Case of the Weeping Icon mystifies, divides Utah parish

Published November 12, 2012 6:31 pm

Holladay • Are the oil drops on a Jesus painting a miracle or an accident? Question puts the head priest at center of dispute.
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It started out as a classic debate among fellow believers: Was a Jesus painting at Holladay's Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church mysteriously crying or was there a more natural explanation for the moisture around the Savior's eyes?

Now the Case of the Weeping Icon has exploded into accusations of deception, mutual recriminations, denunciations of disbelief, letters to higher ecclesiastical authorities in Denver and a call to remove the parish's head priest, Father Michael Kouremetis.

Kouremetis, through his secretary, declined to speak to The Salt Lake Tribune about the dispute and suggested a call to his superior, Metropolitan Isaiah, in the Denver archdiocese to which the Salt Lake Valley parish belongs. Father Luke Uhl, the metropolitan's spokesman, also declined to discuss it.

The story, however, unfolds in letters from Isaiah, Kouremetis and the parish's 2012 council president, Dimitrios Tsagaris, that went to every member in the valley's Greek Orthodox parish. It is also repeated in frenzied emails throughout the community.

It all began a couple of years ago when someone noticed oil drops on the icon of Christ the Archpriest. So how did the oil get there? A Prophet Elias worker responsible for filling oil lamps above the church's sacred paintingslater signed a statement saying that he "did not spill any oil on that miraculous icon. ... This is truly a miracle from God."

Since then, several parishioners have reported healings associated with the painting.

In his Oct. 14 sermon — the two-year anniversary of the weeping icon — Kouremetis said members who don'tbelieve in miracles are "antagonists of the church." A few days later, he forwarded to parishioners a letter from Isaiahreiterating the metropolitan's belief in the icon's miraculous nature.

"I have been informed in writing by respected and reputable people of the community that they have truly seen oil emitting from within the holy icon of our Lord," Isaiah wrote. "More importantly, several members have been healed of physical maladies after being anointed with the oil."

Such people did not share their stories publicly, he wrote, to follow the example of Jesus, who counseled followers not to reveal such healings to others.

The metropolitan is "totally convinced," he wrote, of the "factual phenomena" of the icon's curative powers.

Many other parishioners are not so sure.

"The icon in question doesn't have enough oil to put on a postage stamp. There are cotton balls at the bottom of this icon to catch any of the 'exuding' oil. Guess what? As of today they are bone dry," Bill Rekouniotis wrote to the metropolitan. "'Factual phenomena?' What in God's name are you talking about? Oil was spilled on the icon and on the floor below, or maybe linoleum is a miracle."

On top of that, according to a letter from Tsagaris to the metropolitan, the Prophet Elias workernow saysKouremetis "directed [him] not to discuss the accidental oil spill." He had signed the earlier statement, he told the parish council president, "under pressure and fear."

Tsagaris, who was unavailable for comment, and others who question the icon's powers want to be clear: They believe in healing miracles, they just don't think this was one.

The circumstances surrounding the weeping claim are suspicious, Tsagaris wrote, and any pressure on the employee to "sign the letter dictated by Father Michael ... verifying a 'true miracle from God' " is unsettling.

Beyond these troubling aspects, Kouremetis' attack on those who doubted the icon story as having "black souls" have made the priest a "divisive figure," Tsagaris wrote, and one who has "abdicated his role as a community healer."

Thus, the council recommended to Isaiah that the Salt Lake Valley'shead priest be "peacefully reassigned."

In response, Isaiah directed Tsagaris' letter be sent to every parishioner. In a second missive, the metropolitan said he did not endorse the parish council's recommendations but just wanted all the members to know about the issues.

Isaiah wrote another letter this week to the parish in which he scolds parishioners for pinning the problems on Kouremetis.

"I see an uninterrupted continuity of the false notion that the current priest is the cause of the problems facing the community," the metropolitan wrote. "In Salt Lake City, it appears that the priest is always to blame. ... Is there no sharing of the responsibility of any lay members of the church as well? A realistic self-examination must reveal accountability from more than one direction."

Isaiah wrote that he will take up the matter of Kouremetis' continued leadership and whether it is appropriate to reassign the priest. But he plans to take his time "to prayerfully consider the matter."

Thus continues the baffling Case of the Weeping Icon.

pstack@sltrib.com