Greek Orthodox priest retires

Author: Stephanie Innes
Date Published: 06/21/2004

Ministry touched cultural and spiritual

Father’s Day was bittersweet for members of Tucson’s only Greek Orthodox Church, whose spiritual father figure led his final service before retirement.

”You are part of my life. I love you very much and I will continue to love you,” the Rev. Anthony K. Moschonas told about 200 parishioners at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, 1145 E. Fort Lowell Road, on Sunday morning during the last service before his official retirement after 30 years leading the local church.

Though he is best known in Tucson as founder of the annual Greek Festival and for his work helping the working poor and homeless with the Salvation Army, his parishioners said they will miss ”Father Anthony” most for his less-public side – as a spiritual leader to the 500 families who are part of the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church community.

Most St. Demetrios members are Greek Orthodox, but the church has also attracted members from other Orthodox Christian traditions, including Syrian and Russian.

”I will feel an emptiness,” said Basil Raetz, a 31-year-old church member and computer Web designer who moved to Tucson from Arkansas five years ago. ”Father Anthony was the first person to welcome me to Tucson, when I knew no one. This parish is my family.”

And family is a central focus for Moschonas, 65, who still has a thick Greek accent from his days growing up in a small village on the island of Kefalonia.

After a retirement trip to Greece this summer, Moschonas is looking forward to spending more time with his own family, particularly playing doting Pappou to his only grandchild, 6-month-old Gabriella Eliopoulos, whom he baptized Saturday.

The reason he is a fan of the 2002 comedy film ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is that the movie accurately portrayed the Greek community’s emphasis on hospitality, strong family unit and obedience of children to their parents, he said in an interview last week.

”It was a beautiful movie, so nicely presented, and it showed such strong faith and love. . . . The father, when he gives his daughter and her husband a gift, it is a house and it is next door to his own – he has such love and wants her always under her father’s eyes.”

Moschonas is also a strong believer in marriage and offers single people simple advice: ”Get married – I will come to your wedding.”

He lovingly concedes that his eldest daughter has chosen to be married to her job. ”She is also married to her church,” he said proudly.

Moschonas, whose wife, Maria, is his childhood sweetheart from Kefalonia, moved to Tucson in 1974 from Sioux City, Iowa, where he served as that community’s Greek Orthodox priest for nearly five years.

Deeply faithful, Moschonas made headlines on Holy Thursday in 1989 when he reported that one of his copies of the Holy Gospels had miraculously shed real blood. Though Moschonas declined an offer to have the book scientifically tested, several of his parishioners confirmed his report. The book is still on display in the St. Demetrios sanctuary, where it continues to attract onlookers who pray to it. Moschonas says the ”bleeding Gospel” has been responsible for several miracles.

”Really, I do believe in the power of God,” said Moschonas, who also describes seeing a miraculous cross in a 1993 Christmas tree cutting and hearing bells ringing on a patch of desert near Florence, which in 1995 became St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery.

Adherents of the Greek Orthodox faith make up less than 1 percent of the Tucson area’s population, but Moschonas has managed to ensure their visibility through the St. Demetrios community festivals when parishioners share their always popular Greek food, dancing and music. The festival, now held in September, began on Mother’s Day in 1975 with about 1,500 attendees, he said. In 1998 the festival attracted a record 25,000, and crowds have since leveled out to about 15,000.

”Father Anthony is a very loving and forgiving man,” said Angela Zoe Zerdavis, a church member who organized a send-off dinner for Moschonas that attracted 400 parishioners and supporters June 13.

Like a good family member, Moschonas spoke his mind to worshippers Sunday as he gave them parting words. He has made mistakes, he said, adding that he is also aware that parishioners talked about his errors behind his back.

”I forgive you, but please don’t continue to do it,” Moschonas said, imploring worshippers to be patient when a new priest is hired.

”He will not be perfect. Like you, you are not perfect people,” he said.

A priest shortage could mean several months before a permanent replacement for Moschonas is hired, Zerdavis said.

”The church will survive, no doubt about it, but we will miss him,” said James Anthros, 93, a retired chef and member of the St. Demetrios parish council.

In addition to tending to St. Demetrios’ spiritual life, Moschonas set up the Hellenic Cultural Foundation to promote Greek education. He has also been instrumental in helping to establish two Greek monasteries in Arizona – the one in Florence and another in Cochise County, and has ministered to members of the military at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson and at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, where he will continue to minister twice per month.

Moschonas says the Greek Orthodox community in Tucson is growing and anticipates a Northwest Side Greek Orthodox church will be needed in the future. But that will be a job for the new St. Demetrios priest. ”I am very proud of my people. They should not be sad that I am leaving,” he said. ”They have to depend on God, not on me. It’s all about God.”

The church

St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Tucson is part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America – a communion of self-governing churches united by a common faith and spirituality. A 2000 U.S. religious census from the Nashville-based Glenmary Research Center estimates there are nearly 500,000 adherents of the Greek Orthodox faith nationwide. Greek Orthodox doctrine, sacramental life and worship follow Orthodox Christianity. The internal life of each independent church is administered by the bishop of that region. St. Demetrios is part of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of San Francisco, headed by Bishop Anthony Georgiannakis.

Contact Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or at sinnes@azstarnet.com.