NOTE: The following article is taken from the Orthodox Observer, December 1997, p. 18.
FLORENCE, Ariz. . The Patriarchal plane lifted off the runway at Los Angeles International Airport under rainy skies on a late Monday morning, Nov. 10, one week before the end of His All Holiness’ pilgrimage to the United States. The chartered Boeing 727 turned eastward for the 630-mile leg to Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city, just east of Phoenix.
By Jim Golding
As the jet reached cruising altitude high above the Mojave Desert, and with most of his visit behind him, it seemed the right time to ask His All Holiness to reflect on his coast-to-coast odyssey. But it was not to be. After a brief, friendly greeting, his quick response to a request for a quick interview was to shake his head and utter two words “I’m exhausted.”
After giving more than 115 speeches at as many venues over a three-week period in more than a dozen cities from Boston to Los Angeles, and greeting countless thousands of people in so many varied settings, who wouldn’t be. And he still had much work ahead of him.
Throughout the flight Patriarch Bartholomew reviewed the speech he was to give that afternoon at the monastery with his second deacon, San Antonio native Tarasios (Peter Anton). It was 13 pages in length, all Greek.
It landed at a former air force base turned-community airport. The members of the entourage and local welcoming committee members entered the nearly dozen vehicles making up the motorcade and set out on the hour-and-a-half ride across the desert.
Merely viewing the miles of flat, sandy terrain dotted with saguaro cactus (the state ‘tree’), purple sagebrush and dry, barrens on, another 10 miles remained. The motorcade turned onto a dirt road and soon became immersed in a cloud of dust for a final half-mile before coming upon what can best be described as a miracle in the desert.
“Three years ago this was nothing but desert,” remarked Chris Ganos who with his wife, Judy, had volunteered to drive their van in the motorcade. Ganos was the architect who helped plan the complex that includes a church, dormitories for the 20 resident monks and a few guests, a dining hall and book store. The buildings resemble those of monasteries in Greece and are constructed of cement blocks topped with tile roofs. The monks painted over each block, originally a shade of gray, with a specially blended red that seems to fit in with nicely with the desert hues. There also is the feeling of a hacienda of the Spanish Southwest.
The monastery has electricity and water comes from a well some 500 feet deep. Until very recently, the only communications with the outside world was by cellular phone, but, through the efforts of Fr. Efraim of Mt. Athos, who was the driving force behind the establishment of the monastery, regular phone service was installed in October.
Arriving at the monastery on a very warm (temperature was in the 80s, but felt hotter), dry mid-afternoon, the Patriarchal party was greeted by the sight of more than 100 cars and buses on the unpaved parking area in front of the complex, many from as far away as Canada.
After a little more than an hour, the jet descended on final approach over the desert punctuated by scattered mountain ranges, large patches of irrigated fields and the oases of numerous housing tracts in the Phoenix suburbs’ mountains in the distance from the window of a comfortable van was enough to make one thirsty.
Arriving in the town of Florence, home of the Arizona State Prison, on State Highway 79 midway between Phoenix and Tucson.
Several hundred of the nearly 800 persons visiting that day came from Montreal, Toronto and other parts of Canada. Others came from various states including New York.
One couple, John and Joanna Pantanizopoulos of Knoxville, Tenn., came to visit their son, one of the monks.
Patriarch Bartholomew, joined by Archbishop Spyridon, and Bishop Anthony of San Francisco whose jurisdiction includes the monastery, conducted a doxology inside the small un-air-conditioned church that was filled to overflowing.
He followed the service with his 13- page speech addressed to the more than 100 monks and nuns who had made the pilgrimage from the nearly one dozen other monasteries in the United States.
Meanwhile, hundreds more men, children, a very large number of women of various ages, scarves covering their heads, some with disabilities, waited for the service and homily to end in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Patriarch. A few of the silently busy monks walked quickly between the church and dining hall, to oversee preparations for the luncheon that was to follow.
After nearly two hours, His All Holiness and the other hierarchs emerged from the church and walked the few steps leading to the dining hall.
A short while later, the Patriarch departed for the ride back to the Mesa airport for the flight to the next stop on his itinerary, Stockton, Calif., and a doxology service at St. Basil Church.
Only one more major venue remained at the end of the week. Pittsburgh. But in the interim, Patriarch Bartholomew and most of his entourage spent four days in the mountains around Lake Tahoe as guests of Alex Spanos for a much-needed rest.