Just about a decade ago, George Tatsis went on a mission trip to the wilds of Alaska.
He watched Yup’ik Eskimos live simple but harsh lives, surviving on animals they harvested from the land and water.
Tatsis admired the way the men and women practiced an Orthodox faith, originally brought to them by Russian missionaries and hunters in the 1800s.
There, among the natives, he once again felt a calling to join the priesthood that, for decades, he denied.
Tatsis soon afterward entered Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2003.
Now, only five years after officially becoming a priest in 2007, he is the leader of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A. with the name Bishop Gregory of Nyssa. He was consecrated during a nearly four-hour ceremony on Tuesday at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Johnstown’s West End. His meteoric rise from student to bishop all started with the trip to Alaska.
“They were very pious people, humble people, and they have their little churches and their little villages,” the new bishop said in an interview after the ordination.
“They’re very faithful. Just being around them with the struggles that they have to maintain their faith (was very impressive to me) because it’s harsher – Alaska’s harsh – the environment is harsh. ... You have to fish, hunt to eat in those areas. I felt some kind of presence. It opened a new window, a new door if you would to consider the priesthood again. So I took it. I went through the door.”
Hundreds of well-wishers, including members of the Christ the Saviour flock, priests from across the country and Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark Leonard Bartchak, attended the ordination.
“It’s pretty historical,” said Philip Yamalis, an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the highest honor for a layperson in the church. “It’s pretty awesome to be a witness of this type of event.”
Tatsis, 53, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. He previously spent 21 years in cardiovascular research at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.
“I was called to the priesthood as a teenager,” he said. “In my senior year of high school, I denied that calling, if you will, and decided to study to be a doctor. I went to undergraduate school. I tried to get into medical school three years and was denied. And, then, I told myself, I think God doesn’t want you to be a doctor, maybe there’s something else. ... When God wants you to be somewhere he’s going to take you there. You may delay the plans because you think you know something better, but, in the end, he puts you where you’re supposed to be.”
In his role as bishop, Tatsis will oversee 81 church communities in 13 states and Canada. The new bishop pledged to visit all of them within two years.
“Being a parish priest is one thing, but having to spiritually lead 81 communities is a much different thing. But with God’s providence, everything is doable,” he said. “I look forward to working with those communities and not just one, as I have done in the past.”
Tatsis, the diocese’s fifth bishop, replaces Metropolitan Nicholas Smisko, who died on March 13, 2011.