CULTURE

Farewell to a ‘champion of the ecumenical spirit’

One lifetime is not enough for a charismatic leader, a strong personality, like Iakovos, formerly the archbishop of the Americas, who died this week at the age of 93. During his years at the helm of the Orthodox Church in America, from 1959 to 1996, he had the ear of all the US presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, before retiring from his post. The Greek-American community knows what a debt is owed to him for preserving religious traditions, the Greek language, the Greek family and its links with the motherland. Those of us who knew him were familiar with his gentle, polite manner, his sharp wit, his deep desire to maintain strong links with Greece and his love of the sea. Every summer, when his fragile health permitted, he would go to the island of Aegina, to the home of the late commentator Spyros Alexiou, and enjoy his hospitality in the flower-filled garden that reminded him of his birthplace, the island of Imvros, where he would make pilgrimages with his fellow-Imvriot Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios. Iakovos died last Sunday in Stamford Hospital, in Connecticut, from respiratory problems. His funeral took place at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York, where his deep melodic voice had rung out over the years to the third- and fourth-generation Greek Americans that attended services there, held in both Greek and English so as to be accessible to younger people. A «champion of the ecumenical spirit,» as he was known in the US, he walked by the side of Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 and was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. Iakovos was the first Greek Orthodox archbishop in 350 years to meet with a senior Roman Catholic cleric, when he met with Pope John XXIII at his investiture in 1959. His closest relative is a niece, Maria Daousi, who lives in Montreal, and he has other family in Greece. His burial was at the Theological Seminar in Boston, close to his work, but far from Imvros and the Aegean.