MANATEE -- By 2 p.m. Monday, a torrent of emails, texts and phone calls were circulating through parishioners of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Sarasota.
People were telling each other about something that had never happened before in the 30-year history of the church.
A member of the church, 18-year-old Peter Smith from Ellenton, had leapt out of the water Monday morning holding the Epiphany cross during the 108th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs.
Smith, a student at Saint Stephen's Episcopal School in Bradenton, surfaced from the 62-degree water of Spring Bayou with the cross while surrounded by 42 other
boys who had jumped in with him during the event, which every Jan. 6 commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
"It's the first time in our church's history that one of our young men has received the honor and blessing of receiving the Epiphany cross," said Peggy Sue Doukas, a St. Barbara church member since 1986.
St. Barbara has had at least one boy dive for the cross every year for the past 20, but locals have been beat out by boys from Tarpon Springs, Clearwater, New Port Richey and other nearby towns.
"Oh my goodness, I burst into tears," Doukas added when asked her reaction. "News was passed through parishioners so quickly. It's a great blessing for our church and the family. I've know Peter since he was a toddler. He was raised in faith and you can tell by the pictures taken when he came up with the cross that he embraced the honor and received it with humility."
There is so much excitement surrounding the achievement that Father John Bociu will conduct a special blessing service at 11:30 a.m. Sunday for Peter Smith and his family, Doukas said.
Smith said he was still in a bit of a shock Tuesday after receiving congratulations at school. As is the custom, he took the cross home.
"I also dove last year, which was my first time," Smith said. "You can only dive when you are 16, 17 or 18, so this was my last time."
On Monday, Smith drove to Tarpon Springs with his mother, Anna, and his brother, Robert, 14. His father, Bob, was home sick with the flu. But when dad heard the news, he rose from his sick bed and drove to meet his family.
"We all got into boats, but my boat flipped over and I went in the water," Smith said. "I was in the water the whole time."
Smith had faith the cross would sink to the bottom this year. That made all the difference, he said.
Several times previously, the cross did not sink.
Many of Smith's fellow divers stayed on the surface Monday looking for a floating cross, Smith said.
"I was really the only person down there," Smith said. "I think the other boys were thinking it might float like it did last year. I said to myself I will gamble and hope it goes under."
Smith saw the white cross thrown about 45 feet from him and swam a straight line for awhile then dove to the bottom. "I swam in a straight line," Smith said. "I was the only boy around it."
Smith said the honor and how others have reacted has been tremendous.
"When I came up with it I couldn't really believe it," Smith said. "There are a couple of pictures of me that show how I felt. You can tell I was in shock. It's a year filled with blessing to get the cross."
Doukas saw a picture taken of Anna Smith kissing the top of her son's head. She said the picture reminded her of the Virgin Mary kissing Jesus.
"Now you see this mother filled with love," Doukas said, her voice choked with emotion. "It is not an easy task to retrieve this cross."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.