The sale of an abandoned church that has become a Destin icon has awakened memories of the past and fears for its future.
St. John Greek Orthodox Church was purchased by Destin businessman, Mike Buckingham, on his third offer, which was $330,000, after it had been on the market for months.
The chapel and property at 303 Hwy. 98 were appraised at a little under $350,000 in 2012, according to the Okaloosa County Property Appraiser.
"My initial thought was to make it a restaurant," Buckingham told The Log. "I'm not going to rush because it is a beautiful building. I want to make sure it is done right.”
The most recognizable feature of the church is its dominant stained glass windows, but over the years, the building itself has deteriorated. The carpets are mildewed and some of the wood columns that support the church’s porch are rotting.
But many in the community still have vibrant memories of this chapel that love built, and they are worried that the structure will be destroyed.
Buckingham, however, says "at this time, I have no plans to tear it down. I want to take my time and think it out."
The man behind the church
The church’s history is intertwined with one of Destin’s pioneers, John George Maltezo.
Born in 1865 on the island of Aegina, Greece, Maltezo lived in the village of Perdica until the age of 16. He joined the crew of a sailing ship around the turn of the century and came to America.
John settled in Milton and eventually moved to Destin in 1922, where his shipbuilding endeavors included a 35-foot snapper sailing vessel, the Dreamland, and the Primrose, the last seine boat built in Destin — which is still on display outside the Community Center.
"Captain John Maltezo was one of the most respected members of the small fishing village known as Destin," Capt. Ben Marler, his grandson, told The Log. "He was a craftsman and could do most anything he set his mind to."
The Maltezo family grew to include Alexander P., Tony G., Nicholas, Andrew, Anastasia Inez, Margarette, Stella, Eventhia, and Cleopatra.
Maltezo donated the land where St. Andrew's By-the-Sea Episcopal Church is located, and spent much of his spare time carrying lumber from the beach to the church site when it arrived by boat from Pensacola. He did not convert from his Greek Orthodox faith and called St. Andrew’s his church home. He died in 1932 at the age of 67 decades before St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church would be built next door to his church home.
St. John Greek Orthodox Church is born
John George’s daughter Cleo Maltezo Marler and her husband Ben traveled to Greece many times and saw many little chapels around the countryside. After their first trip, Cleo wanted to build such a chapel here in Destin to honor her father.
"Mother loved him with all her heart," Capt. Ben, son of Cleo and Ben Sr., said. "This marvelous building was constructed to the Glory of God and in memory of her dad. Once she got her mind set on something, she did it. She was a doer."
The land for the church was purchased by Capt. Ben Marler, Sr., and Cleo commissioned an architect she met in Greece to draw up the plans for the chapel. She also involved her family in the planning, including her sisters Stella and Vera, her daughter Joy, and Jimmy and Doris Maltezo Trammell.
"The windows cost a small fortune, along with the furniture that was flown in from Athens, Greece," said Capt. Ben.
In the late 70s, Cleo and Stella took their plans for a chapel to L. J. Henderson, a builder of schools and churches since 1972.
"The more we did, the more they wanted done," Henderson recalled. "The sisters provided the land, all the materials and we built the beautiful building."
Henderson is also the builder behind most of First Baptist Church of Destin, as well as churches in Panama City.
"Mr. Henderson did an outstanding job," Capt. Ben said. "He used fine materials and did outstanding work.”
The church was dedicated to the memory of John George in 1984 and turned over to the Greek Archdiocese in Atlanta, which would eventually put it up for sale after focusing its resources on the Saints Markella and Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Mary Esther.
"St. John's was built as a family prayer chapel," Dale Maltezos Allen told The Log. "It was never meant to be a church. I'm surprised they're selling it."
Members of the Maltezo family and other residents of Destin have vivid memories of the times they spent at St. John's, for baptisms, weddings, funerals, Cross Dives, and other services. The structure and décor were beautiful, with a high ceiling and paintings and icons that still adorn the walls.
Tona Newland, daughter of Doris Trammell, attended Epiphany services and St. John's Patron Saint services at the church.
"I have a photo of my mother with a priest at my niece Harmony's Chrismation, like having baptism and confirmation in one," she told The Log. "I was filled with awe whenever I went in there."
A Cross Dive was held yearly at the Destin church and participants would cross 98 to watch the young men and women dive for the cross in Destin harbor. According to Log records, the last cross dive was held in 2006, before it was moved to Saints Markella and Demetrios and Santa Rosa Sound.
"I really do not want to see it knocked down," Newland said. "I want it to be a church just as my grandmother wanted it to be. I guess you could call this the family funeral church. My grandmother, Stella Maltezos Marler, was the first.
"Cleo, my mother, Doris Isabelle Trammell, Cleo's daughter, Joy Hanshaw and my father Jimmy Trammell's funerals were in that church,” continued Newland. "Strong family ties, and the pews have the names of the Maltezos family."
“Grandma loved that little church."