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The tale of a priest who fell in love

Harry Mark Petrakis (beard) about 17 plays King CreSophocles' 'Antigone' parish school play circ1940.

Harry Mark Petrakis (in beard), at about 17, plays King Creon in Sophocles' "Antigone" in a parish school play circa 1940.

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:42AM



Father Daniel joined my father’s parish as a young deacon in the early 1930s and shortly afterward was ordained a priest. I saw him for the first time on the day of his arrival, pacing the corridor between the church and our parochial school.

The following morning, my father brought the young deacon into our classroom and told us Father Daniel would be joining our parish as his assistant and also become principal of our parish school.

Father Daniel was a small man of slight build, with thick coal-black hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and intense black eyes. He was dressed in a black suit, a dark shirt and a white clerical collar encircling his neck like a noose.

He had lost his parents in the 1921 Asia Minor disaster and been raised in an orphanage in Istanbul, Turkey, the great city of the Byzantine Empire forever known by the Greeks as Constantinople. From the orphanage, he had gone directly into the Theological Seminary. His first assignment was my father’s parish in Chicago.

In the beginning, Father Daniel spent much of his day at his desk in the principal’s office. Then he began prowling the corridors, his small but intimidating figure peering into the classrooms. Perhaps, in response to our general rowdiness, he also started carrying a circular rod about two feet in length, our school’s chosen instrument of punishment.

Since I was among the rowdiest of the boys, I suffered my share of the rod. Each time he struck me, Father Daniel shook his head sadly, muttering about the shame of a priest’s son being part of the unruly mob.

Father Daniel was also an impassioned teacher in our classes on Greek history.

“Hear me now,” he would say. “In that ancient world full of demons and an obsession with death, the Hellenes introduced a great cultural vitality and a joy in life.”

For the first time, he helped me understand the rich heritage we had inherited from that small ancestral land.

He joined our family and visiting priests and rabbis for lunch in our apartment following church on Sunday, when my mother would feed us steaming, savory pilaf. In the animated discussions on politics and religion that took place, Father Daniel argued with fervor and eloquence, one of the brightest and most articulate guests at the table.

I hadn’t shown any interest in acting but when I reached the seventh grade, Father Daniel urged my participation in the school plays he produced and directed. These were the Greek classics, by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides that we performed in Greek. Exhibiting a confidence in me I did not have in myself, Father Daniel cast me as Orestes in one of the tragedies, and then later had me play the haunted kings, Creon and Oedipus. His encouragement sustained me in the hours I spent memorizing the often-difficult dialogue. As we rehearsed, he’d stand in the rear of the darkened auditorium and his voice would thunder across the stage.

“Fo-nee! Fo-nee!” he’d cry, the Greek word for, “Voice! Voice!”

Time and time again he interrupted my performance with his urgent cry of “Voice! Voice!” Desperate to appease him, I’d dig into my chest box for an added surge of power. The rehearsals bore fruit and our plays were well-received by crowds of parents and friends.

I had finished parochial school and was attending high school when Father Daniel announced to the congregation on the Holy Easter Night of the Anastasis that he had fallen in love and become engaged to Christina Bousis, a young woman of our parish. Despite the centuries-old restrictions of the Orthodox Church prohibiting ordained priests marrying, he was confident that he would fly to Istanbul and would be granted special dispensation from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.

Until that announcement, Christina, a blonde sweet-faced girl with a soft voice, had been one among a number of girls who sang in the choir. Afterward she became the focus of gossip, the parish divided by those who sympathized with their betrothal and those who thought it scandalous and demanded Father Daniel be dismissed.

As my father sadly predicted, Father Daniel had his request denied by the patriarch. When the young priest returned from Istanbul, crestfallen and despondent, feeling honor-bound not to abandon the woman he had told the congregation he loved, he left the priesthood so they could be married. Afterward they moved to South Bend, Ind., to live near Christina’s family.

In the next few years, I saw Father Daniel when he came to Chicago to visit friends or have dinner with my parents. All of us continued to call him Father. When attending church, he donned a simple black cassock and joined the cantor in chanting the old Orthodox hymns. In the years that followed, he also attended the funeral of my father and then later, the funeral of my mother.

When I heard Father Daniel had opened a religious artifact shop in South Bend, I drove there to visit him. As I entered the small shop filled with icons and crucifixes, the smell of incense and candles recalled for me the scents of our church. When the small figure of Father Daniel emerged from the shadows in the rear of the shop, he embraced me with tears in his eyes.

“How is my Orestes?” he cried. “How is my Creon and my Oedipus?” We laughed as we recalled those days when I strutted across the stage in false beard and cardboard crown. As we recalled the plays we had shared, I felt he wasn’t nostalgic for the dramas as much for the days he then practiced his calling as a priest.

When Father Daniel and his wife Christina retired to Florida, except for an occasional phone call, I did not see him for several years. Upon hearing he was ill, I phoned him. When he heard my voice, once again he grew emotional.

Not long afterward, Christina phoned to tell me Father Daniel had died. His funeral would be the following day in Clearwater, Fla., and he had requested that I deliver his eulogy.

I flew to Florida early the next day. Members of the parish he had been attending in Florida were present, and at the funeral, the church was full. In my eulogy, I spoke of his devotion to the boys and girls of our school and of his gift in enhancing our speaking and acting skills. I spoke of my debt to him as my teacher.

A few years later, his wife died and was buried by his side in the Clearwater cemetery. I was not at her funeral, but I thought of their lives then like the closing of a book.

From this vantage point in my own life, I think Father Daniel being raised in an orphanage left him without any knowledge of the bewitchments of love. He must have been bewildered at the flaring of emotions Christina roused in him. In his innocence, perhaps he thought he could have both Christina and his priesthood. When that wasn’t possible, he honored his obligation to her and abandoned that mission of priestly service he had undertaken when he was first ordained. None of us could ever really know whether he felt his life thwarted or fulfilled.

I know he was a good priest who loved his calling and he touched my life in certain indelible ways.

When the tides of remembering are at their strongest, I can still hear his clarion cry from the back of the darkened auditorium, “Fonee! Fonee!”

“Voice! My boy, Voice!”

This is the latest in an occasional series of Chicago-based memoirs by the novelist and short-story writer Harry Mark Petrakis. More on his work can be found at http://harrymarkpetrakis.com



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