When “Father Bill” Chiganos started organizing Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Westchester, Dwight Eisenhower was president and Richard J. Daley was in his fourth year as mayor of Chicago.
Father Chiganos, 82, head of the Westchester church since 1959, was one of the longest-serving priests in the Greek Orthodox Metropolis covering 58 parishes in Illinois, northern Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Missouri. He suffered a major stroke in December and died Monday, said his son, Bill.
His congregation started out worshipping in a gym at Westchester’s old Nixon School. “The members and my dad would go door-to-door knocking on doors to try and get people to come to church,” his son said.
Father Chiganos oversaw Holy Apostles’ construction and growth, from blueprints to a celebrated work of architecture. It bustles with 800 families, some with third- and fourth-generation worshippers, and offerings from holy services, to Greek language lessons, to classes on how to “Bake Like Yiayia.”
Dynamic and innovative, he blended English and Greek into services. He started what amounted to a theological book club, with churchgoers reading works by internationally known philosophers and members of the clergy, who were then invited to lecture at Holy Apostles at 2501 S. Wolf Rd. He helped expand a Greek youth camp that has operated for 30 years in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, leading to lifelong friendships and marriages — including his son’s.
Father Chiganos welcomed church donations, no matter how small, saying, “You give what you give,” his son said. He taped his sermons and was gratified to learn they were circulating throughout the country, including prisons. “There were people who would get them in jails and write letters on how he helped them,” his son said.
He wrote sermons that touched people, especially when he spoke of grief and death. He and Effie, his wife of 59 years, lost their daughter, Sofia Stefanos, to breast cancer when she was 33 and had recently given birth to her third child.
In the church newsletter, he wrote of his loss for words when, as a young priest, he met with those in mourning. But he said, “I discovered the deep pain that death brought into my life when members of our family were taken from us, especially our beloved daughter, Sofia.”
The tragedy meant “when he sat with families that were struggling with death of a loved one, that he could understand that pain and difficulty,” his son said.
The son of immigrants from Kalamata, Greece, young Bill Chiganos went to Austin High School and Assumption Greek Orthodox Church at 601 S. Central in Chicago. His father, Sam, owned Chicago’s Washington Restaurant, and his mother, Sophia, was a homemaker. Father Chiganos met his future wife at a dance at Assumption, his son said.
He attended Hellenic College in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, dubbed “the intellectual, educational and spiritual center of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.” His first church was in Pittsfield, Pennsylvania, his son said.
As Greek-Americans moved from the city to the western suburbs, the diocese charged him with building a new church, said another Holy Apostles priest, Rev. Nicholas Georgiou. “He started the church with a handful of people and his family,” he said.
Father Chiganos selected a plan by architect Edward Dart for a brick-walled church that conjures the dark comfort of the catacombs that sheltered early Christians during persecution, Georgiou said. It features Sirio Tonelli mosaic icons that glow like Klimt paintings. The Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects bestowed a design award on the structure.
In his private life, Father Chiganos had a passion for golf. His favorite players were Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, whom he ran into outside Oak Brook Golf Course. When the priest congratulated him on his game, Palmer said, “Thanks, Father.”
Once, at O’Hare Airport, Walter Payton spotted Father Chiganos’ priest’s collar. The Bears great was flying to work on an early 1990s bid for an NFL franchise in St. Louis. “He asked my dad to say a prayer for him, got on his knees,” Bill Chiganos said, “and dad said a prayer over him, before he got on a flight.”
In addition to his wife and son, Father Chiganos is survived by a daughter, Marissa Lorusso; another son, Phillip; and 12 grandchildren. A wake is planned from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Holy Apostles church. His funeral is scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday. Burial is at Chapel Hill Gardens West Cemetery in Oakbrook Terrace.