Last evening, Chicago lost one of its most beloved and respected priests, Father Byron Papanikolaou of SS Constantine and Helen Church in Palos Hills, IL.
For 55 years, Father Byron Papanikolaou called SS Constantine and Helen Church in Palos Hills, IL his home. He served the community with humility, zeal, and great love. Father Byron leaves a tremendous legacy – and a trail of tears. This gentle, beautiful man who hailed from Kozani, Greece followed his calling to the priesthood, and touched the lives of everyone he met. From his parishioners, to the greater Chicago Greek community, to the many priests he has inspired and mentored, Father Byron, called a “priest among priests, has left his mark.
His legacy also shines in the hearts of alumni and students of Koraes Elementary School, an institution he believed in with all his heart, and tirelessly promoted and supported. In 2010, on the occasion of Koraes’ 100th anniversary and his 50th year at SS Constantine and Helen, I had the opportunity to speak with Father Byron about the importance of the mission of Koraes, and Greek Orthodox parochial schools in general, for a feature in The Greek Star. His statements reveal something more – a true testament to his legacy, and how he touched people.
“For the parish, this school is our lifeline. Children receive an excellent education. They learn and practice the Orthodox Faith and our Hellenic roots are perpetuated. This year, I visited with 25 graduates when I was in Athens. I baptized most of them. They remain very close to and love Koraes. They all work for American companies and are living there. They found out I was in Greece and they came to the hotel to meet me. They told me how much they loved the school, the church – what it meant to them. Some, who’d graduated in the 1960s, said, ‘thank you to you and to the church. What we received there protected us from falling astray.’ It was a moment I truly cherished. Later I saw six other graduates while I was in Thessaloniki. They’ve never forgotten their time at Koraes. They made me so proud. I can’t articulate what this meant to me, how proud I was. I continually receive letters thanking us for the experience the students receive at Koraes. They feel it protected them, nurtured them. That’s why we are here.” ~ Father Byron Papanikolaou
I hope he knew that it wasn’t just Koraes that had left an indelible mark, but that it was also his influence, love, and support.
Father Byron and I met through my work at The Greek Star. He often called me to comment on articles, to praise my work, and occasionally share a story idea. He encouraged me to continue to tell the stories of our people, to share my love for our heritage and faith. To call him a cheerleader seems disrespectful, but he did indeed cheer me on, and many times it was as if he knew I was feeling discouraged or doubting my abilities–I needed those words to get me back on track.
In just a few moments, he left a lasting impression on my then 2 year-old daughter. Back in 2011, I attended a meeting at Koraes with Principal Diakonissa Mary Zaharis. My older daughter was at school, and I’d brought the younger one along. At the conclusion of our meeting, she took us to see Father Byron, and explained that he had been waiting eagerly to see me. He embraced us like old friends, and invited us into his office. I don’t recall the specifics of our conversation, but I recall feeling honored to be there, and uplifted by the experience. Father Byron spoke to my little girl, and made her feel special. He gave her a candy, and one for her sister. He also gave her a small icon or book, I don’t remember, but she cherished this small token. We had to leave soon after, and she didn’t want to; she wanted to stay with him. In the car, our very verbal child couldn’t stop talking about Father Byron. She couldn’t wait to tell her sister about her visit.
“Father Byron hugged me, and gave me presents, and told me he loved me!” she said.
She presented the candy to her sister, and told her it was a great gift. My older daughter, then 4, asked who was this Father Byron. I showed her a photo. My younger daughter began to shout, “Father Byron! Father Byron! That’s him. He loves kids!” She never forgot that day. Now 6, she will see a photo and recognize the kind man she met that day, who whispered something in her ear that made her feel loved, special and blessed. I don’t know what he told her, if it was merely his presence, or that he gave her his complete attention, but I do know it’s a memory she will never forget.
People flocked to Facebook to express their condolences, and share an anecdote about how Father Byron enriched their lives. One individual, vacationing in Greece, likened this loss to “an earthquake in Chicago”, whose tremors “were felt all the way in Greece.” He is remembered as a patient and gentle soul, with a passion for his faith and his flock, an indefatigable servant who gave his all, and “inspired everyone who had the privilege to kiss his ring.” Our deepest condolences to Presbytera Cynthia, his children, grandchildren, the parish family of SS Constantine and Helen, and all who knew him. We are so blessed to have had this remarkable man in our midst. May his memory be eternal.