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Father Nicholas Vieron, beloved priest, Memphis icon, dies at 94

He challenged and charmed generations of Memphians of all faiths.

Father Nicholas Vieron led the benediction for a Tigers Touchdown Club meeting in September 2019. (Ziggy Mack/Daily Memphian file photo)

Rev. Nicholas L. Vieron, the beloved Greek Orthodox priest whose ebullient and ecumenical spirit inspired, challenged and charmed generations of Memphians of all faiths, died early Tuesday. He was 94.

Father Vieron, the son of Greek immigrants, died under hospice care, surrounded by his family at his home of 65 years, a few blocks from Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. His health had been declining for months.

“He lived a life of service to his congregation, his community and his family,” said his eldest son, Dr. Lee Vieron.

Wedding Nicholas and Bess Vieron, taken in 1948. (submitted)
Wedding photo of Nicholas and Bess Vieron, taken in 1948. (submitted)

Father Vieron came to Memphis in 1955 with his wife, Bess, to become senior pastor of Annunciation on Highland. Bess Vieron died in 2017 at age 90.

Father Vieron retired from the pulpit in 1991, but kept working – officially as the church’s pastor emeritus and unofficially as the community’s chaplain and cheerleader.

“When I arrived in Memphis in 1991, the first person to greet me at the Memphis Ministers Meeting was Father Vieron,” said Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel. “Nobody modeled God’s love for all humanity better than he did. He and Bess were the kind of couple you wanted to be if you were married.”

Father Vieron was among the clergy leaders who worked to bring Memphis together and end the sanitation workers’ strike after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Oh, Lord. Bless his heart,” said Rev. Dr. James Netters, 93, a City Council member in 1968 and retired pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church Westwood. “Father Vieron had a tremendous impact on this community. He was one of those people who did not allow his religion to segregate him from others. He spoke out. He loved all God’s children. He was a friendly and lovely man.”

From 1970 to 1992, he helped bring people of different faiths together as a senior panelist on the local TV show, “What Is Your Faith?” Rabbi Harry Danziger of Temple Israel also was a panelist.

“When he spoke of ‘those who pray in the shadow of the cross or the star of David or the crescent,’ he truly expressed his kinship with all of God’s children,” said Danziger, who first met Father Vieron when he visited a Greek Orthodox Church as a high school student in West Virginia. “He was the very embodiment of the love and the social justice that he taught.”

Every year from 1972 to 2019, he brought dozens of people together to have some fun, laugh a lot, and learn a little Greek in his 15-week Adult Greek Class.

“There’s no homework, and only one test, but you don’t have to take it,” the instructor would tell his students on the first evening of class. “The only requirement is attendance and putting up with my corny jokes.”

He even passed out copies of his jokes. One of his favorites: “There are three stages in life. Young, middle-aged, and ‘You’re looking good.’”

Father Vieron was a storyteller. His parishioners and students heard stories about his papou, his grandfather, a peanut vendor in New Orleans, who told him stories of ancient Greece and helped him learn Psalms in Greek by heart.

They heard about his father, Leonides, who worked at a coffee shop in New Orleans and who called his children matia mou, “my eyes.”

Father Vieron with his wife, Bess, and their sons Lee, right, and Paul in a family photo taken in the 1960s. (submitted)

They heard about his beloved Bess, his wife of 69 years, the rudder and anchor who helped him navigate his own spiritual and emotional seas.

In many ways, Father Vieron’s class was a tribute to Bess, who taught Greek to youth at the church for five decades. She also worked for 40 years as a nurse, first at old Baptist Memorial Hospital then at Trezevant Manor.

“When I retired, my dear Bess told me I could only spend an hour a day at home,” Father Vieron told The Commercial Appeal in 2002. “She knew I would need to stay busy, and, of course, she was right.”

Father Vieron stayed busy for nearly three decades after he retired.

He filled in for years as a visiting priest for churches in Nashville, Indiana, Florida and Texas.

He was editor and publisher of The Epistle, a national newsletter for retired Greek Orthodox priests, for 17 years. He even designed the emblem of the Retired Clergy Association.

He played racquetball several times a week. He was chaplain of the Touchdown Club and delivered blessings for 40 years.

He attended countless Tigers and Grizzlies games. Before one game in 2019, Father Vieron blessed Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was born in Greece, by kissing his hand.

He gave tours of Annunciation’s magnificent and meaningful sanctuary, a kaleidoscope of color, form and light. Every painting, candle and stained-glass window points to God.

He always pointed to one stained-glass window that contained an image of Evangelismos, Greek for the Annunciation, in which an angel appears to Mary and delivers “the good news from God that He would appear among us.”

Father Vieron had a master’s degree in history from Marshall University and a law degree from the University of Memphis, but he was first and always a priest.

“He was devoted to his Greek Orthodox faith,” said his son, Paul Vieron.

Nicholas L. Vieron, the son of Leonidas and Ellas Vieron, was born in New Orleans on Nov. 13, 1925. He grew up across the street from America’s first Greek Orthodox Church.

At age 16, he went to seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he met Bess. They have two sons, Dr. Lee Vieron, a physician in Memphis, and Paul Vieron, who cared for both of his parents in their last years. Father Vieron also leaves four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

In his church office, Father Vieron had a photograph of Archbishop Iakovos, who visited Memphis several times and challenged and inspired Father Vieron to speak out and get involved. Iakovos marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

“He was a wonderful man, a great mentor in the faith, and an ecumenical giant,” Father Vieron said of Iakovos a few years ago. “He saw that all people have a touch of the divinity.”

In 1968, Father Vieron was chairman of the Memphis Ministers Association, an interracial and interfaith group that supported striking sanitation workers.

“Prejudice and discrimination are sinful, according to the ethics of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” the group wrote in a letter to the community published in February that year.

On April 5, the day after King was assassinated, the group marched down Poplar Avenue to City Hall, where they confronted Mayor Henry Loeb and demanded that he meet with workers and end the strike.

“The day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. It became the saddest day of my life,” Father Vieron wrote a few years ago in The Commercial Appeal.

“I felt personally responsible for his death, so much so that I somehow had to express my sorrow and extend my apology to someone – to a Black person. When we Memphis ministers gathered the next morning at St. Mary’s Cathedral, I knelt before Rev. Jim Jordan of Beale Street Baptist Church, and said ‘I am sorry’ as tears formed in my eyes. It was a symbolic gesture of forgiveness.”

In 2015, Father Vieron was among the recipients of the MLK Legacy Awards at the National Civil Rights Museum.

When Father Vieron retired in 1991, he was awarded the city’s highest honor, the Award of Merit. He took time to thank his parish. It’s something he did on a regular basis.

“He was always the first to call and tell you how proud he was of you or the first to send you a note to say thank you,” said Joy Touliatos, director of the Memphis Public Service Corps and former Shelby County Juvenile Court Clerk. She grew up in Annunciation parish.

“I have a voicemail from Father saved on my phone now. He always started by saying, ‘You don’t have to call me back.’ He was thanking me for something I did and he went on to tell me how grateful he was for not only me but my parents and sister and by the end he was crying as to how blessed he was to have us. He will be truly missed. There will never be another Father Vieron.”

The family plans a private service Saturday. Father Vieron will be interred at St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 in New Orleans, which also was the final resting place of his wife, Bess, and his parents.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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