When Father Aristotle Damaskos was growing up, he and his Catholic cousins would always "play mass." "And I was always the priest," Damaskos, a Greek Orthodox priest for 26 years, said with a smile.
About Father Damaskos
Family: Wife, Debbie Schanhals; children William, 22, and Dionna, 18
Hometown: Gary, Ind.
Previous church: Holy Trinity Cathedral, Toledo, Ohio
Fun fact: Father Damaskos is a storm chaser. Before pursuing the priesthood, he wanted to be a meteorologist, but "it took too much math" and "God had other plans."
But it wasn't until a church camp trip to Greece at the age of 15 that Damaskos felt the call from God to become a priest. Originally, he had wanted to be a meteorologist, but he realized "it was too much math." As Damaskos likes to say, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."
"God had other plans for me," Damaskos said. Fifteen years later, he was ordained.
In his quarter-century in the priesthood, Damaskos has served in California, Florida and Ohio. Now, his path has led him to Charleston.
Before becoming the priest at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, Damaskos spent 13 years as the dean of Toledo, Ohio's Holy Trinity Cathedral. He and his family wanted to stay in Toledo until his daughter, Dionna, graduated high school. After the polar vortex chilled Ohio to the bone this past winter, and with Dionna poised to graduate in the spring, it was perfect timing to make the move.
"It got to the point where my wife and I could not take another winter in Ohio," Damaskos said.
Damaskos made a call to the Metropolis (diocese) of Atlanta to see if there were any openings in the South. There were two, in New Orleans and in Charleston. It was an easy choice, he said, to relocate to the Holy City.
A "bonus" of relocating to Charleston was the chance of extreme weather. Damaskos turned his interest in meteorology into a storm chasing hobby; he's gone after some tornadoes in Oklahoma and was following Hurricane Arthur closely as it neared the Lowcountry late last week.
Damaskos escaped the cold of the Midwest in March, when he started work at Holy Trinity.
Since then, he has been "trying to get the pulse of the parish" while being received warmly by parishioners.
"They appreciate his directness, his honesty, while sensing his love for them," said Father George Malanos, the church's deacon.
The transition has been smooth, according to church secretary Carol Wenner, who has been with the church for 11 years and worked with four priests.
"He seems like he's always been here. He stepped in that well," Wenner said. "There really hasn't been a lot of breaking in. He's just blended in with everything we've been doing."
Damaskos has immersed himself in the church community, never missing a meeting or Bible study, Wenner said.
In working with the church's parish council, there has only been ease, said president Marshall Milligan.
"It was like putting on an old pair of shoes," Milligan said. "He fit right in."
Damaskos hasn't had too much difficulty adjusting to his new role; his biggest challenge, he said, is learning the names of all the parishioners. He's also waiting for his family to join him in Charleston. Their house in Ohio is still on the market, and his wife works full-time as a nurse practitioner.
The Charleston parish is slightly larger than the one he left behind in Toledo, but people belonging to the orthodox denomination as a whole make up only 1 percent of both South Carolina's and Ohio's populations, according to Pew Research. Overall church attendance nationwide has declined slightly in the past 10 years, and the amount of religiously unaffiliated people has increased.
This is "one of our biggest challenges," Damaskos said.
"When I was younger, you had the grandmother from the old country, from Greece, who instilled the value of going to church," Damaskos said. "Now, the yiayias (grandmothers) are not from the old country ... And there are a lot of sports on Sundays."
However, attendance is better in the Charleston church than it was in Ohio, he said.
When his children were growing up, Damaskos would tell them "as long as it's after 12 (p.m.)," after church, they could do what they wanted on Sundays. Now, with his professional transition, it's also a point of transition in his family's life.
Dionna, his 18-year-old daughter, is getting ready to start her freshman year at Grand Valley State University in Michigan in the fall. His son, William, 22, just graduated from Lourdes College in Ohio and will get married later this year. Damaskos said he hopes the house will have been sold and his wife will be able to join him in Charleston by September.
For Damaskos, raising children as a priest was no different than if he had pursued any other career.
"It is very normal for our family. Priests don't come from a different planet," Damaskos said. "We laugh, cry, get upset, go to baseball games ... My work is centered around the church, but I've never told them they have to do something because I'm the priest."
Once his family is settled in Charleston, Damaskos sees a long future of service in the church ahead of him.
"My future in the church is to just try and serve God and man with love and try and bring people closer to Christ," Damaskos said.
Those within the church, including deacon Malanos, look forward to having Damaskos around.
"He's the kind of person that's going to continue to bring the church forward as a family," Malanos said. "God willing, I look forward to working many years with Father Ari. The last couple of months have been inspiring and exciting."
Reach Amanda Coyne at 937-5592 or on Twitter @AmandaCCoyne.
Father Aristotle Damaskos×
After serving Communion during the Divine Liturgy commemorating Jesusí death, Father Aristotle Damaskos then serves blessed bread as a sign of fellowship as parishioners leave the church.×
On entering the narthex from the outside, Lena Hall, 13, and her mother, Stephanie, light a candle representing the light of Christ.×
Father Aristotle Damaskos (left) and deacon George Malanos carry the Eucharistic gifts down the aisle during the Divine Liturgy at the Sunday morning service.×
Parishioners linger after the service at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Charleston.×
Members of the church council, who stay in the narthex welcoming parishioners and guests during the service, kneel during the consecration of the gifts for the Eucharist at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Charleston.×
Father Aristotle Damaskos gives the sermon at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Charleston.×