Barbara Austin grew up in a Methodist church in Whitehaven. She knew the Lord’s Prayer by heart, but not in the original New Testament Greek
So when she saw the prayer, handwritten in Greek, on a small poster in Rev. Nicholas Vieron’s Adult Greek Class in 1983, she had no idea what it said or how it would change her life.
“I know, you look at that sign, and you think, ‘It’s all Greek to me,’” Father Vieron told Austin and her classmates, “but, in a few weeks, someone will raise his or her hand and read every word on that sign. And that person will be hated by everyone else in the class.”
Everyone laughed. Father Vieron didn’t teach his Adult Greek Class so much as perform it. Still, Austin was intrigued. And intimidated.
She’d heard the prayer spoken in Greek once before and thought it was beautiful. She felt an immediate spiritual connection to it, though she couldn’t say why. But hearing it was one thing. Learning to read it aloud was quite another. Greek has its own alphabet. Some Greek letters look like Latin letters but make different sounds. Some don’t look like letters at all.
Austin liked puzzles. And as a computer programmer at State Tech, she worked with COBOL and other early data processing languages. But she couldn’t make out the Greek words on Father Vieron’s poster, not even when she sat in the front row. The sign was too small, the letters too odd and unfamiliar, and the priest’s handwriting nearly illegible.
“I needed a bigger sign, so I decided to make one,” Austin said. “I just showed up with it, and said, ‘Here, put this up so I can read it.’ Father Vieron laughed and put it up.”
Austin’s legible, large-print, 3-foot by 5-foot poster helped her and countless other students who took Father Vieron’s class over the years, including me, learn to read and recite the Pater Imon, the Lord’s Prayer in Greek.
Now, the 38-year-old, slightly worn poster is in my house, bequeathed to me a few weeks ago by Paul Vieron, Father Vieron’s son.
I don’t know what to do with it, but I can’t part with it.
Rev. Nicholas L. Vieron opens in a new windowdied on Sept. 29, 2020, at age 94. This Sunday, Sept. 26, his family, friends and fans will gather at opens in a new windowAnnunciation Greek Orthodox Church to express their love and commemorate the one-year anniversary of his death.
“May your memory be eternal, brother,” Rev. Simon Thomas, Annunciation’s priest, will say at the end of the memorial service, an important ritual in the Greek Orthodox Church, “worthy of blessedness and everlasting memory.”
That won’t be a problem.
“Memphis will never be without Father Vieron,” Rabbi Micah Greenstein of opens in a new windowTemple Israel said earlier this year when a section of Highland Street in front of the church was renamed to honor Father Vieron. “Our love for him will never die.”
Greenstein, who last week celebrated his 30th year as a rabbi at Temple Israel, came to Memphis the same year Father Vieron officially retired.
“When I arrived in 1991, the first person to greet me at the Memphis Ministers Meeting was Father Vieron,” Greenstein said. “When I was installed as Senior Rabbi (in 2000), Father V literally stormed the pulpit to speak and present me with the Greek Orthodox Clergy of America pin and a yarmulke with an American and Israel flag on it. Only in Memphis.”
Only Father Vieron. If you knew him, you loved him. If he knew you, he was devoted to you.
Father Vieron’s love and devotion — to God, to his wife, Bess, and their sons, Lee and Paul, to his parish and his community — was legendary here.
He was born, raised and buried in New Orleans, educated and married in Massachusetts, but his heart, mind and soul were fully invested in Memphis.
He served the same church as pastor and pastor emeritus, and lived in the same modest house a few blocks from the church, for 64 years.
“He was a role-model Memphis clergyman who had everything a human being could ever hope for in this lifetime within a matter of blocks,” Greenstein said. ”A congregation committed to the greater good, a home within walking distance filled with the family he adored and the love of his life, Bess, by his side, all in a city he never abandoned his faith in.”
More than fraternity names
In many ways, Father Vieron’s class was a tribute to Bess, who taught Greek to youth at the church for five decades. The Vierons were married for 69 years. Bess, who worked for 40 years as a nurse, died in 2017 at age 90.
“When I retired, my dear Bess told me I could only spend an hour a day at home,” Father Vieron told me in 2020. “She knew I would need to stay busy, and, of course, she was right.”
My wife and I took the Adult Greek Class in 2015. We enjoyed spending an hour every week with Father Vieron so much we took it again, with my mother, in 2016.
Five years later, I still have the yellow folder he gave every student, overloaded with handouts covering various aspects of Greek language, history, culture and religion — and copies of his “corny jokes of the week.”
I still have both graduation diplomas, “suitable for framing,” as Father Vieron put it, with special stickers earned for perfect attendance and for reciting the Pater Imon, the Lord’s Prayer, in Greek.
I couldn’t have done it without Barbara Austin’s poster.
After the first class, I took a photo of the poster with my cell phone. I studied the 258 letters, 55 words and 75 accent letters on it for weeks.
I knew the New Testament was written first in Greek, and that Jesus spoke Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek long before he spoke the King’s English.
I knew a handful of Greek letters I’d seen on fraternity and sorority buildings in college.
I had no idea Greek is a lot more complicated than Phi Beta Kappa.
For example, the letter Nu sounds like an ‘n’, and the uppercase form is written like a Capital ‘N,’ but the lower case form is written like a small ‘v’.
The letter Rho sounds like an ‘r’, but the upper case form is written like a capital ‘P’ and the lowercase like a small ‘p’.
I was struggling until Father V gave me some sage advice: “It’s Greek, not English.”
Like an epiphany
Father Vieron taught his Adult Greek Class every spring from 1972-2019.
“Some learn a little, some learn a little less,” Father Vieron told thousands of students over the years.
Some learned a lot.
After Barbara Austin made the large-print poster, she was able to follow along word for word every time Father Vieron went over it in class.
She studied it in class and at home. Once, on a business trip, she spent an entire day in a hotel room studying and memorizing the Pater Imon, which in Greek means “Father of Ours.”
“As I repeated it over and over, I didn’t want to just parrot the words, so I began untangling the words until the whole had meaning for me,” Austin said. “I don’t know how to explain exactly what happened that day, but as I understood each new word and phrase, from then on the Pater Imon was within me. It just sank into me. It was like an epiphany.”
Austin recited the prayer in class, and she graduated with a diploma suitable for framing. She wasn’t finished with her lessons.
She wanted to hear the Pater Imon as it is said during the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic worship service of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. So she attended a service at Annunciation. She was moved and inspired by the blaze of colors in the sanctuary, the pungent odor of incense and the sounds of chanting, singing and praying in liturgical Greek.
She kept studying Orthodox rites and rituals. She learned how to make the sign of the cross, how to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, how to receive the Eucharist, how to recite the Nicene Creed in Greek.
On May 1 of that year, Austin became a member of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. Her husband, Larry, who also had grown up in a Methodist church, joined a month later, along with their two children.
Like Barbara, Larry felt a deep spiritual connection to the Orthodox rituals, sites and sounds. They didn’t know why until they talked to Larry’s mother.
“As we talked about what we were learning about our new faith, his mother realized that although they went to the Methodist church, they were raised to observe the Orthodox fast days of Wednesday and Friday, how to make a proper sign of the cross and not to eat before receiving communion,” Austin said.
Larry knew one side of his family came from Lebanon. He knew his ‘siti,’ Lebanese for grandmother, was baptized in the Jordan River. He didn’t know that his Lebanese ancestors were part of the larger Greek Orthodox world.
During the first eight centuries of Christian history, most major developments in the church took place in the Byzantine Empire where Greek was widely spoken and used for most theological writings. That included much of the Middle East.
When Larry’s Lebanese ancestors came to America in 1892, they settled in New Orleans and attended Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Nicholas Vieron, born in 1925, the son of Greek immigrants, grew up right across the street from that church.
Windows to heaven
I asked Barbara Austin if she wanted the poster she made for Father V’s class. “I wish I had room for it,” she said.
So now I have the large-print, 3-foot by 5-foot poster that helped me and countless others learn to read and memorize the Greek version of a prayer first uttered 2,000 years ago in Aramaic, another language I can’t read or pronounce.
I don’t know what to do with it, but I know I can’t part with it. Father Vieron spent a lot of time pointing to Barbara Austin’s poster. It feels iconic – in the Greek Orthodox sense of the word.
Icons adorn the walls, ceilings and windows of most Orthodox churches. The sacred works of art depicting Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary or the saints are expressions of Orthodox faith, teaching and worship.
“Icons are windows to heaven,” Father V explained when he gave our class a tour of Annunciation. “They all point to God.”
As did Father Vieron.
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.