposing a person from Lebanon.
O: I see.
D: But we immediately moved the headquarters to Helsinki, Finland. We visited
Lebanon, and we thanked the youth groups there for everything they had done.
They had done a lot over the years. I picked up all the material and moved to
O: Whatever made you choose Helsinki?
D: Well, the general secretary who was elected along with me was a young Finn, Alexsi
Haarkonen, who is now in the diplomatic corps in Finland. [He is] a very good
young man who was an excellent general secretary. It is the general secretary who
really runs the office and does the work. So that is why. And the Church of Finland
offered [to take us]. The Orthodox church in Finland is a state church along with
the Lutheran church in that nation. There are two state churches. They had
facilities to house the office, and the Church of Finland looked upon this as a way
that it could reach out to take part in Orthodoxy worldwide, and it gave them a
window out from their small country. So it was very convenient for everybody.
The new, young general secretary really became active in seeking funds, and we
formulated wonderful plans. We had a conference the summer of 1979 outside of
Paris, in France, on diakonia, which means "service to the Lord." Then for the final
year we decided we would have the general assembly and try for the first time to
gather not just delegates, the official representatives of the youth movements, who
would normally amount to maybe 150, but to try to really have a youth festival as
well for about four or five days before the general assembly.
O: So that many participants would come.
D: Yes. As a result we got about fifty young people from Greece, for instance, and
there were twenty from America who would not have gone otherwise. And there
was a whole five-day program for all these young people, followed, then, by three
days of the general assembly to do the business of the organization.
O: On your return to America you became the secretary of the Orthodox Theological
D: Well, during the years I had been a member. I was a member of the Orthodox
Theological Society, and I still am. When I was in New York I was able to take a
more active part, because their meetings are usually at St. Vladimir [Orthodox
Theological Seminary] in New York or at Holy Cross in [Brookline, near] Boston.
So I was able to be active in the organization and was elected as secretary for one
O: Is this St. Vladimir's Monastery?
D: No. St. Vladimir's Seminary.
O: Oh, the seminary.
D: In Scarsdale, New York, under the Orthodox Church of America. St. Vladimir's and
Holy Cross are the two major Orthodox seminaries in this country.
O: Are they the only ones?
D: No, there are several other smaller ones.
O: But those are the two ...
D: The two major ones, yes.
0: Is the Orthodox Theological Society [only a] nationwide U.S. group, or does it have
D: It has international connections, but it is the American Society of Orthodox
Theologians. It is a very professional organization. They meet twice a year with
different themes, and scholarly papers [are] prepared that are then published in
O: Does the group have a publication of its own?
D: Not of its own. The papers are then published in the Theological Review of Holy
Cross or in St. Vladimir's [Theological] Quarterly.
O: I see.
D: And every few years it does host an international Orthodox theological congress,
when they invite in leading theologians from other parts of the world to address a
certain theme. They have had several of those about every three to five years.
O: Well, then, in keeping with your always being involved in double work, I understand
that you were also representing the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese on the governing
board of the NCC, the National Council of Churches.
D: Yes, early.
O: During the same years.
D: Early in my career at the archdiocese I was appointed to represent it at the Youth
Department of the National Council of Churches, and then over the years I became
involved in various departments. As my position changed, I became a member of
the General Board, as they called it at that time. For one term I was even on the
executive committee of the National Council of Churches.
O: Now, the National Council of Churches is also a U.S. body?
D: Yes. It is composed, I think, of about thirty-three different churches and
O: Not necessarily Orthodox, but also Protestant and Catholic?
D: No, not Catholics as members. Catholics take part in their various departments and
commissions, but the Catholic Church has chosen not to join as a member. It is all
Protestant, Episcopal, and Orthodox.
O: So then we come to the end of the 1970s and the end of your stay in New York. I
understand the 1980s might be termed the Florida years. How did the change come
about from New York to sunny Florida?
D: Well, for fifteen years New York was very enchanting, but then it finally got to me.
The pollution, the noise, the graffiti, the heavy drug scene was getting worse and
worse. I really began to feel a little oppressed by the big city and also the routine
of my work, producing a newspaper every two weeks. When you picture our
newspaper, you cannot picture a huge staff. I was the English staff, and there was
a person for the Greek staff. So that means I did the entire English section every
O: The pressure was on.
D: And [it was up to me to] write an editorial, produce all the different things, and even
layout. So the routine began to get to me.
I by publishing different articles about the [St. Photios] shrine, I had followed its
development. It took almost seventeen years to organize this whole project here, to
get it approved by a clergy-laity congress of the Greek Orthodox Church, then to
purchase the site in St. Augustine, the Avero House on St. George Street. Then [it
took] fifteen years to get plans approved by the Historic St. Augustine Preservation
Board here. So I had been following it all these years, the development, and in 1979
the building was complete. It was finished; it was restored. But it was sitting here
empty, because they were looking for someone to do it, to come down and head it,
to open it, to run it. I had told the archbishop that I thought I would like to do that,
if he had in mind that the shrine was going to be more than just a little place that
tourists visited, if it could become the center of our mission work, since he had given
it the name of St. Photios, who was very instrumental in the mission work that
converted all the Slavic nations.
O: He sent Saints Cyril and Methodios north.
O: I understand that they first converted the Moravians.
D: Yes. That is where they went, to Moravia. They really did not convert all the lands,
but they laid the foundations that led to the conversion. It took a hundred years for
all the Slavic lands really to be converted to Christianity. But they laid the basic
foundations. They created the Slavonic alphabet. They translated most of the
services into Slavonic so that the people could understand them in their own
language. So they really laid the foundation that ended up in the conversion of the
O: So all of eastern Europe, I guess, starting with the Bulgarians, Serbians, Russians,
Romanians, have received Christianity through the services of St. Photios, you might
D: Yes. He initiated them. The archbishop insisted that that is why he had given the
shrine the name of St. Photios, because that was his intention. He did not want just
a dead museum of artifacts, but it should be a living place continuing the work of
St. Photios today. So we agreed, and I came down. I was still a layman, of course.
I was not ordained yet. I had remained a layman all those years.
O: Ah, yes. So you had to become a deacon first, and then a priest.
D: No, I did not have to. I was down here working for two years as a layman before
the shrine moved me to be ordained. It was there, and it was not being used fully.
The chapel, beautiful St. Photios Chapel, was there, and there was no one to serve
in it. So finally I requested ordination as well, and became ordained, and now I can
offer priestly services at the shrine as well.
O: Almost like having a parish on the side.
O: Dr. Panagopoulos wrote a book about the Greeks who were gathered by Dr.
Turnbull in the late eighteenth century, the 1760s, and brought to New Smyrna and
then fled to St. Augustine in 1777. In the introduction, two or three pages explained
that the shrine commemorates their meeting at the Avero House and praying
together and that that was also one of the reasons why the Avero House was chosen
for this project.
D: Oh, certainly, that is why the shrine is here. There would be no other reason to be
in St. Augustine. This is where the first colony of Greeks really finally settled and
died, and that house was the house given to them by the British to use to gather
together with the Minorcans and the Italians and the Corsicans who all came
together on the same boats.
O: Yes. [There were] three ships altogether.
D: So it is dedicated to their memory as well as to all the [later] immigrants who came
and established our faith and heritage here.
O: Yes. I understand that during the archaeological part of the work, a little cross was
found on the site.
D: Yes. There were many artifacts, but most of them were just pieces of pottery. The
only significant one was what appears to be a cross. I do not think it can be
anything else. [It is] an odd-shaped cross, although recently in the National
Geographic there was a cross very, very similar, also Hispanic, [that was] traced to
about the same period. So maybe it was a popular cross at that time, this odd shape.
That cross has been adopted as the symbol of the shrine, even though we know it
was not a Greek Orthodox cross. Still, it was found three feet down in the earth on
this site, so we use it as a symbol of their faith.
O: Yes. And then the Mission Center is the other dual part of your work, not only
administering St. Photios Shrine, but also administering the missions that are taking
place. That is an exciting job in itself.
D: Oh, it is very exciting. It took several years, of course, before we were ready to
embark on this. I came down in the spring of 1981, and it took six months to finish
the Shrine. It was absolutely empty inside. Just spiders and cobwebs. We had to
prepare all the exhibits, install many things that had not been prepared for
beforehand, build furniture, and have the iconography finished, the frescoes in the
chapel. We opened in February of 1982. The archbishop was here, as were all the
bishops of our church. I am sure St. Augustine has never seen that many Greeks at
one time and may never see that many again.
O: I know that all of St. George Street was full.
O: I was in Florida about a year at that time, and I attended the opening.
D: Oh, did you?
O: I thought it was just a most exciting thing.
D: Yes, it was. We have been open every day since then, except Christmas Day and
Easter Day. [Those are] the only two days that the shrine closes. We get
approximately 100,000 visitors a year, and I think that most of them have agreed that
the shrine is well done. They seem to appreciate the work put into it and that our
purpose there is to share our story and not to convert them or proselytize. If they
have any interest in Orthodoxy, it is up to them to delve further. We just present
our story and how we fit into the pluralistic scene in America, that we become part
of the mosaic, as we say.
After the shrine had been open for several years, we decided that we could begin
to think about getting involved in the mission field. The foundation that runs the
shrine, the St. Photios Foundation, requested that we be given responsibility for
home missions. This was taken to the Clergy Laity Congress in 1984.
O: This is an annual congress.
D: It is every two years.
O: Oh, every two years.
D: Biennial. It is the congress that determines the program of the church for the next
two years. That congress decided that the entire mission program should be assigned
to the St. Photios Foundation and that I should become the director of that program.
So we began that fall of 1984, actually, and in 1985 [we] officially assumed
responsibility as the Mission Center of the archdiocese. At first we were working
out of the hall of the little Holy Trinity [Greek Orthodox] Church here [in St.
Augustine]. Then we rented a space. [There were two of us:] myself and Jack Hill,
my assistant, a graduate of St. Vladimir Seminary. Then we hired a secretary, and
before you knew it, our board approved purchasing a building, where we are now
sitting. It is the Father Alexander Veronis Orthodox Mission Center.
O: Ninety-two Cedar Street.
O: That is the part that we see here in St. Augustine, in Florida. The part that we do
not see is places like Africa and Asia and the Caribbean and Alaska and various
other places that you have managed to organize groups to go to and take the Word.
D: Yes. I think a lot of people in St. Augustine do not know that this house is doing
work around the world. In Africa and Asia and almost every part of the world, we
are involved in something someplace. Very quickly we started becoming involved
in Africa, primarily. That is the major focus, because the Orthodox churches were
beginning to sprout up there, and they needed help. They were very new. They
were comprised of indigenous people. They are not Greeks or Russians. It is
Kenyans in Kenya and Ghanaians in Ghana who somehow discovered Orthodoxy on
O: But the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is actually quite old, is it not?
D: Oh, yes. [It dates] from the first century. Ethiopia is mentioned in the Book of Acts
even. They trace their church back to the beginning, to the Apostle Mark. I think
they believe he went into that part of the world to preach the Gospel.
O: Do you think that might be the connection then, drifting south?
D: Oh, no. When they are examined historically, they can trace their origin back to a
group in America that called itself the African Orthodox Church.
O: I see.
D: They had nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but they called themselves that. In the early
1900s they had gotten very ... well, they were growing in America. They were
producing a fine magazine, and they decided that they needed to go out and do
mission work. This was a black Church, so naturally they went to Africa.
O: Would this be around the turn of the century?
D: No, in the 1920s and 1930s.
O: I see.
D: So these people in Africa and different places discovered that there was an Orthodox
church, although it was not connected with historical Orthodoxy at all. But then they
began to hear that there was a true Orthodox Church someplace, and they began to
investigate, to read history books, and to try to establish contact with that historical
Orthodox church, especially when they discovered that the word "orthodox" means
"true." They decided that this must be the true Christian church and not all the
different Protestant churches and Catholic churches that had tried to colonize their
land. Orthodoxy had never done that, so that made it doubly attractive to them.
Eventually they established contact with the patriarchate in Alexandria, Egypt, one
of the ancient five patriarchates, which has responsibility for all of Africa. After the
patriarchate examined and met those people, they were received into Orthodoxy,
their priests were ordained properly, and they were taught what the true Orthodox
O: And [were] trained, I suppose, in the conduct of the services.
D: Yes. And some missionaries were sent after the fact to help them, from Greece and
elsewhere. In a way, that is what we are continuing to do, to help them after the
fact. [We are helping them] get established, helping them build churches and clinics
and schools, and providing vestments and the different materials that they need, the
O: I read an interesting article that you had in the Mission--I think that is the name of
the magazine that you also edit, a publication of the mission center here. You
visited four of the African countries in 1987 or 1989, I think it was. You were in
Uganda, Tanzania, and a couple of others.
D: Yes. Nineteen eighty-nine was the last trip.
O: A couple of years ago.
O: In addition to you and other priests who were visiting, I understand that also a good
number of lay people are involved in going on mission trips of this sort to simply
build churches, to staff clinics, and so on. Are you organizing those as well?
O: Year after year after year?
D: Well, our mission board determined in 1987 or 1986, I think it was, that you did not
need to be a theologian to do mission work. In fact, probably some of the better
mission work is done by non-theologians. Since mission work involves all of these
things--building and healing and feeding--you do not need to be a graduate of a
theological school to do those things. At the same time, our young people were
pressing to do something. They wanted to go, and not just to conduct bake sales to
raise money for missions. They felt that they could really do things themselves.
[They felt] that they had been trained through our Sunday school programs and
religious education materials to know enough about Orthodoxy to go and do things
So in 1987 we organized our first team, led by Father Paul Costopoulos and twenty-
five young people. They went to Kenya and built a church, and we have been
sending at least one team every year since then. We have built a school, a clinic,
and a church in Ghana, and this year we will be building more facilities in Ghana
to expand the headquarters of their church. Now the church we built has become
their headquarters, in the capital city of Accra. We will be going to Cameroon for
the first time. We can go only where we are invited. We cannot just go into some
country and build a church. It has to be the Orthodox Church in that country
inviting us in to help them. And we go and do what they feel is the priority for their
nation and not what we feel they need.
O: Yes, of course. Was it on your trip that you came across the orphanage and, in due
course, adopted [your son] David?
D: Well, in 1985, when I visited Ethiopia, [the mission trip] really was related to the
famine that was so dreadful at that time, and the archbishop asked me to deliver
funds to the church in Ethiopia that we had collected here in America to alleviate
some of the needs of the people there. During that visit I discovered that there was
a well-organized Ethiopian Orthodox Church with 18 million members--faithful--and
thousands of priests.
O: Harking back to St. Mark.
D: Yes. [That church was] doing its best to help the people in identifying with the poor.
There was also there a Greek Orthodox Church, very small, that was serving
primarily the Greeks who had been merchants there. Although their numbers had
dwindled greatly in recent years, they still maintain a number of institutions. One
of these is an orphanage, where there were about 200 young people, and there still
are. Many of these young people are the children of those Greeks there, or children
of mixed marriages between Greeks and Ethiopians. While I was there, the church
leaders asked that I try to find people in America who might want to adopt one of
these children so that they could have a brighter future than they might have in
Ethiopia, where they would end up fighting in the war.
O: Find a regular home.
D: Yes. When I came back, I thought about it a lot. I had thought many times about
adopting a child. Since I am not married I knew it would be difficult, and I did not
even know if it was allowed. But I examined the forms of the immigration service
and saw that single parents could adopt children, and I finally decided, after much
thought and discussing it with other people, that I would try it first and then
recommend it to other people. I went through all of the same preparation required
from anyone to adopt a child--home studies and such. It took about nine months of
paperwork and waiting. Mainly waiting. And finally David arrived. I asked for a
young boy between thirteen and fourteen.
O: You were not afraid to have one that well advanced in age?
D: Well, if the child were any younger, I would have to hire somebody to take care of
him for the few hours that he might be alone when I was not home. I knew that he
would be in school most of the time, and by the time I got home he would be alone
one hour maybe a day, or two hours at the most. So I thought at that age a child
would be able to take care of himself for an hour or two. They selected the person.
I had only seen a picture of David before he arrived at the Atlanta airport.
O: Well, you have evidently done very well as a father. I personally know, and so does
the rest of the parish in Jacksonville. Whenever you visit and David is with you [we
can see that] he is just really flowering, blossoming.
D: Well, I think he had a lot going for him. He had a very good upbringing. His
mother is a very good woman. His father died when he was very young. And
evidently at that orphanage and school they did a good job of training youngsters.
He is very respectful and kind and has continued to be that way, and he has adapted
to this country and its ways.
O: Yes. Nineteen eighty-five was also an important year for you. You were elevated
to the rank of archimandrite. In our church it is quite an honor to be an
D: Well, in 1983 I had gotten ordained, finally. That is when the archbishop came down
and celebrated the ordination service. That was quite an event in itself, with about
700 people and two choirs and twelve priests and two bishops. Were you there?
D: [This was held] at the auditorium of the School for the Deaf and the Blind [in St.
Augustine] on a Sunday, June 26, which is the exact date that the Greeks landed in
O: Oh, is that right?
D: Yes, and it was Pentecost Sunday.
O: It was Pentecost Sunday. I recall that.
D: To get to the School for the Deaf and the Blind, you either had to go down Makaris
Street or Genoply Street, two of the streets named in honor of Greek people who
came in that first group.
O: And there is also Hypolita Street, I think.
D: Well, there are several other Greek names, but I thought it was interesting that to
get to the place of the ordination you had to go down a street with a Greek name.
Then in 1985 we were ready to consecrate the shrine. In Orthodoxy you do not
consecrate a house of worship until it has been paid for, till it is owned outright by
the community. We completed paying the about $200,000 mortgage that had existed
with the help of the AHEPA [American Hellenic Educational Progressive
Association], one of our fraternal organizations. The consecration was, again, a great
and glorious event in the history of the shrine and of St. Augustine. The archbishop
came down, and at that time he decided to elevate me to archimandrite.
O: For the foreseeable future, will you be continuing, to the best of your knowledge, the
work of the mission center and the shrine, or are there other things that you are
D: No, I like St. Augustine a lot. Of course, we are always obedient to our superiors
in the church and never know what they have in mind, but to the best of my
knowledge I will be here for several more years, I hope.
O: Well, I know that the parish I am with, and various others, are expecting to see you
elevated to the rank of bishop one of these years. I do not know whether you might
be looking forward to that or not, but it may be an obligation or responsibility that
a person of your talents and knowledge and education may just not be able to
D: Well, it is not something I am seeking.
0: But I guess you will not be able to refuse it if it comes about.
D: Well, I think a person can refuse an invitation to become a bishop. You have to be
elected by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. First,
our synod here in America would need to recommend that election to Istanbul, to
Constantinople. I know that I am on the list of eligible people, but there are other
archimandrites around who are also on the list, and some of them, I think, would
very much like to be bishops. For me, as I started to say, it entails a lot of
administrative responsibilities that I am not sure I would be comfortable with, and
a lot of traveling from parish to parish that I am not sure I would be comfortable
with. But I do not know. God knows. I am not sure. There is really just so much
to be done here in the mission field. I think we have hardly touched the tip of the
iceberg, as they say.
O: I see. So there are a lot more things that you can develop in the mission field.
D: Oh, yes. From 1985, our budget, for instance, which just shows the growth, has
grown from $100,000 to over $900,000 this year.
O: Close to a million dollars.
D: And that is money that we generate here ourselves for programs that people believe
in and want to assist. Right now we are helping support over 100 Orthodox priests
throughout Africa and Asia, indigenous priests who, without our help, would not
be receiving a salary at all. They would be living on handouts from the people. But
because we are able to help them, they are able to live a little more comfortably and
securely and are able to spend their time teaching and preaching rather than farming
and earning a living in some other way. This year we are sending five teams--we
have grown from one to five--including two to the Soviet Union to help rebuild
monasteries and churches that have been returned to the Orthodox Church after all
these years under Communist domination. [We are sending] one team to Ghana,
one to Cameroon, and a teaching team to Kenya to help reinvigorate the more than
fifty priests that exist now in Kenya, who have been trained and ordained there. The
bishop in that area has asked us to come and offer some courses for the summer to
help retrain and reinspire them.
O: So there is a lot of work to be done.
D: And there are countries where Orthodox churches exist that we are not even helping
now--Tanzania, Zaire, Zimbabwe. We received a request last week to send a priest
to Zimbabwe. We do not have a priest to send there. We will look, and we will
see what else we can do to help.
O: Somewhere along the line you have made the decision to remain celibate, rather
than marry, or am I wrong? Is this the only way you could become an
D: Yes. Only celibate priests are raised to the rank of archimandrite. It is similar to
the rank of monsignor in the Roman Catholic Church, and it really signifies that you
are a celibate priest and eligible for the episcopacy. As I said earlier, when I
graduated from the seminary, I really thought that I would end up getting married
and being a parish priest. But over the years that did not seem to happen. The
older I got the more certain I was that I did not want to marry. I know you got
married at an older age yourself.
D: So it was possible still to determine to get married, but eventually I felt that I was
at the stage that I did not want to marry. That is when I finally was ordained, in
1983. I was already forty-four years old.
O: I was going to say that it is wonderful that you were able to manage to have a
family--David, namely--and have a lot to look forward to with him, I think, in his
education and upbringing.
D: Yes. The major thing I can say about having a child is that it has been fun. It has
not been a drag. It has not been uncomfortable. It has been a lot of fun watching
him grow, use new words, make new friends, learn new things, and showing him
O: Does it lighten your life?
D: Oh, yes. It gives it more meaning. My work gives those hours meaning, but when
I go home, in the past I was sometimes lonely, and now I am not. It really gives new
meaning to my life, the rest of my life, and things to look forward to. I am looking
forward to his starting college in the fall, and I am looking forward to having
O: That would be wonderful. I would very much like to thank you for taking the time
from your busy schedule to let me have this interview. I really appreciate it. Thank
you, Father Dimitrios.
D: Well, thank you, Larry.