St. Paul’s began as the vision of less than a handful of Greek Orthodox Christians living in south Orange County in 1976. Three people – Steve Bonn, Harry Kollias and John Kitsianis – took the initiative to begin organizing a new parish, closer to their homes than the St. John the Baptist parish in Anaheim. By early 1977, the group had grown larger and started working more actively to meet the requirements of the Archdiocese for establishing new parishes. After an extensive telephone campaign, by the end of the year, some 57 families had committed to support the birth of the new parish. On October 16, 1977 the first parish council was elected. The officers and members were: Steve Bonn, president; Sam Soter, vice-president; Iris Callas, secretary; John Kitsianis, treasurer; and Chris Arger, Peter Dames, George Grabits, Angela Henderson, Harry Kollias, Effie McCormick, Dean Papas, George Peters, John Salis, Jim Sardonis and Lambros Sekeris. On November 14, 1977 the Archdiocesan Council of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America granted the charter for the establishment of “The Greek Orthodox Parish of South Orange County, CA.”
On June 1, 1978 the late Father George Stephanides (of blessed memory!) was assigned as the priest of this new parish and the first Liturgy was celebrated at Mission Viejo High School on June 11, 1978. Immediately, there followed the organization of the choir, youth groups, Sunday school and Philoptochos, a women’s service organization whose name in Greek means “love for the poor.” A choir was formed under the direction of Presvytera Elaine Stephanides which sang for the first time on August 15, 1978 for the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos.
The Greek Festival
St. Paul’s first annual Grecian Festival was held in 1978 at the Orange County Fairgrounds. At this initial Festival, people from our sister parish of St. John the Baptist in Anaheim lent a hand to our fledgling community by helping with the baking as well as providing assistance during the Festival itself. From 1981 to 1984 the Festival was held at Heritage Park in Irvine. With the purchase and initial development of property in Irvine, the locale of the Festival shifted once again and in 1985 was hosted for the first time on our own property. Chaired for more than 20 years by Dean Conzaman, today St. Paul’s annual “A Taste of Greece” draws thousands of people for a weekend of Greek food, music and dance as well as to our Church and faith.
Choosing a name for the new parish
On April 26, 1980 the new parish chose its patron saint: St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. The choice of St. Paul was to reflect the evangelical spirit of the new parish. By July, 1980 the need for a full time parish secretary was realized and Mrs. Iris Callas, who had volunteered her time in that capacity since 1977, took on this position. Iris continued to faithfully serve the parish until her death in 1999.
The purchase of land in Irvine
On December 10, 1980 George Peters, who was then serving as parish council president, signed an agreement with the Irvine Company for the purchase of our current 5.6 acre parcel of land. With him was Father Stephanides and Ted Konopisos, the building development chairman for the parish. The purchase price for the land: $629,000.
During this time, Sunday services were still being held at Mission Viejo High School while sacraments and Holy Week services were held at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Avenida de Carlota and I-5 in Laguna Hills. By 1982, Sunday services had moved to Woodbridge High School while sacraments and Holy Week services were held at St. John Neumann’s Roman Catholic Church. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful ecumenical relationship between St. Paul’s and St. John Neumann and a lasting friendship between Father Stephanides and Father Colm Conlon, the founding pastor of St. John Neumann.
In March 1982 the first building fund drive was held. Chaired by Tom Mallos, a professional fundraising firm, Church Fundraising Services, was hired to organize the campaign. The 3-year pledge program raised $1,000,000. This enabled the parish to retire all remaining debt on the land and allowed for the first building – our current parish center – to be built debt free. Sam Grillias of the GPRA architectural firm was hired to design our parish center and develop a master plan for the entire complex. Bob and Kent Lucas of the Lucas Development Company were hired as contractors and were to build both our parish center and our current sanctuary. By July 22, 1985 the first Liturgy on our own land was celebrated in the parish hall.
St. Paul’s Foundation
Established at a General Assembly of the parish in March, 1983, the St. Paul’s Foundation officially incorporated on May 23, 1983. Initially established to assist in the building fund drive, the Foundation was charged by the General Assembly at a meeting on February 19, 1989 to investigate securing HUD funding for the development of senior citizens housing on our property. Unfortunately, the City of Irvine did not allow the pursuit of this project. Today, the Foundation has 22 members and has recently initiated an Endowment Fund program for St. Paul’s.
With the continued growth of St. Paul’s came new opportunities for ministry. In 1984, Father Jim Pappas, now the pastor of St. George’s Church in Fresno, was assigned as St. Paul’s first lay pastoral assistant (prior to his ordination to the priesthood). In the years to come, a number of fine young men would serve with Father George at St. Paul’s: Father Martin Ritsi, who after leaving St. Paul’s, became a missionary in east Africa and Albania and is now the Director of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in St. Augustine, FL; Father Dean Kouldukis, who went on to serve as dean of the Sts. Constantine & Helen Cathedral in Honolulu and is now the pastor of the Assumption Church in Seattle; and Father John Konugres. In September, 1988 Mr. Dean Langis accepted the position of lay pastoral assistant here at St. Paul’s and continues to serve in that capacity today.
The building and consecration of our sanctuary
The current sanctuary of our parish was built at a cost of $3,500,000. It is of American classical architecture with Byzantine elements. Cross-shaped, with a dome in the center 20 feet high and 36 feet in diameter, the building is 20,000 square feet and has a seating capacity of 600 people. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on April 28, 1991. The building was completed a year later and the first Liturgy in our new sanctuary was celebrated on May 17, 1992. Consecrated as a house of worship on October 29th and 30th, 1994 by His Grace, Bishop Anthony of San Francisco, the uniquely designed altar in the sanctuary now houses the relics of three saints: St. Kyrikos the martyr (whose memory is celebrated on July 15th); St. Boniface the martyr (whose memory is celebrated on December 19th); and St. Panteleimon the physician and healer (whose memory is celebrated on July 27th).
At the consecration services, seven parishioners were honored with the Archdiocesan medal of St. Paul for their service to Christ and His Church: Ted Konopisos, Tassos Livitsanos, Chris Louis, Tom Mallos, Presvytera Elaine Stephanides and Steve & Eve Tibbs. Also honored for their devotion to the Church as Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate were two more of our parishioners: Ron Matthews and Tykye Camaras.
The falling asleep of Father George
On January 27, 1996 St. Paul’s celebrated Father George and Presvytera Elaine’s 35th wedding anniversary, as well as the 35th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, with a festive evening at the officers club of the El Toro Marine Base. But later that year, on December 17th, Father George suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack. This unexpected tragedy left the people of St. Paul’s in shock, mourning the loss of their pastor of 18 years. The Trisagion service was held on the evening of December 20th, with Bishop Anthony of San Francisco presiding, assisted by clergy from throughout the diocese. Father Peter Costarakis, a lifelong friend, delivered the eulogy that evening and an all night vigil service followed. The funeral service took place the next morning with the celebration of the Liturgy by Bishop Anthony of San Francisco. Father Spencer Kezios, another close friend of many years, offered the eulogy. Father George was laid to rest at Pacific View Cemetary to await the second coming of his Lord.
Father John Konugres and Mr. Dean Langis provided St. Paul’s with leadership and pastoral care throughout those dark days in December and in the early months of 1997. There were two bright spots during this time of grief. One was the first “Spiritual Odyssey” held in January of 1997, a festival of faith that Father George had been planning at the time of his death. Hundreds of people attended and this became an annual event here at St. Paul’s that has featured a variety of teachers, authors and speakers such as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Father Thomas Hopko, Father Theodore Stylianopoulos, Father Anthony Coniaris, Father Peter Gillquist, Father Michael Oleksa, Father Thomas & Presvytera Kula Fitzgerald, Sister Nonna Harrison, Professor Valerie Karras, Jim Forest and Frank Schaeffer. The other bright spot was the installation of the icon of Christ and the Virgin Mary in the apse of the sanctuary. This depiction of the Theotokos with Christ as the center of her being, her arms outstretched in prayer and flanked on either side by the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, is the traditional icon that adorns the apse of an Orthodox Church. This icon is called the “Icon of the Sign,” a reference to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea: “The Lord shall give you a sign. Behold, the virgin is with child and will give birth to a Son and he shall be named Emmanuel, which means God is with us” and is a celebration of Christmas, the incarnation of the Word of God in the Child of Mary. It is also sometimes called “More spacious than the heavens” a phrase first used to describe the Virgin Mary in a Christmas sermon given in the 4th century by St. Gregory the Theologian in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire: because she gave birth to Christ Jesus, who is the eternal Word of God made flesh in her womb, Gregory describes her womb as “containing the uncontainable Word of God through whom the universe was created” and that her womb has therefore become “more spacious than the heavens.” This mosaic masterpiece, which consists of over 1.5 million individual pieces of glass and covers approximately 1200 square feet, was completed by the iconographer Sirio Tonelli on May 17, 1997, the fifth anniversary of the opening of the sanctuary, and was given with love by the faithful of St. Paul’s in memory of Father George.
The assignment of Father Steve
On March 27, 1997 Bishop Anthony of San Francisco formally announced his appointment of Father Steven Tsichlis as the pastor of St. Paul’s, effective May 1st of that year. Father Steve’s initial concerns as pastor were twofold: to assist the people of St. Paul’s in grieving the loss of Father George; and to articulate our direction and potential as a parish as we prepared to enter the 21st century. This latter process involved the parish council and over 50 lay leaders on a variety of committees ranging in scope from education and outreach to fundraising and building. Chaired by Ted Konopisos and working with Steve Tibbs, this 8-month process ultimately produced Vision 21: Entering the 21st Century, a document that was unanimously approved by vote of the parish General Assembly on May 17, 1998. For the past 12 years, the vision outlined in this document has guided our efforts in continuing the iconography of our sanctuary, developing broader ministries, continuing the parish building program and defining our outreach to the larger community in Orange County.
But changes in the staff at St. Paul’s continued as Father John Konugres was reassigned by Bishop Anthony to the Sts. Constantine & Helen parish in Vallejo, CA in August, 1998. It was not until October 1, 1999 that Father Timothy Robinson, a former Baptist youth pastor and a recent graduate of Holy Cross Seminary, was assigned as the new assistant priest at St. Paul’s.
The falling asleep of Iris Callas
On July 8, 1999, Mrs. Iris Callas, who had served as the secretary of the parish for more than 2 decades, died following a brief battle with cancer. She had been a tireless worker for St. Paul’s, affectionately known to many as “Mom” Callas. Prior to her entering the hospital for surgery Father Steve and Iris talked a great deal about her illness, the many changes that she expected it to bring to her life and even the possibility of her death. When discussing a possible successor, there were no doubts in her mind as to who that should be: Dorothea Hartford was the first and only name that crossed her lips. Dorothea, a member of St. Paul’s since 1991, became the administrator of the parish office in July 1999 and was soon joined by Joanne Petas, who had worked with Iris in the parish office from 1991 until 1996.
Making Vision 21 a reality
In October 1999, the official campaign to raise the funds necessary to complete the buildings and iconography according to the Vision 21 plan began. Chaired once again by Tom Mallos, and working with Church Fundraising Services, over $3,000,000 was pledged. These funds enabled both the expansion of the parish parking lot to accommodate a growing membership and the further continuation of the iconography in our sanctuary. The next mosaic installed by Mr. Tonelli is displayed above the main entrance to the Church and depicts the Apostle Paul standing in a boat to symbolize his missionary journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ throughout the ancient Roman world. With his right hand uplifted in a gesture of blessing, St. Paul holds an open scroll in his left hand that reads: “Make love your aim” (1 Corinthians 14:1). This magnificent mosaic of the patron saint of our parish was completed in time for Christmas Eve services, December 24, 1999.
The next mosaic to be installed by Mr. Tonelli fills the interior of the sanctuary dome and is a project that from design to installation took two and a half years to complete. Rising 60 feet above the floor of the Church and covering more than 2700 square feet, this depiction of Christ as “the Ruler of All” lines the 36 foot diameter dome with a scene from the Last Judgment drawn from both the Gospel of Matthew 25:31-46 and the Book of Revelation. Enthroned as “the king of glory” and surrounded by angels, Christ is depicted as the just and loving Judge at the Second Coming. Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, Isaiah and Jeremiah, are depicted in stained glass in the dome’s 24 windows; and New Testament figures such as the 12 apostles and the 4 evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – line the base of the dome in mosaic. Finished in time for the feast of St. Paul on Sunday, October 29, 2000, this stunningly beautiful masterpiece of Christian art was unveiled to the public the following Friday and Saturday, November 1st and 2nd at two special concerts held in the Church. In conjunction with the Orange County Philharmonic Society’s Eclectic Orange Festival, St. Paul’s presented “Music for the End of Time,” featuring the Chilingirian String Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at the Royal College of Music in London, and the soaring voices of the Anonymous 4, in a North American premiere presentation of the famed British Orthodox mystic and composer John Tavener’s “The Bridegroom.” This event was covered in both the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times.
The visits of Archbishop Demetrios of America
On March 30, 2001 and again on February 17, 2002 St. Paul’s was honored to host Archbishop Demetrios of America. (see photos) In 2001, Archbishop Demetrios, Metropolitan Anthony and Bishop Tod Brown, the Roman Catholic bishop of Orange County, participated in an ecumenical Vespers service; and in 2002, Archbishop Demetrios celebrated Liturgy at St. Paul’s in conjunction with a national Leadership 100 conference held in Orange County. St. Paul’s now counts five families as members of this ministry providing financial support for our Church both in this country and around the world: Mr. & Mrs. George Argyros, Mr. & Mrs. Hugo Aviles, Mr. & Mrs. Tykye Camaras, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Kartsonis and Mr. & Mrs. Ron Matthews.
Following the tradition of the New Testament concerning the commissioning of Sts. Paul and Barnabas as missionaries by the Church in Antioch, as recorded in Acts 12:24-13:3, St. Paul’s commissioned Anthony and Lara Callas as our missionaries to Albania on Sunday, April 1, 2001 where they worked for 2 years with Archbishop Anastasios (Yiannoulatos) of Tirana in rebuilding a Church devastated by decades of communist persecution. Anthony was to serve as the director of the Albanian Orthodox Church’s Architectural Office, overseeing the construction of new churches as well as the restoration of centuries old churches and monasteries, properties returned to the Church by the Albanian government. Lara was to work for the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE) initiating reforms to insure restitution to landowners for properties seized in the communist period prior to 1991 or compensation for those properties.
The Poinsettia Ball and Festival of Hearts
The first Poinsettia Ball, an annual fundraiser for St. Paul’s, was held at the Marriott Hotel in Newport Beach in 1978 and chaired by Ted and Jeri Konopisos. For more than two decades, this annual black-tie dinner/dance raised many thousands of dollars for the ministries and building programs of our growing community. But in 2002 it was decided that the Poinsettia Ball would be given a new name – the Festival of Hearts – and take a new direction that would include fundraising for charities outside of St. Paul’s. The first Festival of Hearts (see photos) was held on February 23, 2002 at the Hyatt-Newporter in Newport Beach and chaired by Lisa Chavos and Carolyn Kouracos. Attended by the Roman Catholic bishop of Orange, Tod Brown, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange was chosen to receive funds from this inaugural event. Over the years this event has also supported Kids N’ Cancer, a program of our Metropolis Philoptochos that provides summer camp experiences for children with cancer and their families; and St. Innocent’s Orphanage for boys, an Orthodox Christian ministry outside of Tijuana, Mexico.
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of St. Paul’s
In 2003, St. Paul’s celebrated its 25th anniversary as a parish with a festive banquet on Saturday evening, June 7, 2003 at the Marriott Hotel in Irvine; and on Sunday morning, June 8th, with a hierarchical Liturgy presided over by Metropolitan Anthony of San Francisco, together with Father Steven Tsichlis and all the previous assistant priests who had served at St. Paul’s: Fathers Jim Pappas, Martin Ritsi, Dean Kouldukis, John Konugres and Timothy Robinson. Saturday evening was a time for looking back, for reminiscing, as well as a time for renewing our sense of mission and looking ahead to all that still remains to be done as outlined in Vision 21. Three parishioners received the Archdiocesan medal of St. Paul for their devoted service to Christ and His Church: Dean Conzaman, Marina Kookootsedes and Bill Lekas. On Sunday, Eve Tibbs was tonsured as a reader/chantor by Metropolitan Anthony; Father Steve was prayed over by Metropolitan Anthony and given the honorary title of proto-presbyter as a senior priest; and Father Timothy was prayed over and blessed to be a confessor, i.e. a priest who can hear confessions. At Liturgy that morning Metropolitan Anthony announced Father Timothy’s new assignment as the pastor of the St. Nicholas Church in Temecula, CA.
Following Father Timothy’s departure for his new parish assignment, Father Simon Thomas was assigned by Metropolitan Anthony to be the new assistant priest, beginning his ministry at St. Paul’s on August 17, 2003.
In March 2004 another transition in staff occurred when Dorothea officially “retired” as the parish office administrator and Marina Kookootsedes took her place on April 1st. Marina had been a very active member of St. Paul’s since 1983, having served as president of the parish Philoptochos, as well as serving on the diocesan and national boards of Philoptochos. Dorothea has continued to serve St. Paul’s in a variety of capacities: Sunday school teacher, coordinator of the St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival for teens, Women’s Study Fellowship leader and as president of the parish Philoptochos.
The falling asleep of Metropolitan Anthony
St. Paul’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2003 was to prove to be the last time Metropolitan Anthony made a pastoral visitation to St. Paul’s. Metropolitan Anthony, who had served as the bishop of San Francisco for more than 25 years, died on Christmas Day, December 25, 2004 following a battle with cancer. Father Steve, Father Simon and a delegation of parishioners from St. Paul’s attended his funeral, held at the Ascension Cathedral in Oakland, CA. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) elected Bishop Gerasimos (Michaleas) of Krateia as the new Metropolitan of San Francisco on February 22, 2005 and he was enthroned on April 2, 2005 at the Ascension Cathedral in Oakland.
The next phase of Vision 21
For years, many of St. Paul’s programs had taken place in portables adjacent to the parish center. However, in 2002, the city of Irvine initiated conversations with St. Paul’s about the need to replace the portables with the education building that had long been part of the plans for the parish campus. At a general assembly held on May 23, 2002 the guidelines laid out in Vision 21 were modified: the decision was made to stop work on the completion of the Church’s iconography and begin further fundraising for the design and construction of the education building. A team comprised of Ted Konopisos (building chairman), Chris Koutures (fundraising chairman) and Steve Tibbs (serving as an overall project coordinator), began the “Honoring the Saints Fundraising Program” in the fall of 2004. (Read the Lives of the Saints whose Icons adorn the Education Center) Funds pledged and collected over the next two years enabled the completion of this $4,000,000 building project without debt to the parish.
Following the celebration of Liturgy on September 19, 2004 groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the construction of our education center with more than 400 people in attendance. (see photos) The Hofman Finn Development Company of Costa Mesa, CA was hired as the contractor for this building project. Construction began in December, was slowed down as a result of unusually heavy rains that year, and continued throughout most of 2005. Iconographer Robert Andrews was chosen to create the four mosaic icons of St. Leonidas of Athens, St. Olga of Kiev, St. Hannah the Prophetess and St. Irene Chrysovalantou that adorn the exterior of the education building; they were installed by Mr. Andrews and his son, Tim, over a five day period in November, 2005. The 30,000 square foot education building that also houses the Father George Stephanides Library was officially opened and blessed for use following Liturgy on Sunday, January 8, 2006.
In the summer of 2006, Father Simon Thomas was reassigned to serve as the pastor of St. Barbara’s Church in Santa Barbara, CA by Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco. Father Stephen Karcher, an Orange County native and former evangelical Christian, who had studied theology at the University of Thessaloniki in Greece, was assigned as the new assistant priest at St. Paul’s, beginning on September 1, 2006.
Mission IS Possible
In keeping with the missionary spirit of the parish, in September 2006 a project began that had first been announced by Father Steve at St. Paul’s 25th anniversary banquet several years before: the building of a St. Paul’s Church in Africa. In conversations with Father Martin Ritsi and the Orthodox Christian Mission Center it was decided to work with Bishop Jeronymos of Bukoba, Tanzania, who selected the village of Kobunshwi as the site of the new Church. During the fall of 2006 and the winter of 2007 the necessary funds were raised and a check for $40,000 was presented to Bishop Jeronymos, who had traveled from Tanzania to Irvine, on March 7, 2007. Construction of the new Church began immediately. In July, 2007 a short term mission team consisting of Father Steve, Father Stephen Karcher and 13 parishioners journeyed to Tanzania to work briefly alongside local workers and the Orthodox Christian men and women of Kobunshwi. The following year, Father Steve and 14 parishioners returned for the consecration of the Church by Bishop Jeronymos on Sunday, July 6th, 2008. St. Paul’s established a formal missions committee called “Mission IS Possible” later that year that continues to work in Tanzania with Bishop Jeronymos, who has now been appointed the Metropolitan of Mwanza. Since 2008, Mission Is possible continues to send medical teams, medical supplies and well-digging equipment to Tanzania.
On Sunday, June 8, 2008 a special luncheon was held following Liturgy to honor Presvytera Elaine Stephanides on the occasion of her retirement as the choir director of St. Paul’s and celebrate her 30 years of music ministry in the Church. Presvytera Stephanides continues to serve St. Paul’s by offering a grief ministry program. Robert Paul Henning was appointed by Father Steve as the new director of St. Paul’s choir, officially beginning his ministry the following Sunday, June 15th.
Christian education and spiritual formation
With a clear focus on the necessity of education and spiritual formation, the Church School program directed by Eve and Steve Tibbs has continued to grow, with more than 200 children enrolled and a volunteer staff of 30. The Good Friday children’s retreat in April attracts more than 125 young people. Pioneer Clubs, a children’s ministries program organized by Laura Leventis and Presvytera Katie Tsichlis, meeting for 8 consecutive weeks in the fall and winter, draws as many as 75 kids on Friday nights. Our GOYA program for teen-agers, organized by Carolyn Kouracos, has monthly meetings and activities that culminates in Hunger Strike, a Lenten program that has raised funds for both the OCMC and IOCC. For adults, there are 3 Bible studies, an Orthodox Christianity 101 class that examines the basics of our faith, our catechumen program for new members and a book club on prayer and Christian spirituality that began in 2000 and is done ecumenically in conjunction with St. John Neumann’s Roman Catholic Church. Our parish library was officially opened on Sunday, October 7, 2001 with a special service of blessing and prayer conducted by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, the longtime professor of Eastern Orthodox studies at Oxford who was at St. Paul’s to conduct a two-day seminar on the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The parish library, initially organized by Patricia Zioga and now managed by Dean Langis and a host of volunteers, has some 2,000 volumes. Our parish bookstore, organized by Joanne Lorton, has greatly expanded over the years and, for example, in 2001 did more than $23,000 in sales.
There is much to say about our dynamic and multi-faceted parish besides what has been written here. This is just a glimpse into the life of our community, past and present. Having now begun the 21st century, we at St. Paul’s are on a journey to build a vibrant, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled community of faith that serves as a witness to the love that God has for us all. Just as the Apostle Paul was called by a vision of the Risen Christ to become the Apostle to the Nations, so the vision of our parish is to share the Gospel of Christ with one and all. In order to make this vision a reality, each of us at St. Paul’s must make the words of the Apostle Paul our own:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”