MANATEE — The Very Rev. Father Frank M. Kirlangitis is retiring on June 1 after 27 years leading St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, 7671 Lockwood Ridge Road.
At 78, the always smiling priest says his new mission is to spend time with his grandchildren, visit the family home on the Greek island of Chios and tour as yet unexplored nooks and crannies of Manatee and Sarasota counties, a region he calls “God’s country.”
With his soft brown eyes, wise-looking bald head, silver beard and teddy bear body type, Kirlangitis gets high ranks for “hugability” and “wisdom,” said church administrator Liz Beahm and countless of his flock.
Kirlangitis started the legacy of St. Barbara’s Greek Glendi, an annual everything-Greek festival that not only has become hugely popular, but has helped make the church debt-free, Kirlangitis said.
It was also Kirlangitis who strongly urged church leaders decades ago to purchase two acres of land from a neighbor to facilitate future expansion.
Construction of the church’s sanctuary with its brilliant iconography took place under Kirlangitis’ direction and wouldn’t have been possible without the decisions he made along the way, church members said.
“He is the best preacher I have ever seen,” said church member George Georgas, 72. “Part of it is his skill doing the orthodox liturgy, but it’s also his warmth with people and his sense of humor. All of that has helped him coalesce this church into a family.”
Kirlangitis also served as chaplain for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office under former Sheriff Charlie Wells and current Sheriff Brad Steube.
He retired from the position just recently.
“My job was to be there if anyone got hurt and needed me,” Kirlangitis said.
Being chaplain for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office was a deep honor for Kirlangitis.
“It was during those moments, working with those men and women, both the prisoners and the deputies, that I felt most Christ-like,” Kirlangitis said. “Like Christ, I was standing in the street, just being a minister.”
Before coming to Manatee County in 1983, Kirlangitis was assigned to two parishes in Georgia from 1971 to 1983. He also served law enforcement in Georgia.
It was there, in the mid-1970s, that something happened that Kirlangitis rarely mentions.
“I don’t want people to think I’m Matt Dillon,” the popular father said.
Unlike most clergy, Kirlangitis is a graduate of a police academy.
It was there he learned tactics that may have saved his life on that day in the mid-1970s.
Working with a Georgia SWAT team, Kirlangitis had talked a man into throwing his weapon out in the clear where all could see it.
“I broke cover and walked toward him,” the priest said this week. “He came out toward me and he was holding another gun.”
Something from police academy raced through the priest’s head.
“I remembered that it is hard to hit a target that is on the ground,” Kirlangitis said. “I hit the floor like an Olympian diver.”
The agitated suspect had fired at the priest as Kirlangitis was dropping, the rounds whizzing over Father Frank’s head.
That Georgia SWAT team returned fire, the bullets going over the prone priest and killing the suspect.
“It was tragic for me,” Kirlangitis said. “I almost saved the man. He was ex-military and something had just gone wrong in his life.”
In Manatee County, besides going out with SWAT he was the one who often contacted next of kin upon the death of a family member.
The job often involved knocking on doors in the middle of the night.
“It was very hard,” Kirlangitis said. “Especially when I would have to visit family members of law enforcement. They knew who I was and what my visit meant.”
Being chaplain, however, had its funny moments.
Kirlangitis once raced to the scene of a confrontation between law enforcement and a suspect and, clad in his clergy collar, jumped out of his Crown Vic amid a crowd.
“I heard a woman yell, ‘Charlie Wells now has deputies disguised as priests,’ “ Kirlangitis said. “It made me chuckle.”
When asked for a memory or two from the 27 years, Kirlangitis laughs.
“When I came here in 1983 we really had very little,” the priest said. “We were in this building that we now call our fellowship hall. We used folding chairs from a restaurant.
“I remember one time I was conducting the service and the smell of onions coming from the kitchen overpowered the incense at the altar,” Kirlangitis said.
The priest paused and smiled.
“It was a holy mess,” he said. “That’s why when we finally got into our new sanctuary we all felt as though we were in heaven.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, Ext. 6686.