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Father Byron Papanikolaou, longtime Greek Orthodox priest, dead at 81

Father Byron Papanikolaou was one of the longest-serving Greek Orthodox priests in the country, at one of the denomination’s biggest U.S. churches.

For 55 years, he guided Saints Constantine and Helen Church in Palos Hills. When the street outside was renamed Father Byron Way in 2007, the website www.greeknewsonline.com estimated that during his tenure, the church presided over 903 weddings, 3,748 baptisms and 1,947 funerals. The biggest estimate was for hospital visits: 65,000.

In the days before the HIPAA privacy law, he would go around to different hospitals and look over the patient lists. When he spotted a Papadapoulos, Stamos or Demetriou, he would climb the stairs to their rooms.

“He used to visit people in the hospitals all over Chicago,” said Father Tom Demedeiros of Saints Constantine and Helen.

“He used to go early in the morning to the hospitals to visit with the patients before the [day shift] nurses were there, 6 in the morning,” said Metropolitan Iakovos, presiding hierarch for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, which covers Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin and parts of Indiana.

“That was near and dear to his heart,” said his son, Aristotle Papanikolaou. “He didn’t wait for the family to call.” Then, “he would often follow up for months, just to make sure people were OK.”

Father Papanikolaou, 81, died Aug. 11 at Palos Community Hospital.

Born in the Macedonian mountains, he was given the name Byron in honor of the Romantic poet. Lord Byron became a Greek national hero in the 1820s for funding and training troops in the fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire.

His paternal grandfather was a Greek Orthodox priest, and when he was a little boy, Byron Papanikolaou played with a censer, the vessel for burning incense. In his hometown of Dasilion, people raised goats and sheep, cultivated olives and used donkeys for transport. By village standards, his father was prosperous. He had a general store.

But with World War II and Greece’s occupation by German and Italian forces, “They lost everything,” Aristotle Papanikolaou said.

In 1952, young Byron and his parents immigrated to America, settling in Milwaukee. They lived in a hot attic apartment while he finished high school and worked.

He did his religious training at Holy Cross, the Brookline, Massachusetts, Greek Orthodox seminary for the U.S. When he graduated in 1960, he was valedictorian, said another son, Evans. In church circles, he met a young woman, Xanthippe, or Cynthia, from the village of Pentalofos, near his hometown. They married on Sept. 11, 1960. A few weeks later, he was ordained.

They moved to Chicago for his assignment at “the first Greek Orthodox church built by Greeks in Chicago,” according to the official history of Saints Constantine and Helen. The church was located at various spots on the South Side, the last at 74th and Stony Island Avenue, now Mosque Maryam, headquarters of the Nation of Islam. As parishioners moved west, the church followed them to the suburbs in the 1970s.

In 1964, he was named head of the church. He was proud of its school, where he handed out Ion Greek chocolate to the children. “They would run to his office to kiss his hand,” Metropolitan Iakovos said.

He coached the kids on learning a Greek word that summarized his outlook on life: ipomoni. It means patience and perseverance.

Father Papanikolaou acted as a one-man employment agency, food pantry, bank, mechanic and counseling service, according to friends and relatives. If church members lost jobs or were down on their luck, he’d call other parishioners to find them work, apartments, food, free auto repair and help with tuition bills.

Decades ago, someone rang the family doorbell around 11 p.m. “I’ll never forget it,” Evans Papanikolaou said. Outside was a little girl, who told the priest her father was hitting his wife and children. His father took her in and listened. Then he intervened to ensure the man never hurt his family again, his son said.

Through struggles with stomach cancer and Parkinson’s disease, he still came to church every day, sang from the altar and worked in the office.

In addition to his wife and sons, he is also survived by a daughter, Sultana Tsokolas; five grandchildren; and a brother, Nick Papanikolaou. Services have been held.