Journey to shared ministry began with: 'Dad, it's in my heart to become a priest'
As a kid, Efstathios Varvarelis would often go to work with his father, Michael -- a Greek Orthodox priest who visited the sick, blessed the homes of church members and celebrated the Divine Liturgy every Sunday.
The son especially liked his time in the icon-filled churches, where he would chant and watch his berobed father at the altar.
"It felt like home," he says.
Now 28 and a cleric himself, "Father Stathi" is the new No. 2 priest at Charlotte's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
The No. 1 priest?
His 56-year-old father, the Rev. Michael Varvarelis -- also known as "Father Michael."
Father Michael is the church's dean; Father Stathi, his associate.
"He's my boss," says the son.
And yes, they call each other Father -- on and off the job.
"He's a priest," says the father.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, married men can be ordained priests. And sons sometimes follow their fathers into the ministry. But it's rare for a father and son to team up to run a Greek Orthodox church -- as the Fathers Varvarelis are doing at the East Boulevard cathedral that hosts the popular Yiasou Greek Festival every September.
They were both assigned to the 84-year-old church by their superior, Alexios, the Greek Orthodox archbishop, or "metropolitan," in Atlanta. The Greek-born father came in July 2005; his U.S.-born son, last November.
A church seeking stability
Why Holy Trinity? The church's lay leaders, who had the option of vetoing Father Stathi, say they decided the church needed the kind of long-term stability father-and-son priests can provide.
For 30 years (1966-96), this cathedral founded by Greek immigrants was shepherded by the Rev. Phaeton Constantinides, a beloved leader -- his flock called him "Father C" -- who baptized, married and buried generations.
But since his death, the church has seen stormy times, with the coming and going of priests -- and parishioners. In 1998, 60 families left to start St. Nektarios, near the fast-growing Arboretum area in south Charlotte.
Then, in 2002, church factions clashed: Which of two rival parish councils would rule? Lawyers were hired, police called, doors padlocked, and some Sunday services canceled.
Last year, some church members were apprehensive -- some still are -- at the idea of father-and-son priests, says John Fragakis, parish council president.
But he and other leaders saw the potential benefits.
"A father and son work good as a team and they don't have the friction a lot of people do," says Fragakis, a Concord restaurant owner who emigrated from Greece 43 years ago. "And (Father Stathi) is a young priest who, one day, can be the leading priest in the community...We wanted stability. And so far, it's been excellent."
Albert Lyles, a retired college professor and a member since 1981, was skeptical at first.
But, he says, "it seems to be working out very well."
2 priests, 2 perspectives
Working side-by-side with your parent isn't everybody's idea of paradise. Ditto, working with your grown child.
But the Fathers Varvarelis -- both soft-spoken -- say they're grateful.
"For me, it is a gift of God," says Father Michael. "I will never forget this (generosity), from the Lord and from this community."
His son, who's been a priest for two years, calls the chance to learn from his experienced father "a blessing. I wanted to have this type of feedback from someone that I could trust, that I knew."
So the father helps the son -- with his Greek and with the do's and don'ts of the Sunday service, such as where exactly to place the sacred bread.
But the son also helps the father -- with his English and Scripture. Unlike his father, Father Stathi is working on a Ph.D., on St. James' epistle.
The two priests alternate Sunday morning services and daily pastoral responsibilities. But they have their specialties. Father Stathi is in charge of youth activities and has started a Byzantine music academy. Father Michael is the preferred priest among Greek-speaking parishioners -- 50 percent of the church's 1,200-plus families.
"You get two perspectives," says longtime member Steve Emmanuel, former owner of the Rheinland Haus. "There's the (Greek) father, who is very traditional. And there's the (more modern) son, who you can relate to."
Retiree Nick Kallelis, a member for 22 years, gives both priests high praise: "My wife and father died recently. And they were there for me."Differences -- and similarities
A generation separates the two priests, but their life stories are similar.They are both the oldest children in their families. And both told teachers in the third grade they would be priests.
Each left their home country to study -- Father Michael went to Boston; Father Stathi, to Thessaloniki, Greece.
While away, both struggled to master a new language. And both married women from elsewhere -- Father Michael's wife, Maria, was raised in Dallas; Father Stathi's wife, Paraskevi, is the daughter of a priest in Athens.
Both priests even have the same timing, says wife and mother Maria Varvarelis: "Sometimes, when they do services together, they kneel at the same time -- as a mom, I notice things."
Father Michael and Father Stathi both favor a look -- including long hair, beards and flowing black robes -- that is the norm for priests in Greece, but not necessarily in U.S. parishes.
And both recall the day they told their fathers they'd be priests.
Father Michael was a fifth-grader in the Greek town of Almiros when he told his father, a builder and farmer:
"He looked at me and said, `May the Lord make you a priest. And may the Lord allow me to receive Holy Communion from you before I leave this world.' "
Decades later, in 1988, Father Michael went to Greece to give the sacred bread to his father just before he died.
Father Stathi told his father by phone, from Greece, on Christmas Day 1995.
"Dad," he said, "it's in my heart to become a priest."
Recalls Father Michael with a smile: "It was music to my ears." Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox CathedralThe Greek Orthodox Church
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ It's one of 15 self-governing or "autocephalous" Christian Orthodox churches that developed from the Church of the Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). Orthodox Christians worldwide total 300 million.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ The Church of the Byzantine Empire broke with the Church of Rome (now the Catholic Church) in 1054. The schism grew out of many disputes. The East spoke Greek; the West, Latin. Greeks used leavened bread; the Latins, unleavened. Orthodox Christians rejected the Catholic claim of primacy of the pope (the bishop of Rome) over all bishops, East and West.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Like other Orthodox Christians -- such as those in Russia and Serbia -- members of the Greek Orthodox Church believe seven ecumenical councils between the years 325 and 787 offer an infallible guide to Christian doctrine.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ The church prides itself on its unchanging liturgy, ceremony and beliefs. In Greek, "Orthos" means correct; "doxa," the belief.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ The heart of Orthodox worship is the Liturgy, which is always sung a cappella -- in Greek or English in Greek Orthodox churches in the United States. Before leaving church, believers often venerate -- bow or kiss -- icons. These flat portraits of Jesus, the "Theotokos" (Mother of God) and saints are considered visual windows into their sacred subjects.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ The biggest group of Orthodox Christians in the United States is Greek Orthodox. The first Greek Orthodox church in the United States was built in 1864 in New Orleans. In 1922, Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios IV proclaimed the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. Current leader of the New York-based archdiocese: Archbishop Demetrios. Charlotte is home to between 8,000 and 10,000 Greek Orthodox Christians. -- Tim Funk
-- Source: The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion.