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Very Rev. Archimandrite Theoclitos (Triantafilides) (born Theodoros Triantafilides, in November, 1833. He was the First Orthodox priest in Texas, and due to his fluency in Greek, Russian, and Serbian, he was able to establish one of the oldest multi-ethnic parishes in the United States.
His father was an Athenian Greek. When the first outbreaks of Greek Independence from the Ottoman Empire started on the Peloponnese Peninsula, his father, a fisherman crossed onto the peninsula to join the forces of famed Greek General Theodoros Kolokotronis, also an Athenian. Eight years later, when Independence was achieved (with great help from the Allied Russian, English and French Forces); he settled in Egio (one of the oldest cities in the Balkans), Peloponnese Peninsula, Greece.
Born in November of 1833, young Theodoros was named for the famed Greek General. They called him “Theos” and he celebrated his Name Day each September 22nd (Julian Calendar in the 1800’s), on the Feast Day of St. Hierotheos, the Student of Saint Paul, the Apostle, who in 53 A.D. became the First Bishop of Athens. Theodorus grew up fishing with his father, and spending time around the port; while his mother (a native of the Peloponnese Peninsula) pushed him to the Church. The era after Greek Independence was wrought with economic problems and the Armenians and Bulgarians had replaced the Ottomans as bankers and merchants, allowing our young Theos to become ever more acquainted with other cultures. Two-thirds of the population had vanished and the land was devastated.
Education and Monastic Tonsure
His early schooling was in the Church of Panagia Trypiti that is built inside a cavity of the cliff just 150 stair steps above the Port of Egio and he helped the Priests with all their duties, occasionally traveling into the local mountains to visit Agia Lavras Monastery, about 20 miles south and up in the mountains. Greek Independence had started there with Bishop Germanos Declaring Independence with his blessing of the troops. Later the Ottomans burned the Monastery, but it was reconstructed with help from the Russian Orthodox Church. Many of the Icons there were gifts from the Russian Monastery of St. Panteleimon on Holy Mt Athos and the Be-jeweled Gospel in the Monastery was printed, signed and given by Catherine the Great of Russia. History and multi-ethnic cultures literally surrounded him. As a young adult, he was Tonsured a Monk and was given the name Theoclitos. He soon traveled to Mt Athos where he was accepted as a resident of the Panteleimon Monastery, where he became fluent in Slavonic and studied Russian language and customs; and made regular visits to the Serbian Monastery Hilandar learning the Serbian language and customs. He had become fascinated with languages.
He was invited to complete a formal education and become a teacher at the Slavic Greek Latin Academy and Theological Seminary at Holy Trinity – St. Sergius Monastery, better known today as the Moscow Theological Academy, just outside Moscow, Russia. After under-graduate, a Graduate Degrees in Theology and a few years of teaching; he was called upon by the new Danish born King of Greece, George I, to tutor his son Prince George. Later, the King’s brother-in-law, Tzar Alexander III of Russia called upon him to tutor the Royal Family’s 6 children specifically in other Orthodox cultures including the Greek language. So, he became a Greek cultural teacher to the future Tzar Nicholas II of Russia, who was Canonized a Martyr Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is also said, Fr. Theoclitos was one of the 30 or so clergyman serving at the wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna.
The establishment of the Ss. Constantine and Helen parish in Galveston, Texas
It is known that with the outset of the American Civil War, a group of multi-ethnic Orthodox Christians were having regular prayer meetings in Galveston, as early as 1861, and they called themselves “the Parish of S.S. Constantine and Helen”. Galveston is a seaport, and prior to 1900, it was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Texas, and was referred to as the Manhattan of the Gulf Coast.
During the late 1880’s and early 1890’s these Orthodox Christian Serbian, Russian, Greek, Bulgarian, and Arab (Lebanese) immigrants to Galveston had organized and started gathering monies for a church. Aside from the religious group, they each started several individual nationalistic groups. Each had separately written many petitions to their former Bishops back home for a Parish Priest and had received only denials; justified by the facts of distance and costs, but in these denials were also suggestions that they petition the Russian Orthodox Mission Diocese in North America. So the culture in Galveston was ripe for the addition of an Eastern European & Mediterranean Priest of Arch. Fr. Theoclitos’ stature.
So, the Slavs, headed by Risto Vukovich; and the Greeks headed by Athurs Menutis gathered and decided to petition the Russian Mission Diocese. They sent three telegrams written in Cyrillic and signed by Vukovich, Christo Chuk, and Milosh Porobich which explained the diversity of the parishioners to; (1) the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, (2) Tzar Nicholas II personally, and (3) His Grace Bishop Nicholas in Sitka, Alaska. A short time later the parish board received a telegram personally from Tzar Nicholas II, stating his acceptance of their plea. The Tzar had a large Gospel Printed, all the Vestments and Liturgical necessities including a signed Antimens, and all the Icons for an Iconostas painted and assembled including the icon to be used for the name day of the future Church (His own Namesake, Saint Nicholas); and he chose his teacher Fr. Theoclitos to go to Galveston, telling him “Let there be an Orthodox Church in Galveston”.
By this time, Fr. Theoclitos was 61 years of age, was a well traveled man and spoke more than a dozen languages; Greek, Russian, Serbian, Slavonic, Latin, Bulgarian, Arabic, Hebrew, Danish; and some Spanish, English, French, German, and Romanian. The Ambassador of Russia to the United States acquired U. S Citizenship for him even before he left Russia. Prior to leaving Russia, Fr. Theoclitos was given the heavy cross he always wore by Tzar Nicholas II and he was elevated to the rank of Right Reverend Archimandrite, because he would soon be the Priestly leader of a flock of Christians so far away with little known chance of a visiting Bishop anytime soon. His journey to the far off land of Galveston, Texas began with six companions. With him were; the Very Reverend Archimandirte Rafael Hawaweeny (Glorified a Saint in March of 2000 by the Orthodox Church in America) and his three Deacons Constantine Abu-Adal, Istvan Moldowanyi and John Shamie (later Shame was a Priest in Galveston); and Archimandrite Fr. Theoclitos’ two Russian Deacons, Theodore Pashkowsky and Joakim Zubkowsky, and his Romanian Deacon Pavel Grepashewsky; and Fr. Peter I. Popoff. The first leg of the trip was by train to Berlin, serving liturgy there at the Russia Embassy Church; then on to the Port of Bremen. The next leg was by passenger ship to Southampton for a change of ships, then on to New York aboard the passenger ship, S.S Havel out of South Hampton, as a United States Citizen. Only 82 passengers sailed that day. Although a group of Priests were at the port of New York to greet them on the Morning of November 14, 1895, they were required by customs to spend one night in Quarantine. The Next Morning, they were joined in New York by Bishop Nicholas Ziorov of the Russian Orthodox Mission in America, who’s Diocesan headquarters were in Sitka, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, to consecrate the First Arab-Syrian Orthodox Church in America under the Russian Mission’s jurisdiction, and to install Archimandrite Rafael as Pastor, with his three deacons. A few days later, Arch. Fr. Theoclitos, his three Deacons; and Fr. Popoff traveled with Bishop Nicholas by train to Washington D.C., then to western Pennsylvania, where Fr. Popoff was to serve and then on to Kansas City. At this point, it was decided that only the Romanian Deacon Grepashewsky would travel to Galveston with Fr. Theoclitos; and Bishop Nicholas and the other two Deacons would go on to San Francisco. Fr. Theoclitos stopped in Hartshorne, American Indian Territory, Oklahoma, to have Liturgy for a group of Russian Miners, just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma before reaching Galveston.
The distances from Galveston to either San Francisco or New York are about 1600 miles. Although his rightful rank was high, which gave him the right to consecrate his own chapel including the right to wear a Mitre and carry a staff; he lived his life in Galveston as a meager Monk, teacher, and Pastoral Priest. The Church Congregation never paid Fr. Theoclitos, because he received his pay directly from the Tzar (1500 rubels a month and 500 rubels as expenses; about $120 total, at that time) until Fr. Theoclitos passed away in 1916, a year and a half before Tzar Nicholas II and his Family were murdered.
The Trustees of The Existing Congregation Board (Chris Vucovich, Chris Chuoke, Athurs Menutis and Mitchael Mihaloudski) formally received their State Corporation Papers on January 13, 1895 and subsequently purchased a 43’ wide x 120’ deep property that is at 4107 Avenue L, Galveston, Texas on December 15, 1895. They started to build a rectangular wood frame Orthodox styled Church, and when Fr. Theoclitos arrived, in January of 1896, he directed the finishing of the Church. The congregation was astonished to be blessed with an Archimandrite and a Deacon, not just a Priest, and best of all he was somewhat of a linguist.
In Galveston, all properties faced either North-west or South-east, so they had chosen property that left the Church unusually facing South-east. And, although the Icon of Saint Nicholas was placed in the Iconostas to Honor Tzar Nicholas II as the Patron of the Church; it was Fr. Theoclitos’ decision to use the name S. S. Constantine and Helen Church, because the congregation that started on its own should be remembered. Bishop Nicholas was invited and he accepted; and the Consecration of our church occurred on June 3rd 1896, the feast day of S.S. Constantine and Helen. Fr. Theoclitos’ decision on the name of the Church, was not unusual with him. He was known to have baptized children with names other than their parents had asked for. But his guidance and decisions were always accepted by his congregation. He had services in the Slavonic, Greek and Arabic languages.
In 1897, Fr. Theoclitos purchased a 36 plot track in the Lake View Cemetery as a gift to his Congregation. He buried his flock in the next consecutive plot, without regard to couples or children or any relationship, because he saw them as one congregational family.
Missionary Activity and Continued Ministry in Galveston
In early 1897, Bishop Nicholas replaced Deacon Grepashewsky with a young Russian Monk, Fr. Mikhail Kurdinovski to allow Arch. Fr. Theoclitos time to travel and invited Arch. Fr. Theoclitos to San Francisco to speak in the Greek language on the mounting losses of the Cretan insurgents in their revolution against Ottoman rule. Bishop Nicholas had to be acutely aware that his Archimandrite was the highest ranking Greek born Clergyman in America. While in route, we know that he also served Liturgy again in Oklahoma; and in Denver, Colorado. After his sermon in San Francisco he was asked to travel with Fr. (later, Archimandrite) Sebastian Dabovich (currently being considered for Canonization as a Saint), to Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, where they served Liturgy in Slavonic, Greek and Arabic in both cities. He again traveled to San Francisco in 1898, to participate in the installation of Bishop Tikhon (Belavin), as the new Bishop (Canonized a Saint by the Russia Orthodox Church in 1989), replacing Bishop Nicholas of the Aleutians and Alaska (Diocesan name was changed in 1900 to Diocese of the Aleutians and North America). Although little is known about it, Bishop Tikhon visited the Galveston parish in 1899, for the first of two visits.
It’s known that Fr. Theoclitos traveled extensively on the Gulf Coast going as far east as Mobile, Alabama, as far south as Corpus Christi, Texas, and into the interior north to Ft. Worth, San Antonio, San Angelo and Austin Texas, performing Marriages and Baptisms and serving Liturgy where ever he found Orthodox Christians. In 1897, The Wiemar, Texas newspaper had an article about him; where he borrowed the local Catholic Church in LaGrange, Texas to perform the wedding of a Greek Couple. The writer posted the short article that follows:
- Weimar Mercury, 29 Jan 1898
- LaGrange, Tex., Jan. 25, --Married today, Mr, Abraham John to Miss Zeche Nemer, both Greek, at the Catholic Church by Rev. Theoclitos (Archimandrite of the Orthodox Church), Galveston, Tex. A very large crowd attended the ceremonies, which were “somewhat of a novelty”, no such ceremonies having ever been performed here.
The Galveston Parish Board additionally purchased a like adjoining property west of the Church doubling the size of the property in early 1900. But, in his 66th year, on September 8th 1900, Galveston Island was hit by the greatest natural disaster in United States history when the massive Hurricane of 1900 came ashore. The Island was almost totally destroyed (est. of 8,000 to 12,000 deaths of a population of 30,000, which included 24 members of the congregation. Fr. Theoclitos and Fr. Mikhail spent 30 hrs in the church praying and giving refuge to parishioners and neighbors that sought safety in the church. After the storm had passed, the Church structure was still standing although it had floated to the west about 10 feet partially onto the additional property just purchased. Those that were with him in the church believed Fr. Theoclitos and his church had truly saved their lives. The congregation gathered and raised the Church, repaired the damage and early in 1902 petitioned Bishop Tikhon, who had since moved the headquarters of the Diocese to New York, to visit and Re-consecrate their repaired Church. Bishop Tikhon accepted and arrived shortly before services on June 3rd 1903. By order of Tzar Nicholas II, Bishop Tikhon bestowed on Fr. Theoclitos the Royal Honors of (1) the Order Of St. Vladimir and (2) the Order of St. Anne (in his picture, the ribbon and cross like medallion around the neck to his right side is the order of St. Vladimir, the ribbon and medallion around the neck to his left side is the Order of St. Anne and the necklet with the large medallion was awarded him upon attaining his Graduate Degree in Theology from the Moscow Theological Academy).
While in Galveston, Bishop Tikhon visited the cemetery, and became aware that it was filling fast. As a gift to the Congregation, Bishop Tikhon (who was later made Patriarch of Moscow, right), purchased 27 additional plots next to the original cemetery track. Fr. Theoclitos and the Church continued with a new influx of immigrants coming to Galveston each year, even purchasing another 21’ to the west of the Church. Although he did keep constant communications with the Diocese, it is not clear whether he ever met with Archbishop Platon of New York, who replaced Bishop Tikon.
He was known to include the Romanov Royal Family each week in the Liturgy, especially due to concerns about the health Tsar Nicholas II’s son, Alexander’s affliction with hemophilia began to spread. Also World War I was raging, and Russia was not faring well in it, and talk of revolution against the Tsar was in the news from time to time.
On weekly trips to the business district, the neighborhood children would gather on the church steps and wait for his return. He would always have a large bag full of fruit and the latest sweets for them, saving a large portion for his parish children. He became acquainted with many people during his years in Galveston and was thought of respectfully, while they became somewhat enchanted with his customary meager but stoic Orthodox Monastic ways. He was a constant visitor to St. Mary’s Infirmary (the local Catholic Hospital) and John Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He truly became a friend to many families, who felt his visits to their loved ones in the hospital made those loved ones better. He converted to Orthodoxy many of these families: the Dambido family, the Matthews family and the Lelirra family to name a few.
In 1911, the Galveston-Houston Inter-Urban Train was instituted, allowing many of our Orthodox Christians in Houston (50 miles north and largely Greek and Lebanese) an ease of access to Galveston for Sunday Liturgy. The trains were one or multiple electric cars that ran from downtown Houston to downtown Galveston, and you could get on or off at any time. So, parishioners could get off, then on again, less than 800 feet north of the Church on the main road into Galveston. It was still a 75 minute trip, one way, but it was an inexpensive way for Houston parishioners to get to church from time to time. It was later discontinued in 1936.
And then, in his 81st year, the Island was hit by another devastating Hurricane in August of 1915. Again, Arch. Fr Theoclitos and others prayed in the Church. This storm was even more tenuous for them, but never was anyone in the church lost in any storm. The Church floated to the north about 50 feet into the street, and the front wall was torn open and the Gospel given by Tzar Nicholas II was found by parishioner George Mandich another 200’ away in the city cemetery across from the Church, miraculously with very little water damage. The congregation repaired the Church and moved it back into place with mule and muscle.
The parish again, needed more future graves. This time, as a religious benevolent society, they purchased their own private Cemetery in the western part of the city, about a quarter mile from the other cemetery. The land was far larger (would easily accommodate about 300 graves) and would meet their needs for long years into the future. But they also divided it into two sections, the Greeks to one side, and the Serbians and other Slavs on the other.
Later in the following year, the Church was hit by the loss of Fr. Theoclitos, just short of his 83rd year, on October 22nd 1916. He had become gravely ill six weeks before. He somehow knew his time was near, and had the Diocese notified of his illness, and he asked parish leaders to find a way for them to bury him under the Altar of the Church. It was his belief that his grave would, by its nature, cause the Church to continue at the location for centuries into the future. He passed to his Creator at 8:15 in the evening, in St. Mary’s Infirmary Hospital. With the help of Church leaders, his body was prepared by Malloy & Sons Funeral Home, but the parishioners then took the body to the church and stood vigil over his remains continually, until his Funeral. The New Archbishop Evdokim of New York ordered his Diocesan Secretary, Archpriest Fr. Peter I. Popoff (who had been one of Fr. Theoclitos’ companions on the trip from Russia), and two others of his Diocesan Council members; Fr. Louniky Kraskoff of Denver, Colorado (whom he had visited with on trips to San Francisco) and Hieromonk Fr. Paul Chubaroff of Hartshorne, Oklahoma to immediately travel to Galveston so that Our Beloved Archimandrite would be religiously cared for. They finally arrived in Galveston six days later, on the morning of October 28th. Hierarchical Funeral Services were held that afternoon at 2:00 P.M. During the six week wait, the Parish Board had received permission from the County Judge to place his remains under the Church’s Altar and workers prepared the Concrete Vault that was required by the Judge for his casket to be encased, where it remains today. As Arch. Fr. Theoclitos requested in his will, his Cross and Medals were all taken to Archbishop Evdokim by Archpriest Popoff.
Information taken from a paper by Ss. Constantine and Helen Parish historian, Milivoy Jovan Milosevich, with permission.