This past Tuesday, April 7, marks the one-year memorial of the repose of my spiritual father, Father Panagiotis (“Peter”) Kastaris of blessed memory. I’ve known a lot of missionaries in my day, and Father Peter was one of the greatest among them.
Father Peter was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and immigrated to Athens as a child. He married in his early twenties and was ordained a priest in Thessaloniki by the age of 25. Five years later began his family’s apostolic journey to the United States.
Father Peter labored for forty-five years in this country, making disciples in Ohio, New York, Missouri and Florida. I met him when I moved to Gainesville in 2005. He had come out of retirement for the second time to minister to St. Elizabeth Greek Orthodox Church in Gainesville. Father Peter lived in Lakeland. He was elderly and infirm. Every Saturday morning he would go to dialysis and then get on the Greyhound, travel to Gainesville, and serve Liturgy on Sunday. Monday morning he’d get back on the bus and travel home to Lakeland.
When he’d arrive in Gainesville Saturday evenings, Father Peter would have to say goodbye to everyone on the bus. Because in the few hours of that ride, they had become his friends. I can’t begin even to estimate the number of lives that were touched by his simple ministry of taking the Greyhound.
In the spring of 2007, Father Peter moved into an assisted living facility in Gainesville. Two days later he suffered a bad fall and was laid up in the hospital through the end of the summer. When he was finally well enough to come back to church, Father used a cane and sat in his wheelchair to serve the Eucharist. His body was very weak– he’d spend Monday through Saturday building up the strength he needed to stand for an hour serving Liturgy on Sunday. Sunday afternoon he’d go home exhausted, and spend another week getting ready for his next Liturgy.
He’d also spend that week ministering to his assisted living facility. Everybody knew Father Peter, and everybody loved him. Sometimes he’d invite me to join him for lunch. It was a blast sitting at the table with him and talking to all the folks who’d quickly become his fast friends, blessed by his presence.
The day before Sunday of Orthodoxy last year, Fr. Peter suffered another fall and went back to the hospital. This time, his body did not recover. On the morning of April 7, 2008, he suffered a stroke and fell asleep that evening. He was buried several days later in Queens, New York.
Here in the United States, we usually don’t think of our priests “from the old country” as missionaries. Father Peter was a missionary. He’d been sent to serve the Greeks in America. He did, and he served them well. The peace of Christ followed wherever he went; parishes in deep conflict were healed by his touch. But he always said that he found his greatest joy when his congregation was not limited to any one ethnicity; when he brought new people into the faith and brought new faith into his people.
Father Peter changed my life. And his missionary service to me is one of the major reasons that I’m preparing for missionary service to others.