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Prof to Priest: Wheeling Pastor Shares Faith Journey

Photo by Nora Edinger Father Demetrios Tsikouris, pastor of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in the Centre Market district, was once a professor of pharmacology and therapeutics at the University of Pittsburgh.

WHEELING — Things were going well.

The man formerly known as James Tsikouris was an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. He had students that he loved and some university-related clinical work at nearby UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. His research — which he said reflected a lifelong interest in the interaction between medicine and the complexities of the human body — was funded by the American Heart Association among other entities.

He also had a wife, three of what would later become four children and a house.

But, Tsikouris — who said a desire for a closer relationship with Jesus and a fascination with the Orthodox form of worship he had known from birth began to build in his 20s — had this niggling feeling that he wasn’t going to stay.

After literal years of pondering the situation, he finally told his wife, Shelly, he was considering a change of vocation — from professor to priest.

Somehow, he said, she already knew and was on board. The family began the dramatic transition that ultimately brought them to St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in Wheeling’s Centre Market district, where the man now known as Father Demetrios Tsikouris has pastored for eight years.

ALL IN

The name change was perhaps the smallest one, he noted.

The son of a Greek immigrant, Tsikouris grew up in a household in Campbell, Ohio — a small steel town outside Youngstown — that was full of Greek language and culture. His grandmother — a woman he described as, “such a sweet, holy person you couldn’t help but be moved by her life” — couldn’t imagine why anyone would swap the Greek name of a saint for the English “James” for his school and work life.

“I was baptized Demetrios, I was married Demetrios, I was ordained Demetrios,” Tsikouris said of that other sector. “In church life, I was always Demetrios.”

Name choice aside, how people reacted to his overall decision and the financial realities of leaving a well-paying job for the ministry were more complicated.

Tsikouris’s professional peers were largely supportive, he said, but some of them and some of his family members were concerned.

“A lot of people, when they hear of a man going to seminary or someone going into the ministry in mid life, they say, ‘What is happening?'” Tsikouris said. “Some thought it was foolish to leave a good career. The problem is they’re looking at the priesthood as a career. It’s not a career.”

Tsikouris, who views the ministry as an election by God, said he was inspired by the writings of St. Gregory. St. Gregory, pope at the turn of the AD 600s, considered the priesthood to be a part of the “mystery of salvation,” intended to “give the soul wings and to snatch it from the world and give it to God.”

That said and deeply believed, Tsikouris said he was also well aware he had a family to support and that their leap of faith was going to be a big one financially.

“My wife and I had to sell everything — we had a nice house in Pittsburgh — and move into a tiny apartment at the seminary for four years,” Tsikouris said. He added that the apartment was less than 100 yards from the Boston-area seminary chapel.

They could easily hear the morning and evening bells that marked the services they would attend as a family.

Over the course of four years of study alongside students who were mostly the same age as those he had taught at Pitt, Tsikouris said he also taught some courses at a nearby university to supplement the family income. But, the family was still all in.

“We spent our whole savings,” he said of those educational years, followed by early years of priesthood that paid less than half of what he had been making as an academic. “We spent everything … but we never were without.”

NEW HORIZON

At age 41, Tsikouris was ordained and the family moved to Wheeling.

Eight years into ministry, he has completely swapped the lab coat of his profession for the full-length black cassock of the priesthood, but he noted his academic past has shown itself to be valuable.

He’s still teaching. He’s still managing and leading. Those were skills he learned on that initial job, he said.

Other parts of his new life have been more of a surprise, he said. “It’s (the priesthood) more beautiful and more painful than I’d realized it would be.”

It’s painful, he said, in that he feels the weight of accountability for the souls of those in his pastoral care.

He said the Orthodox practice of confession also directly connects him to the brokenness in other people’s lives.

He additionally feels a burden to engage outside his church, particularly given the ravages of the pandemic, which he believes is causing people to feel a call to repentance and spiritual vigilance. Both of which, he said, may feel unfamiliar to modern Americans.

“People are more than happy to talk about our bodies … but we don’t talk about our souls,” Tsikouris said of what he has discovered in conversations he’s been having around the Centre Market neighborhood. “Most people today rarely, if ever, even consider this higher side of the human person.”

Tsikouris said all these interactions are also the beautiful part of the priesthood.

He gets to pray for people’s real needs and sometimes gets to see that mystery of significant spiritual change referred to by St. Gregory. “Life can be very hard, but that can make it beautiful,” he said.

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