NOSTOS - March 9, 2001

Religious leader's much anticipated biography makes Montreal debut

By Jerry Stamatelos

Montreal-based journalist Justine Frangouli's authorized biography of Archbishop Spyridon's short lived and tumultuous tenure at the helm of the Orthodox Church in America was launched in Montreal on March 11. Frangouli speaks candidly about her relationship with Spyridon and brings to light the many forces that conspired to bring about his resignation.

When did you meet Archbishop Spyridon and how did you get him to entrust his story to you?

As you are aware, my job as Greek media correspondent in North America brought me close to the Greek Orthodox ecclesiastical reality in America since Archbishop Iakovos' reign. While covering the events of Spyridon's tenure, church issues became even more intriguing when I realized that not only were his choices and decisions repeatedly and constantly misinterpreted, but the very facts also. As a journalist, I was in a position to see that an open confrontation was being orchestrated by certain groups or single individuals, members of the clergy and a portion of the Greek American and Greek press. I clearly saw the Hierarch was being made a victim of his efforts to preserve Hellenism and Orthodoxy in a country where traditional values are inexorably absorbed by the system.

My contact with Archbishop Spyridon was minimal at the time. Yet, by reading my articles regarding the circumstances taking place within the Greek Orthodox Church of America, he realized there were no second thoughts or politics involved. This, I believe, led him to trust me as a professional.

When His Eminence resigned in August 1999, he declined my request for an interview citing ill timing and the fact that his story was so long that it could not be covered in a simple interview, but rather "a whole book could be written" about the whole affair. I boldly took him to task and indicated that if he was willing to share his records and archives, I would attempt to write his biography. A few months later he entrusted his archival material to me and I began my research and writing. The book is my depiction of Archbishop Spyridon's life and times based on official records and my reading of the actual facts.

You spent over a year doing little else but compiling research and traveling extensively while under a shroud of secrecy. Describe your experience.

To write a book of historical character requires minute research and preciseness; it takes time and self-concentration. Given the fact that I didn't want the key players of Spyridon's tenure to be involved in my story positively or negatively, it was required of me to look carefully at every single document in my possession and to travel to several European countries and the United States. In my travels, I located the proper sources and cleared certain facts with people who remained objective since they were not aware their input would be used in a book. This secrecy made the working atmosphere pleasant, kept anxiety at low levels and gave me the freedom to work extensively with a great deal of persons who would otherwise have become easily very emotional if they were to know that my casual questions were serving the purpose of writing a biography. I think this approach helped me become aware of the real factors and players of that period and to maintain a higher level of objectivity. Thus, I got to know His Eminence's family, the places he grew up as a child and even the people that surrounded him in his early priesthood and throughout his entire career. It was an exhilarating experience which brought me in touch with the boy, the adult, the Hierarch Spyridon so as to be able to interpret for myself his decisions, actions and orientation on certain issues.

The crux of 'The Lonely Path of Integrity' reads like a global conspiracy against the Church of America's spiritual leader, with implications ranging from Orthodoxy's epicenter in Constantinople to Greek American communities. Have you considered the repercussions of such widespread allegations?

We ought to clear this up. In my book there are no allegations against any individual, community or institution. I am not a judge; I am a writer and as such I put the facts together on the basis of all key documentation. Therefore, I offer my readers the opportunity to journey through this period: its events, those involved, the conspiracies, the misunderstandings, the misleading information and the actions of the Archbishop. My book is a clear and clean biography of Spyridon, not an attempt at vindictiveness or revenge, nor does it present allegations against anyone ... It is obvious that the tough game played with Spyridon derived from a thirst for power, money and personal ambitions. It is sad to realize that the Orthodox Church could be used in such an unorthodox way in order to oust a spiritual leader and satisfy personal interests mostly. But at the same time I think it is high time that the real facts be pointed out and responsibilities be fully assumed by those accountable for the deterioration of Orthodoxy and Hellenism in America.

It was discouraging for me to uncover this reality, because I was introduced to Orthodoxy by a long line of clergymen: my father, grandfather and uncle were all priests who led a virtuous Christian life in my hometown Lefkada back in Greece. At the same time though, this disheartening revelation was an exhilarating experience!

You followed the unfolding of events during Archbishop Spyridon's tenure closely. What is your take on the whole affair?

The book portrays a man with a multifaceted life and ecclesiastical career who initiated a distinct era in the life of the Orthodox Church in Italy and America, who struggled to preserve the historical Byzantine Orthodox Tradition and fought untiringly for the survival of Hellenism in the diaspora.

The plan behind his removal after three tumultuous years reveals a web of scheming that enveloped the Greek American Church. From the shores of the Bosporus and Constantinople to the Aegean and the birthplace of democracy in Athens, from the council chambers of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the halls of power in the Greek Parliament, from brother bishops in America to parish priests to prominent figures in the Greek American community, the story extends over the totality of Orthodoxy and Hellenism in America.

The irreversible results of this three year turmoil are evident: consolidation of the autocephalist movement among the Orthodox Churches of America; division and partisanship in the Hellenic family of America; marginalization of the Greek American community as to its vital issues, and the evisceration of the position and role of the Archbishop of America by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

What was the driving force behind 'The Lonely Path of Integrity', and what do you want readers to get from reading it?

It was no less than my obligation as a journalist who directly experienced the unfolding of events in that period, to place Spyridon's story into its proper historical perspective and inform people as to the man he really was; the actual facts that took place during his tenure as Archbishop of America; what he achieved during those three years; his failures and why the war against him was so merciless. I believe that by reading this book, one realizes that even the Church has no compassion for her messengers in the face of personal ambition and interest. I think the book reveals that politics prevail in the Church of America and that vital issues, such as the survival of Orthodoxy and Hellenism in the United States, come second!

How does Archbishop Spyridon feel now that his biography is available for Greek diaspora's consumption?

In a recent interview with the Greek daily newspaper 'Ethnos', Archbishop Spyridon stated: "Mrs Frangoulis' book is based to a great extent on hitherto unpublished documents, many of which originate from my personal archives, as well published press accounts. From my reading of the book, I feel that the author made good use of this archival material. She brought to light many unknown facets of the recent history of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the years 1996-1999. She was also able to faithfully portray the atmosphere that pervaded during these three years. Her descriptions are lively, yet concise, and lead the reader to a ready understanding of some of the major problems with which the Greek-American community grappled with then and continues to struggle. I consider the new book a serious primary source for the history of the Church and of Hellenism in America. I also consider it a gauge for the future course of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and its efforts to preserve an authentic form of Orthodoxy and Hellenism in the United States. Without question, the new book gives a distinct impression of the Greek American community today."

('The Lonely Path of Integrity - Spyridon, Archbishop of America 96-99" available at: Delphi Variety, 221 Fairmont O., 273-2044; Papeterie Zoubris, 5678 Avenue du Parc, 495-2483. English version will soon be available)

[ NOSTOS - - March 9, 2001 ]