Two new priests look to young people to help Salt Lake Valley’s Greek Orthodox community grow and move beyond past rifts

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Mario Giannopoulos, left, and the Rev. George Nikas were recently appointed to serve Salt Lake City's Holy Trinity Cathedral and Holladay’s Prophet Elias Church.

The challenges facing the Salt Lake Valley’s Greek Orthodox community are many, from reversing years of eroding attendance and healing still-fresh memories of an intraparish rift to raising revenue for renovation and repairs.

But as he nears the beginning of his second year in Utah, the Rev. Archimandrite George Nikas sees a brighter future ahead for his parish and its churches — downtown Salt Lake City’s Holy Trinity Cathedral and Holladay’s Prophet Elias Church.

“We are making progress,” says Nikas, who left priestly duties in New Jersey last June to replace the late Rev. Matthew Gilbert. “We’re here to move forward. The past is the past, but we don’t remain there. We must look to the future.”

A big reason for Nikas’ optimism comes with the reassignment last month of the Rev. Mario Giannopoulos, longtime pastor of South Ogden’s Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, to become the second priest serving the faithful at Holy Trinity and Prophet Elias.

However, Nikas refuses to call Giannopoulos, 54, by the usual title of “assistant priest, out of deference for his 26 years as a priest — longer than me.”

“He is a [full] parish priest,” says the 48-year-old Nikas.

“That’s how I see it,” Giannopoulos quips during a recent interview with both clerics.

It is a moment that brings laughter from the two priests, a window displaying a smooth priestly partnership of opposites in background, experience and demeanor.

The soft-spoken Nikas, the son of a priest, was born in Athens, Greece. His family moved to Schenectady, N.Y., and to parishes throughout the Northeast during his growing-up years. He chose to follow in his father’s priestly footsteps and went a stride further by choosing celibacy when ordained in 1999.

“I felt I could offer more to the community without having to tend to the needs of a family, and, thank God, up to now I don’t regret that decision,” Nikas explains. “I’ve made whatever church congregation I’ve gone to, by extension, my family.”

Before moving to Utah with his widowed mother, Presvytera Golfo Nikas, he had held numerous church administrative and leadership positions in Maryland and New Jersey.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Mario Giannopoulos, left, and the Rev. George Nikas were recently appointed to serve Salt Lake City's Holy Trinity Cathedral and Holladay’s Prophet Elias Church.

A Utah man

Then there’s Giannopoulos, a gregarious Salt Lake City native who played baseball for and graduated from Highland High School before attending the University of Utah. A stint as youth director at his home church of Holy Trinity — and the encouragement of a respected priest — whetted his appetite for the seminary, and, in 1990, he entered the Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass.

Before assignment to South Ogden’s Holy Transfiguration nine years ago, he served as a priest for nearly three years in Phoenix and 11 years in Albuquerque, N.M.

A father of four daughters, Giannopoulos possesses a sharp sense of humor and good-naturedly accepts the sobriquet of being something a “holy character.”

Both men are serious about their shared commitment to building and expanding the parish’s youth and young adult programs.

“We always say ‘the youth are the future of the church.’ That’s incorrect. The youth are the present and the future of the church,” Nikas declares. “If we don’t pay attention to them now, in the present, they won’t be here in the future for us to talk about and cherish.”

In his first year, Nikas energetically promoted Greek Orthodox Youth of America activities (a recent GOYA-sponsored party drew nearly 400 people) as well as sports and other activities for children and teens in the parish. He looks to Giannopoulos’ own decades of experience with young adults and college-age programs to expand that appeal to rising generations of churchgoers.

That does not mean the parish has forgotten its older members. In addition to its “Young at Heart” outings, such as day trips to Wendover, Holy Trinity and Prophet Elias offer their Greek-speaking seniors two priests who speak the language fluently.

“I believe the last time that has been the case was with [the late] Father Elias Stephanopoulos and his son, Father George, back in the 1960s,” Giannopoulos recalls.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Mario Giannopoulos speaks during the funeral service for Vasilios Priskos at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Salt Lake City Saturday, October 14, 2017.

Growing bigger, growing closer

Having two Greek-speaking priests is indeed a big deal, says Parish Council President Thomas Peters, mindful of the clerics’ ability to communicate better with older members and to teach the language and customs to younger parishioners.

“It’s an exciting time for us. We’re moving forward,” says Peters, who notes the council unanimously and enthusiastically accepted both Nikas’ earlier appointment and Giannopoulos’ reassignment to the parish by the Metropolis of Denver.

“Now, there are many great things going on,” Peters adds, “a resurgence for our youth and adult programs, and our fundraising campaign will be starting to kick off again very soon.”

Peters says the parish, having raised $2 million in the campaign’s first phase to renovate downtown’s historic cathedral, is now launching a $10 million-plus second phase to pay for the construction of new facilities and upgrades needed for other church office, meeting and banquet space.

Unity, too, is well on the way to being restored, something that was in peril several years ago when acrimony over whether Holy Trinity and Prophet Elias should each comprise its own parish rather than be combined in one led to a dustup between opposing parties.

The dispute eventually led some disaffected members to found a mission parish, the 4-year-old St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church, in Cottonwood Heights.

“Those days are behind us. We are just focusing on the future,” Peters says. “[The two churches] share a rich history, and we now have so much that is positive to be proud of as we move our 112-year-old parish forward for the benefit of future generations.”

Along with the passage of time, forgiveness and healing, Peters sees the blossoming and “very complementary” relationship of Nikas and Giannopoulos as key to the parish’s recovery and future success.

“The synergistic ‘whole’ they have created working side by side for our parish is more valuable than their sum as individuals,” he states, optimistic that, with new leadership and renewed commitment by clergy and laypersons alike, the once 1,200-family strong parish — now around 600 families — can eventually be restored.

Nikas says he already has noticed greater numbers at services and expects to see 700 families attending the parish’s churches by year’s end. “Now that we have two of us guiding the parish, our goal is to eventually get back up to at least 1,000 families.”

More important, however, is “that those people are engaged in the spiritual life of the parish, that they come to the services, bring their children,” Nikas stresses. “We need to be a ‘Cross Faith’ congregation.”

It is an attitude echoed by Giannopoulos, who views all the challenges Nikas and him as coming down to one overarching task: being faithful priests.

“It’s not brain surgery. There’s no blueprint for this,” he smiles. “If we do what we are called to do, if we take care of our people, everything else will take care of itself.”