When a family welcomes new members, they often adopt new traditions to mark the chapter in their lives. The Cathedral community is no different. This Christmas Eve will include a new tradition brought into the community by Dean Christopher A. Pappas.
When Dean Chris processes into the church on Christmas Eve, he will do so robed in his family’s history. Raised in the Greek Orthodox church, Chris comes from a healthy line of priests. All four of his great-grandfathers were priests. Though neither of his grandfathers became priests, one of his aunts married an orthodox priest, Father George C. Pantelis.
When Dean Chris was ordained a priest, he received as a gift his uncle’s gold vestments. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, gold vestments are for feast days of the lord. Ever since, Chris has worn his uncle’s vestments for Christmas Eve and Easter vigil. This year will be no different.
Father George, as his parishioners called him, was “gregarious and outgoing. He played football so he was very athletic and I remember him horsing around with us when he came to visit. He had a great sense of humour and was the life of the family parties” Dean Chris recalls.
As he grew up, Chris became more aware of his uncle’s faith and ministry. “He had a living faith, an active faith, and was very compassionate,” Chris recalls. “He also conveyed to me a sense of the mystery of the church.”
Fr. Pantelis was born in New London, Connecticut into a family that was steeped in faith. By the age of 13 it seemed clear that he was cut out for ministry and leadership. He studied theology and was ordained a priest in 1964 in Brookline, Massachusetts. His ministry took him to Knoxville, Tennessee. There he helped draw together the local Greek community — whether they attended church or not.
During his ministry in Knoxville he not only managed to get a church built for local Greek Orthodox faithful, he lectured at the University of Tennessee, served on the Judiciary Advisory Committee to the Commission of Religion in Appalachia, and was very active in eucumenical and interfaith initiatives. In 1974 he was assigned to Annunciation Church in Buffalo, New York.
It was in Buffalo where Fr. Pantelis’ life and ministry were tragically cut short.
Fr. Pantelis was not only in ecumenical initiatives, diocesan ministries and Greek cultural activities. He was also a human rights activist, working to uphold the dignity of all human life.
“He and a Roman Catholic priest, and some other priests, worked together to help save women who were being trafficked into prostitution,” Dean Chris said. This work helping vulnerable women made him a known face — and a problem — for local organized crime rings.
On September 16, 1979 he was shot and killed in his office by two young, intoxicated men. At first it seemed like a burglary gone wrong. But the killers got away with a mere $10. Thirteen days later the Roman Catholic priest with whom Fr. Pantelis worked to help save trafficked women was murdered in his church rectory.
Police soon realized Fr. Pantelis killing death was more than a burglary gone wrong. Thirteen days later, the Roman Catholic priest he teamed with was also killed in his church.
Police caught and charged the two men responsible for both killings. Yet they were never able to determine if Fr. Pantelis' death was a direct hit, or a botched attempt at intimidation.
After Fr. Pantelis’ death his two sons each inherited one of his vestments. When Dean Chris was ordained to the priesthood in Episcopal church, his aunt gifted him his Uncle George’s gold vestments. “She told me he would have be proud of me,” Chris says.
The vestments Chris will wear on Christmas Eve are quite elaborate. The vestments include a gold sticharion — essentially an alb — with loose sleeves. The sticharion also features an embroidered cross on the chest. Over the alb Chris wears a epitrachelion, or priest’s stole, which is also gold. He wears a zone, or belt, over the stole to keep it close to the body, and fabric cuffs. The cuffs attach to the sleeves of the alb and keep the sleeves out of the priest’s way. The cuffs and belt feature embroidered crosses, meant to be a constant reminder that a priests celebrates by the “power and grace of God.” Finally, over all of these items, Chris wears a cape called a phelonion. The cape symbolizes the tunic with which Pontius Pilate dressed Jesus. It reminds the priest that ministry in Christ’s name is not always going to be easy.
“It’s a special feeling to wear his [Fr. Pantelis’] vestments. I feel a connection to him and to the type of faith he lived. He saw the church as having a role to play in the larger community and I believe that as well,” says Dean Chris. “It also highlights for me that despite everything, Christmas is still happening. Just as it happened 2000 years ago, it goes on. It is a reminder of the continuity and the inevitability of that event.”