Although the Rev. John Chakos, the lead priest at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon, retires from active parish ministry Friday, it is hardly the end of his spiritual service.
Father Chakos, 70, will leave soon for Guatemala to teach at a new seminary. Once ordained at that seminary, the new priests will return to their villages to serve their fellow Mayans.
The Christian effort is in response to a request by an independent church group for the Mayan people in 350 villages in northwest Guatemala and southern Mexico to join the Orthodox Christian Church.
"I am very excited ... this is a unique opportunity to open the doors of the church and provide a spiritual home," he said.
His replacement at Holy Cross is not yet known because the head of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh, Metropolitan Maximos, resigned recently for health reasons. His replacement will appoint Father Chakos' successor.
Father Chakos' wife, Alexandra, will join him in Guatemala and then train villagers in sewing and arts and crafts.
"We'll be among loved ones there, too," she said, referring to the people she has met during the numerous missions trips to Guatemala that the Upper St. Clair couple has made.
They met in 1964 at a Holy Cross dance at the Castle Shannon Memorial Hall when both were college students. In 1964, Mr. Chakos began teaching English in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
About six months after marrying in 1966, the couple joined the Peace Corps, spending two and a half years living and teaching in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
"There was a lot of soul searching seeing so much poverty," Father Chakos recalled.
About a year after returning to the States, he said he experienced a spiritual awakening during services at Holy Cross.
"I had a feeling of God calling me to the priesthood during the Hebrew reading of, 'You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek,'" he said of his decision to enter the seminary in 1971.
The Orthodox Church was founded by Saint Paul the Apostle in 33 A.D. Clergy may marry in the church, which is headed today by Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul.
"It is hierarchical and participatory, with a greater role for laity in its governance," Father Chakos said of the church.
After his ordination, he served two churches in Chicago from 1974 to 1980 before returning to his home parish of Holy Cross, located at 123 Gilkeson Road.
The Chakoses and other church members have traveled to Guatemala numerous times on annual missions, including those to the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage in Guatemala City. The church also collects food, clothes and toys year-round for the orphanage.
In 1999, the Chakoses adopted their daughter, Jenny, now 23, from the orphanage.
The couple, who has three other children and 10 grandchildren, plans to spend six months a year in Guatemala and the other six months at home with family.
Father Chakos said what he will miss most about leaving Holy Cross is the parishioners.
"We established wonderful relationships with parishioners over the years, all of whom have been very supportive of our family and our desire to serve in the missions," he said.
The parting will not be for long -- at least for some of the parishioners: Nine church members will be undertaking their annual trip to the orphanage in December.
Besides a mini-reunion, Father Chakos is looking forward to a planned theological school in Guatemala to complement the seminary and what it will mean to the villagers, who have a high rate of illiteracy.
"It will offer the opportunity for higher degrees," he said.
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: email@example.com .