ARLINGTON — Hundreds of devastated parishioners at a Greek Orthodox church in Arlington turned out to mourn and protest a lack of transparency surrounding the firing of a beloved priest at his last Sunday service.
The head of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston announced in a letter on Thursday that Rev. Nicholas M. Kastanas would be relieved of his duties at St. Athanasius the Great Church after more than 27 years, citing a “state of turmoil” related to “hurtful and destructive communications.” The letter did not mention any specific misconduct, and attempts to reach the Metropolis throughout the weekend were unsuccessful. Kastanas declined to comment at the church Sunday.
Members of the church, which serves 800 families, have been crushed by the news, devastated by the dismissal of a man they described as “the salt of the earth” and confused by the circumstances surrounding it. Some alleged at the church on Sunday that Kastanas was fired as a result of ongoing internal political strife directed toward him.
Seemingly endless numbers of parishioners had stories about how Kastanas had supported their families in a time of need: at the bedside of a dying relative, calling members of the church on their name days, visiting ill parishioners in the hospital. For many of the parishioners interviewed, Kastanas was the man who stood by them at major events in their life, from baptism to burial.
Peter Kasseris of Winchester said that the news was received painfully by his entire family.
“My sister is getting married, and her dream has always been to get married by Father Nick. She’s devastated; she’s looking for another place to get married now,” Kasseris said.
David Burns converted from Judaism and joined St. Athanasius’ parish for his wife, who is Greek Orthodox. Wiping away tears on Sunday, he was overcome with emotion.
“Father Nick is the embodiment of Jesus on earth,” Burns said. “He’s the force of the church. Without him, we’re lost.”
Clapping in St. Athanasius’ church is forbidden, as it is in many Greek orthodox churches, but parishioners gave Kastanas three standing ovations during the service Sunday, as some raised signs into the air bearing messages such as, “Bring back Father Nick,” and “Not a parish without him.”
People of all ages — men, women, and children — cried openly during the service.
His dismissal has also prompted nearly 1,900 people to sign an online petition calling for Kastanas to be reinstated, and one paper petition was passed around at the church on Sunday. One of the members circulating the document, Matthew Tilly, 14, said he was asked to leave by another church member.
“Father Nick has been here forever and I’m really sad to see him leave,” Tilly said. “Some people don’t want us to show him support.”
Since the news of his dismissal, Kastanas has largely stayed quiet, but in his sermon Sunday, responding to the outcries from parishioners, he encouraged the church to “be more understanding of the situation and to be peacemakers.”
“I’ve been truly blessed to be a part of your family for 27 years,” Kastanas said through tears. “I want us to please calm down and be peacemakers. I know that you’re passionate and can’t help it, being Greek, but we must return to being brothers and sisters and not be nasty to each other.”
But for many members of the church, Kastanas’ dismissal was fueled by ongoing internal political strife and crossed a line.
Ongoing conflicts in the church were reported in a letter sent in May to the Metropolis by the director of the church’s Sunday school, Ioannis Moutsatsos.
“The reputation of our priest is attacked directly and indirectly through rumors, innuendos, and misinformation,” he wrote. The letter further states that the church’s donations were down almost $30,000 as of March, and said that “numerous people have confessed they are curtailing their offerings” as a result of the internal strife.
Moutsatsos said he did not receive a reply to his letter.
Rumors that the long-serving priest might be fired began months ago, parishioners said.
In response, Sandra Mastorakos e-mailed a senior clergy member of the Metropolis in June asking if Kastanas was going to be fired. In an e-mail reviewed by the Globe, the clergy member replied: “Who told you that Fr. Kastanas is being fired? Rumors and gossip are one of the most dangerous things that threaten the unity and harmony of a parish. . . . I would advise you to go the person/people who told you this rumor which is a lie, and let them know they are spreading a lie.”
Looking back on the e-mail she received, Mastorakos said she came to one conclusion.
“We’ve been lied to,” she said. “If they’re going to fire our priest, they need to at least tell us why and be up front with us, and that hasn’t happened here.”