Scores of Greek Orthodox Christians flocked to Margate on Sunday 6th January 2019 for an annual celebration marking the baptism of Jesus. The ‘blessing of the seas’ ceremony has taken place every year in the Kent town since the 1960s. Crowds gathered in the Greek Orthodox Church of St Michael the Archangel in Westbrook for a service presided by the Right Reverent Athanasios Bishop of Tropaeou, The Blessing of the Waters takes place in Greek Orthodox communities throughout the world.
Margate was the first Greek Cypriot community to re-enact this traditional ritual in the UK and it has now been established as the focal point for this special festival. Our little church was pact to the rafters, with Right Reverend Trevor Willmott Bishop of Dover, and the great friend of Cyprus Sir Roger Gale MP, among the congregation. His Excellency Euripides Evriviades, Cyprus High Commissioner in the UK was also there, as well as his Excellency Dimitris Karamitsos-Tziras, Ambassador of Greece. Also attending was Mr Marios Minaides, President of the Association of Greek Orthodox Churches UK, Mr Christos Karaolis, President of the Federation of Cypriots in the UK and Mr Andreas Papaevripides, President of the World Federation of Overseas Cypriots.
As soon as the church service for the Epiphany had ended, Canterbury Road was closed by the police so that our huge procession following a piper through the town to the sands on Margate’s seafront could begin. Some of the marchers had travelled hundreds of miles to join us. The furthest town to attend with twenty-five representatives was Brightlingsea, near Clacton -on -Sea, 125 miles each way from Margate. A little nearer, we had Mayors and other officials from the towns of Ashford, Gravesham, Dover, Folkstone, Tonbridge and Malling, New Romney, Sevenoaks, Maidstone, and eleven others.
This festival is the biggest annual festival of any kind in the whole county Kent. It is also the one event on which Margate Council spends the most money annually. Leading the procession was the First Margate Boys and Girls Brigade band. During the short procession to the beach, the band entertained the crowd of onlookers with a variety of tunes. They were followed by the Mayor of Margate and all the other civic dignitaries from around Kent, attired in their full ceremonial robes and chains of office.
The ecclesiastical contingent was next, led by Bishop Athanasios, Bishop of Dover Trevor Willmott and our own Very Reverend Archimandrite Vissarion. Accompanying them was Sir Roger Gale who attended this celebration every single year since he was first elected as a Member of Parliament for Thanet North back in 1983 as well as the Greek Ambassador Dimitris Karamitsos-Tziras and the Cyprus High Commissioner Mr. Euripides Evriviades.
Mr Andreas Papaevripides, Mr Marios Minaides and Mr Christos Karaolis also marched. During a brief ceremony at the beach at which hymns were sung, three white doves were released into the air as the photographers all attempted to get the best shot! Bishop Athanasios then hurled a wooden cross wreathed in flowers and attached to a blue ribbon into the sea; young Kosmas Papadakis dipped his feet into the North Sea to retrieve it and hand it back to the Bishop. His mum and grandmother were standing by with thick blankets to dry and protect the eight-year-old from the bitter cold. Clergy, dignitaries and worshippers then made their way to Margate’s Winter Gardens. After lunch and coffee, speeches followed by the Mayor of Margate Cllr Julie Dellar, Mr M. Papadopoullos, president of the Greek community of Margate, Father Vissarion, and the Right Reverent Trevor Willmott. As Bishop Willmott is retiring this year, the Greek community, through their president, thanked the Bishop for not missing any of the celebrations of the Blessing of the Seas ceremony throughout his tenure. Father Vissarion presented the Bishop with an icon of Archangel Michael.
The Ambassador of Greece Dimitris Karamitsos-Tziras also addressed the gathering, congratulating local authorities and the church committee for the organisation of the event. Cyprus High Commissioner Mr Euripides Evriviades was next to address the meeting with fluency and enthusiasm. His Excellency then presented Mr Papadopoullos with a Cypriot flag which Mr Papadopoullos proudly wrapped around his shoulders. Sir Roger Gale MP, Chair of Cyprus APPG, told the congregation that his biggest regret is the fact that after 45 years, Cyprus is still divided and suffering after the Turkish invasion. He expressed his wish and support for talks to resume this year so that Cyprus can be reunited.
Lastly, Bishop Athanasios thanked everyone for attending and making this such a successful event. He also thanked the local civic authorities for working so closely with the Greek community. The Bishop then asked to see young Kosmas again and he handed the brave boy the cross that he retrieved from the sea as well as a prayer book. This festival, celebrated in the middle of winter, started 54 years ago in our town and has taken place every year in icy conditions, in snow storms and gale force winds.
Year after year, the attendance has grown in number and has succeeded in blending the religious element of our lives with the civic. It has enriched community life here in our town. It has enhanced the relationship between the civic authorities in Margate and our community and we are extremely proud of our contribution. In the Greek Orthodox faith, the Blessing of the Seas event marks the start of the Festival of the Epiphany, celebrating the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, and is celebrated all over the world.
Michael Papadopoullos Photo: Frank Leppard