T here’s an anecdote behind how St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery found it’s spot not far from the town of Florence that says much about the place that eventually became a key hub for members of the church.
The story goes that a group comprised of the monastery’s abbot, Elder Ephraim, and five or six monks were driving along State Route 79 seeking property to build an Arizona monastery when they heard church bells ringing.
“They heard bells in the desert,” Pete Koulouris said. “I think like half of the people (in the group) were hearing the bells.”
The monks were initially headed to Phoenix when they took the wrong turn. They took SR 79 in an effort to correct their course, and it was while driving along that road that they heard the ringing church bells.
Two amongst the group were sent to Florence to inquire about the property. They were told that the land was zoned for agricultural use, and that rezoning would be a challenge.
When they informed the elder of this issue, he suggested a mistake had been made and implored them to check the zoning on the property a second time.
The pair inquired about the zoning again and discovered the land was not only zoned for agricultural use, but also for the use of a church or monastery, Koulouris said.
The story is one he believes says much about the man who established the monastery and his faith.
Koulouris is the owner of Mt. Athos Restaurant in Florence, aptly named after a mountain in Greece that is home to around 20 monasteries.
The monasteries found on the mountain represent a wide range of Autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches such as the Greek, Russian and even Serbian Orthodox Churches.
St. Anthony’s is one of 19 monasteries in North America founded by Elder Ephraim, who began his spiritual journey at the age of 16. According to Koulouris, Ephraim, who only used one name in following tradition, had wanted to become a monk at 14, but initially was told he was too young.
Two years later, he left his home against the wishes of his father to follow a monastic path.
He went to Mount Athos, and decades later became the abbot of the Philotheou monastery. Some time later, Ephraim felt guided to start a monastery in North America after coming to the region on several trips where he gave homilies and led a number of other spiritual practices for members of the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S.
In 1989, he started his first U.S. monastery in Saxburg, Pennsylvania. Though he would establish monasteries in Texas, California, Florida as well as other locations, St. Anthony’s remained the central hub for many worshipping members of the Greek community.
Ephraim remained at St. Anthony’s as the spiritual head until he passed away at the age of 91 in December 2019.
His legacy continues to live on among members of the Greek Orthodox community.
“He was very loving,” Koulouris said. “Almost like a father to a lot of people.”
Beyond serving as a religious figure for many, Ephraim also became a symbol of hope for some locals living in towns surrounding the monastery.
The reason, said Nick Tsalikis, has to do with a daily practice Ephraim led over the years since establishing St. Anthony’s.
On a continual basis, followers of the faith would send donated food to the monks at the monastery, which included extravagant items such as chocolates.
With the monks adhering to a way of life designed to be free of indulgences, Ephraim decided instead to give those donations to area residents in need.
Now the owner of the Pita Patio Grill in Coolidge, Tsalikis remembers helping while serving as a religious worker at the monastery not long after he arrived in Arizona.
In later years, the practice would earn Ephraim the nickname of the “money man” on social media community chat pages. Photos of Ephraim and his driver handing out money at a gas station in Casa Grande even surfaced on Facebook, Tsalikis said.
The rounds were just one of several ways the monastery would give back to nearby communities in their own discreet way.
St. Anthony’s also continues to play an important role in attracting people from around the world to Pinal County.
Since its establishment, the monastery has managed to draw members of the faith and tourists from around the globe to the region. For many, the monastery not only serves as a place of worship but also as a place for connection — adding to Pinal’s population and its economy.
It was through the monastery that Koulouris was able to find a viable location to house his restaurant.
Before opening Pita Patio, in the heart of Coolidge’s downtown center, Tsalikis was the former owner of the Greek Islands Grill in San Tan Valley.
He came to Pinal County in 2000 at the consistent requests of his brother, who, Tsalikis said, had experienced a spontaneous healing of an illness six months after Elder Ephraim asked him to stay in Arizona for some time and pray.
After witnessing the transformations his brother experienced both in his health and character, Tsalikis conceded and came to Arizona.
While working at the monastery, he dreamed of owning his own restaurant. A property became available in Florence, and though he had the money to purchase the property, Tsalikis said he did not have enough to renovate the building at the time.
He spoke to Ephraim about the matter, who put him in touch with another Greek family from the East Coast that was seeking to relocate and start a restaurant.
“He told me that he knew a family that was in New York that had a successful restaurant down by Central Park,” Tsalikis said. “They were looking to come up, they wanted to do a restaurant and be close to the monastery. I was able to close the deal for them for the Mt. Athos space.”
For Koulouris, the move to Arizona to be closer to St. Anthony’s started as a dream, nursed by his parents for years, that never came true.
But in 2001, in the days after Sept. 11, that changed.
“My mother turned to my dad; she said ‘I’ve had enough. I’m going to lose my kids to this city, I don’t want to be here anymore — I’m taking your son and I’m leaving.’ So the next thing I know I’m packing bags and packing the house up.”
He arrived in Arizona with the intention of moving back to New York after he helped his parents settle. That never happened, and he has now been the owner of Mt. Athos for 16 years.
The monastery, he said, has a way of bringing people together, something Koulouris quickly realized when he discovered he shared a unique connection with an individual working at another Greek-owned business, the Mediterra Bakehouse in Coolidge.
Dino Koulouris is the manager of the bakehouse — overseeing the bakery’s daily operations. Mediterra is owned by his uncle, Nicholas Ambeliotis.
Sharing the same last name, Dino and Pete also share an interesting family history.
“We’re distantly related, my dad and his dad are third cousins,” Dino said. He noted that his father is also very close friends with Pete’s godfather.
But the pair only discovered they were related following a serendipitous turn of events.
Before moving from New York, Dino traveled to Coolidge for a brief period when his uncle first requested help to run the bakery. He had borrowed his uncle’s car to get to and from work.
On one occasion, the car broke down near Valley Farms. Dino called for a tow truck, and the dispatcher asked him if he happened to be related to the owners of the Mt. Athos Restaurant.
Although initially unsure, Dino and Pete would later discover their families originated from two very small villages in Greece located just 20 minutes apart. According to Pete, the occurrence is incredibly rare.
The odds that the two of them would end up living and working in the same county is something neither could have guessed. But the fact clearly shows the profound impact the monastery has had both on a global and local scale.
“The Greek community that’s here and businesses that have been established because of the monastery (shows) the power of one man being able to collectively bring people together,” Dino said. “There’s people here from Canada that have moved here, there’s people here from Greece, there’s people here from Russia, Romania — all over the world. That is a testament to (Ephraim) and what he’s left behind. He’s left that monastery, but in reality what he’s left is a community.” PW