An expression of faith

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Mary Jane Grenzow/The Monroe Times
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
— For the devout Greek Orthodox, the fish, a Christian symbol of Jesus, was enough to let Bessy Karabatsos know the Highway 104 property would be her home.

The fish actually were the third sign that the property near Brodhead was the right one for Bessy and her husband, Peter.

The first was the clearing she came to when she first walked through the wooded acreage.

Then she found a spring where deer came to drink. A life spring, she said.

They moved in 1993 and, as an expression of their faith, the Karabatsoses built a church on the small island in the pond on their property.

“In Greece, every family builds a church,” Karabatsos explained. Many are very small, and each one is named for a saint.

Karabatsos grew up in Greece. To escape the poverty there, she immigrated to Canada in 1962 with a program that brought young women over as domestic help.

“You had to be very poor and have six years of school,” she recalled.

In Canada, she met Peter, also a young emigrant from Greece. The two married and moved in 1969 to Chicago, where they raised their three children. Their son lives in Chicago with his family, while their daughters both are nuns in a convent in Greece.

In 1987, the couple came to Monroe, where they owned the Corner Cafe. And they had a bakery called Tino’s in Albany for a time.

Now they make hand-dipped beeswax candles for Orthodox churches in the region.

Like so much in the Orthodox church, even the beeswax is richly symbolic. The beeswax symbolizes the grace of the Holy Spirit.

“With the pure wax from the bee of which candles are made, the one nature of Christ is shown, the human nature,” according to a pamphlet Karabatsos shared.

The Karabatsoses actually have three churches in progress.

Beyond the bright blue door to the main church, Karabatsos explained the icons that adorn the walls. Icons are religious paintings depicting Jesus, Mary and a host of saints. Traditionally, icons are painted using vinegar, egg white and pigment, Karabatsos said. Many of her icons are on paper; she hopes to replace them as work on her church continues.

Karabatsos crossed herself and kissed each image as she came to it.

People misunderstand that. She is not looking at the picture, but rather through the picture, she said. “Right to heaven. The icons are a window to heaven.”

She explained the symbolism expressed in her favorite icons, giving the image context and bringing subtle details to light. She pointed out how the hand of the Virgin Mary points to Baby Jesus, inviting all to go to her son—a small detail that might be otherwise missed by a non-Orthodox visitor.

In front of the main church stands an ornate hand-carved altarpiece from Greece. The center door is reserved for the bishop. For now, that door will remain unused. The bishop has visited the church, but formal worship services have not been held in the church because it is not finished.

An adjoining room is actually a separate church, which will be used for baptisms. A large basin will be installed above a drain hole in the floor. A friend told her the basin wasn’t large enough to do a full immersion baptism—Karabatsos laughed when she recalled climbing in the tub to test it out. She was pleased to learn there is plenty of room for an adult.

The third church is a tiny brick chapel named for St. Michael just a short distance from the main church building. Inside is just enough room for one or two people to kneel in prayer, surrounded by more icons.

It’s an impressive testament to the couple’s faith.

But there’s more to do.

“It’s not complete,” Karabatsos said. “There’s a little more to do.”

She doesn’t know when it will be done.

“God knows—in God’s time,” she said.

Even as a work in progress, the church sees plenty of visitors. People of the Eastern Orthodox faiths—not just Greek, but Russian and Antiochian Orthodox as well—will come to visit.

They learn about the church by word of mouth, Karabatsos said, and come from other states to pray there.

“The Orthodox people find it. They come from Chicago just to pray,” she said. “They say they feel very, very good when they go to pray here.”

So good that these visitors helped build the churches.

“People come in and help,” Karabatsos said.

They donate labor or materials or money to help with the project.

Friends and visitors also helped construct a community hall on the property, which Karabatsos said will serve as a gathering place when large groups come to visit.

“So many people have helped through the years,” she said.

She doesn’t mind the visitors to her church—in fact, it pleases Karabatsos that so many find peace there.

“That’s what they are there for,” she said.

Even with the help of friends and strangers alike, it’s a lot of work for the Karabatsoses. But it’s a labor of love.

Karabatsos said faith is the most important thing in life. At the age of 26, she survived cancer—that was in 1967, when the survival rate was much lower than it is today.

She said that gift of life was the “biggest gift I ever received.

“Every day I live is God’s gift to me.”

Last updated: 8:37 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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