Outrage at a New England Parish Over Actions of Metropolitan Methodios

November 11, 2009  []

By Theodore Kalmoukos

BOSTON — The National Herald has undertaken an investigation of the state of affairs at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration in Lowell, Massachusetts and the Metropolis of Boston.

Last spring Metropolitan Methodios of Boston dismissed the entire parish council of the Transfiguration Church. He ordered its nine members to stand before the Spiritual Court of the Metropolis of Boston, which subsequently barred a majority of them from receiving Holy Communion. They were also prohibited from serving in any capacity in their parish or at any other parish in the Metropolis of Boston. The Metropolitan’s actions were taken in support of the former priest of the parish, Demetrios Costarakis.

Many members of the parish, which numbered 650 families prior to these events, reacted to Metropolitan Methodios’ hostile actions against their fellow parishioners by leaving the parish altogether. Large numbers have joined parishes of other Orthodox jurisdictions such as the nearby Antiochian Orthodox community. The devastation is most apparent among the youth. Children who were once active members of the parish and its youth organizations have departed almost completely.

Another troubling dimension of the situation emerges from reports that the Metropolitan has completely ignored the guidance and instructions of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The Patriarch repeatedly told the Metropolitan, through Archbishop Demetrios of America and also through Rev. Alex Karloutsos, the Spiritual Advisor to the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, The Order of St. Andrew, to undo all that he had done against the nine members of the parish council. The Metropolitan has defied the Ecumenical Patriarch, claiming that as a ruling bishop he can dispose of such matters as he pleases. The matter reached such urgency that Fr. Karloutsos, while he was en route from the Patriarchate, felt compelled to call the Metropolitan from France.

The dismissed members of the parish council sent copies of their correspondence with the Metropolitan to Archbishop Demetrios of America as well as to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. One of the dismissed members has a strong family connection with the Patriarchate.

Almost two months ago, the Patriarch was preparing to send the Metropolitan a letter from the Holy Synod in Constantinople reprimanding him and ordering him to correct his hostile actions against the parish council. When the Metropolitan was informed of that development, he sent a message to the Patriarch telling him that all was well and that order had been restored. Members of the dismissed parish council told The National Herald that in fact, “Metropolitan Methodios did not do anything, nor had he communicated with them in any way.”

The National Herald is in a position to know that Patriarch Bartholomew became extremely upset over the Metropolitan’s actions, which some at the Patriarchate called “medieval”. Metropolitan Methodios did not respond to The Herald’s written request sent to him on Thursday, October 22, to comment on the issue.

The problems emerged in early 2007 and stemmed from the assignment to the fairly large and complex parish of The Transfiguration of a newly-ordained priest, Demetrios Costarakis. Despite his lack of experience in a position of that magnitude, the Metropolis established a starting salary for him which by far exceeded the dictates of the official salary scale of the Archdiocese.

At that time Mrs. Margo Ziogas-DiBenedetto was president of the parish council. Six months later, in June 2007, Fr. Costarakis approached her and asked for a $12,000 raise and threatened the parish to comply. The president telephoned the Metropolitan, who seemed to have become angry at the priest. He told Mrs. Ziogas-DiBenedetto not to say anything to anyone, including the parish council members, promising to take care of the issue. However, the president had previously informed her board about the problem.

Mrs. Ziogas-DiBenedetto was succeeded by Nikolaos, who was elected president of the parish council in January 2008. In July 2008 the parish council met with Chancellor Theodore Barbas at the offices of the Boston Metropolis regarding Father Costarakis’ duties. The meeting was necessary due to mounting complaints from parishioners about Fr. Costarakis. In September, the Chancellor visited the parish and met with the parish council.

On December 3, 2008 Mr. Manolis received a message on his cell phone from Chancellor Barbas informing him that Fr. Costarakis was being transferred to the St. Nicholas parish in Lexington, Massachusetts and that his last Sunday would be December 7, 2008.

Matters become very turbulent when a letter dated January 6, 2009 was sent to the Metropolitan by a number of Transfiguration parishioners who supported father Costarakis and asked for the removal of the entire parish council. On January 9 the parish council received a letter signed by 19 parishioners asking for their resignation. The letter stated that the petition calling for their removal was signed by more than 10 percent of the parish; proof of those signatures has never been made public.

Mr. Manolis attempted to call and speak to Chancellor Barbas numerous times between January 3 and January 14 in order to discuss the assignment of a new parish priest and the ratification of the recent parish council elections, but his calls were not returned. After two weeks had gone by without hearing from Mr. Barbas, the parish council sent a letter to the Metropolitan on January 14 requesting a meeting. They stated in the letter that “if we do not hear from the Metropolis soon, without your guidance, we will be forced to seek legal counsel regarding these letters that have maligned our reputations and good names.”

One day later, Chancellor Barbas called Mr. Manolis to set up an appointment for January 21. The entire nine-member parish council went to the Metropolis Office to meet with the Metropolitan and Chancellor Barbas. The Metropolitan was in his office but he never came out to acknowledge the parish council. They met with Chancellor Barbas, who said he would work with them regarding the assignment of a new parish priest and the petition against the council.

On January 22, 2009, the Metropolitan sent a letter directly to the parishioners of the Transfiguration, which noted: “The last year and a half has indeed been painful for me as I closely monitored the unfortunate developments in your community. The Chancellor of the Metropolis, the Rev. Theodore Barbas, met on two occasions with the Parish Council in order to address serious ongoing issues between your Parish Priest and the Parish Council. Despite these efforts, Fr. Costarakis, frustrated and concerned for his spiritual health and that of his family, requested an immediate transfer to another community”. In another instance the Metropolitan wrote that “over 130 stewards of the Parish have signed a petition calling for a general assembly to request the voluntary resignation of the Parish Council”.

Finally, Metropolitan Methodios called for new Parish Council elections, but he went one step further. On February 3, 2009 the Metropolitan sent all nine members of the previous parish council to his Spiritual Court, assigning Father George Tsoukalas from St. George parish in Lynn as its chief justice. The court’s judges were the following: Fr. George Dragas, Fr. Panagiotis Giannakopoulos, Fr. Makarios Niakaros, Fr. John Govostes, and Fr. Demetrios E. Tonias.

Summons letters were sent to the members of the parish council by chief judge Tsoukalas on the official letterhead of the Metropolis of Boston. It is interesting to note that Fr. Tsoukalas once served as the Metropolitan’s chancellor, but after a falling out between them, Fr. Tsoukalas was forced to go into the dry cleaning business for a few years. He later returned to the Metropolitan’s good graces and is now a close ally.

On February 13, 2009, the parish council members appeared individually before the Spiritual Court at the Metropolis Office. “We arrived at 11 a.m. and did not leave until 6 p.m. During this time we were interrogated, yelled at, and called liars by a panel of six priests,” they wrote to Patriarch Bartholomew.

While the parish awaited the results of the spiritual court, on February 15 a Special General Assembly was held in the church’s hall with Chancellor Barbas presiding. The nine removed council members were re-nominated by the assembly to stand in the new elections.

Two days after the Special General Assembly, a letter was sent by Fr. Tsoukalas, to each of the removed parish council members which stated that they were not eligible to run in the elections because the Spiritual Court had not rendered its judgment. When elections were held on March 1, many parishioners were outraged that the nine council members were omitted from the ballot.

On March 2, 2009, the morning after the election, each parish council member received their judgment from the Spiritual Court. Chief justice priest Tsoukalas on the official Metropolis of Boston letterhead informed Mr. Nikolaos Manolis and a number of his fellow volunteer co-workers of the verdict:

1) “You are not to participate in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church — including Holy Communion — until the Sunday of Pentecost, June, 2009. You will be restored to Communion only after you submit a letter of sincere apology addressed to Metropolitan Methodios and the Clergy of the Metropolis of Boston.”

2) You are not permitted to serve on the Parish council of your Community — or to hold an office in any Organization of the Transfiguration church or any other parish in the Metropolis for a period of five years, (2009-1013).

The convicted parish councilors, dedicated volunteers who offered so much to their parish, have not replied to Chief Justice Tsoukalas’ letter, nor communicated at all with the Metropolis of Boston.

The dismissed parish council of the Transfiguration parish comprised of President Nikolaos Manolis, Vice-president Margo Ziogas-DiBenedetto, Treasurer James Murphy, Secretary Christopher Selvaggio, Andrew Govatsos, John Gkolias, Ioannis Zaralidis, Michael Karagianes and Chris Tournas.

Notably, Mr. Zaralidis, a Lowell businessman and former parish president, was a member of the Metropolis of Boston Council. He had helped raise $68,000 dollars through the FOS organization of the Metropolis of Boston, which collects funds from the parishes and individuals for the Metropolis. These funds are above and beyond the monthly allocations from parishes to Archdiocese headquarters in New York. (Some 25 percent of funds the parishes send to the Archdiocese are returned to their local Metropolis). Mr. Zaralidis had restarted the Greek Evening School of the parish, which is not in operation this year. Mrs. Daphne Zaralidis is a member of the board of the National Philoptochos of the Archdiocese of America.

The above events, and other serious matters, have enraged many church members in New England. In January 2008 Mr. Manolis, the former Trasfiguration parish council president, was interviewed by The National Herald. The businessman is vice-chairman of the All Saints Hospital in Lowell, and for each of the past 15 years his family has donated 1000 turkeys with all the trimmings to the needy at Thanksiving. Manolis discussed the problems of the parish and other church matters. “The annual budget of the parish is about $300,000 and the biggest expense of the parish is the priest’s salary. All the other expenses are small.” He added, “I disagree with the policy that permits priests to accept when they do sacraments, funerals, and blessings of the houses. I have respect for the clergy. You see some priests who are very reverent men, but there also some who see the church just as a place to work.”

Mr. Manolis also noted that, “People are hungry for things that we have lost, such as the Greek language, traditions, customs. We see that Roman Catholics are going back to the use of the Latin in worship. If in 1821 we had the priests and bishops we have today, we would be Turkey now.”

It must be noted regarding Metropolitan Methodios that he has been previously reprimanded and condemned for behavior unbecoming of a hierarch by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In 1994 the Patriarchate, through a synodal decision, imposed an official reprimand against Methodios because of a letter he had sent to a hierarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the late Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop Vsevolod. Methodios’ letter was condemned as “character assasination”.

In 1995 the Ecumenical Patriarchate intervened with the late Archbishop Iakovos and requested Methodios’ removal from the Presidency of Hellenic College and Holy Cross School of Theology for specific reasons documented in a letter signed by a number of the seminary’s professors. Archbishop Iakovos did in fact remove the Metropolitan from the his position.

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