Tarpon Springs celebrates 105th Epiphany

01/06/11 Andrea Lypka
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Once a year the fishing village of Tarpon Springs in Pinellas County becomes an important religious and cultural center. Tarpon Springs hosts what some consider the largest Greek Orthodox celebration outside of Greece, organizers say. This year, hundreds of Greeks and spectators celebrated the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus with folk dances, music, prayer, and a procession to Spring Bayou ending with a plunge to retrieve a cross on January 6.

The Epiphany has been more than a celebration of the Greek Orthodox faith for the past 105 years. It is a commemoration of cultural heritage for 16-year-old Nicholas Tabus from Tarpon Springs High School.

“Today Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River representing the Trinity. It has been going on for 105 years; this will be the 105th year. There is a plethora of meaning involved in the entire Tarpon Springs Epiphany celebration,” Tabus said.

Greek immigrants in Tarpon Springs built a large industry harvesting sponges by boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Tabus participated in the Blessing of the Fleet at the Sponge Docks on January 5th when father Vasileios Tsourlis of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church blessed the fishermen, the boats and the local businesses. Tabus is also one of the 78 young men who dove for a white cross in the murky water the next day.

“This is my first year diving and since I was a little kid, I have been watching the Epiphany divers and this is what I have always wanted to do,” he said.

Another diver, Henry Coburn, says the Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs is one of the largest Greek Orthodox celebrations in the world.

“We are one of the larger groups that celebrate this much on a larger scale. It is the largest epiphany from anywhere besides Greece,” he said.

For Coburn’s mother, Mary Klimis Coburn, the event is the American Dream come true. Her grandfather was one of the early spongers who immigrated with his brothers from Greece in 1910. Since then sponge diving became a family tradition.

“My father, Harry Klimis, who is thank God alive with us, he used to sponge with my grandfather here in Tarpon in the waters of the river. He now has a sponge business here on the docks. He now stays with his sponges. He was a pharmacist but he retired and came back and did that. So my family is really a pioneer family because they were one of the first ones to come over when the sponge industry was born here in Tarpon,” she said.

Mary Klimis Coburn says that the fishing village of Tarpon Springs is her “little Greece” because her whole family is involved in the local community. Her husband converted to Greek Orthodoxy, her children learned the Greek language, her daughter, Emilia was last year’s dove bearer and this year her son, Henry dove for the cross.

“They have an opportunity in this town because of the concentration of Greek people to maintain a lot of their culture and it is almost like the community is fostering it because they enjoy their heritage and they continue to perpetuate it over the years. It has become something the town is known for and people come to see. So it’s still alive here,” she said.

This year, choir member Stavroula Zoi Karavokiros released a white dove which symbolizes the Holy Spirit. This day is a bitter sweet day for her because she misses her father who works in Greece where he runs a rock quarry business. But she also celebrates her new life after having two heart transplants.

“I feel blessed because I've been through a lot. It's an honor for me. I hope to be a successful Christian, Greek Orthodox Christian and I just, I hope for everybody too, are blessed like I am today."

Stavroula credits her current strength and well being to Father Vasileios Tsourlis and the community in Tarpon Springs.

"Happy New Year to all of you with health and love for everybody. And unity to all the nations."

See more of Andrea's photos from Epiphany 2011

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