The first Greek church I ever visited was in Fort Walton Beach at Christmastime 1970. Entering was like walking full face into the robes of St. Nick.
Outside was cold, but when the heavy doors were opened, the rich atmosphere flowed out: of deep red velvety carpeting, golden pictures and censors, white swirling smoke that took your breath, and gold satin-robed priests. It was warm and inviting like blood in your veins or grape juice in your cup.
A quarter century later, I stand in St. John's Greek Orthodox Church in Destin, inhaling gardenia laden smoke until cantors stop to follow the dazzling golden cross across the highway. We seek a warm place at the base of the hill shivering in the wind while swimmers plunge into icewater for a cross.
Greek women and men alike are dressed in black leather and dark glasses. Women of every age totter in sky-high heels, trying to keep their balance in the sandy parking lot. It looks like a funeral at the dock. And then, doves fly, and the cross is retrieved by a sputtering diver who drips frigid seawater on the concrete dock as he takes a knee for his blessing by the bishop.
The first time I entered St. John's, I whispered, "sanctuary," for there was no other word for it. Ceilings soared to the floors of heaven. Blue and red stained glass windows glowed, a dozen golden chandeliers dripped clear crystal overhead. Plush water blue carpeting lay underfoot, so thick you had to train your ankles not to wobble.
Startled, I saw the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in gold leaf with arms outstretched in the rafters.
It was like a homecoming I wasn't supposed to know about yet.
The last time I saw the inside of St. John's was to say goodbye to my grandmother, Cleo Marler, in 1995. She laid in a white open casket prepared for Greek burial, with English and Greek prayers, drenched in incense and ceremony. Her brothers had lain there and her sister, Vera, was the last. Even the pews had been permanently rearranged to allow a corridor for the pallbearers who were to come.
About 95 years earlier, their father planted the seeds for their devotion.
John Maltezos was the fifth man to come to Destin, being born in Perdika, on Aegina, Greece. He brought his nine children and boat building skills to Destin, crafting boats for its people. In Aegina there were 365 churches. Some were cathedrals but others were just chinks in a wall — sand and candles, a venerated icon.
John was a man of faith, building his life and establishing a house of worship at St. Andrews By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, using hand tools and lumber he brought in by sail and artifacts from the original Greek church of Pensacola in the 1920s. Imagine deep ruts made in the white sand as he dragged each board uphill and then across the road, and the sound of his hammer's bang, bang, bang ringing out over the trees. Sawing and drilling would have of course been silent with hand tools.
He could have built a Greek church, but chose to build an Episcopal one, because that way, they could get a priest.
John Maltezos’ descendants brought the Greek-custom Blessing of the Fleet from Tarpon Springs in 1950 and hosted the 64-year-old annual event on family docks until 1999. The Blessing of the Fleet is now a cherished tradition and rich ritual of great importance to the hard working captains, crews and families of Destin.
After St. John The Baptist Greek Orthodox Church was built in 1984, the descendants together with the congregation of Demitrius and Markellas Greek Orthodox Church of Fort Walton Beach, moved the annual Epiphany Day January 6th Dive for the Cross to Destin, an event that is meaningful to Greeks and non-Greeks who came from miles to witness the spectacle each Epiphany Sunday in January from 1986 to 1996.
This church, now demolished to make way for a restaurant, was given by sisters Cleopatra Marler, Stella Marler and Vera Walters, in loving memory of their father, John to the Archdiocese of the Greek Orthodox Church, and from 1986-1996 was utilized for worship, weddings, sacraments, blessings, and funerals. It was always open to persons of all denominations for worship and fellowship, even though they never had a priest, and that's something John Maltezos seemed to know.
I would like for it to be remembered as a place of beauty and solace, and God's house, and John George Maltezos for loving God most of all.
Athena Marler Creamer is a Destin native and descendant of John George Maltezo. She has penned a number of self-published books about Destin history.