The old priest officially retired nearly three decades ago, but he still looks good.
“There are three stages in life,” said Rev. Nicholas Vieron, who turned 94 in November. “Young, middle-aged, and ‘You’re looking good.’ ”
Lately, Father V has been looking better than he feels.
He lives just a few blocks from Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, where he was senior pastor from 1955 to 1991. But he hasn’t been to church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in weeks.
He missed the Dec. 6 Feast of St. Nicholas, his name day. He missed the Christmas Day Feast of the Nativity and the New Year’s Eve liturgy.
Monday, for the first time in 48 years, he will not be conducting his annual Adult Greek Class, which became a Memphis tradition.
Father V’s mind and soul are willing. His body, not so much these days.
“I wish I could continue the class, but 94 reasons keep me from doing it,” he said as he sat in a wheelchair in the house he shared with his wife, Bess, of blessed memory, for 62 years. “Sometimes I feel OK, sometimes I don’t, but I get tired very quickly. It’s hard for me to get out.”
It will be hard for him not to next week.
Vieron has started his 15-week Adult Greek Class every January for 47 consecutive years – half his life.
It may have been the longest-running one-man show in Memphis. It also was one of the easiest classes to pass.
“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.”
The thousands of students who attended the class over the years all graduated with honors and received a diploma “suitable for framing,” as Father V put it.
“Father loves an audience, and they love him,” said Loretta Taras, a lifelong member of the church who helped Vieron turn the final class each year – a “graduation ceremony” – into a party with Greek food and dancing.
“People signed up for the class to learn some Greek,” Taras said. “They kept coming back to spend an hour with Father Vieron.”
A tribute to Bess
Vieron, the son of Greek immigrants, grew up in New Orleans 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 were married for 69 years and have two sons, Lee and Paul. She died in 2017.
In many ways, 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,” Vieron said. “She knew I would need to stay busy, and, of course, she was right.”
Vieron started teaching the class in 1972 as a favor to a friend. She was taking a group to Greece and asked Vieron to help them learn a few Greek words and phrases.
“I tried to be a real teacher,” he said. “I made it too academic. I started teaching them declension and so on. A number of people dropped out immediately. It was no fun.”
In the second year, the class was a lot less formal, a lot more Father V.
“I am not a professional teacher,” Vieron said, repeating a disclaimer he delivers to every class. “Rather, I ‘perform,’ and some learn a little, and some a little less.”
The Monday evening “performance” became so popular, Vieron began offering a second on Tuesdays, then a third on Wednesdays.
He peppered his lessons on Greek language, history and culture with heartwarming personal stories and corny jokes.
Every student heard the one about the old man’s encounter with a talking frog:
“Kiss me,” the frog says, “and I’ll turn into a beautiful princess.” Instead, the old man puts the frog in his pocket. “Don’t you want a beautiful princess?” the frog asks. “At my age,” the old man replies, “I’d rather have a talking frog.”
Students also heard about Father V’s 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.”
They heard about his beloved Bess, his rudder and anchor, who helped him navigate his own spiritual and emotional seas.
“I’ve always been a bit emotional,” Vieron said. “I think my corny jokes are a cover-up. I recall when on a Sunday I came home after an occasional emotional sermon, Bess chastised me: ‘People don’t come to church to hear you cry!’ But, all I recall is her smile.”
A funny guy
Vieron’s playful sense of humor and sweet asides were as much a part of the curriculum as the Parthenon, Pythagoras and the Pater Imon (the Lord’s Prayer in Greek). Students laughed while they learned.
The first Greek word they learned in class was Theos, which is Greek for God. “What do you expect from an old Greek priest?” Father V would say.
“I’m proud to say that no one has ever taken this class and then joined this church. But I hope many people who have taken this class have had their own particular faith strengthened and deepened. I also hope they had fun.”Rev. Nicholas Vieron
At the end of every class, he’d read aloud the Lord’s Prayer, written in Greek on a large sign at the front of the room.
”I know, you look at that sign, and you think, ‘It’s all Greek to me,’” he’d say. “But in about six 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.”
Father V is a funny guy, but it wasn’t his sense of humor that made his Adult Greek Class so popular and poignant.
Rachel Cheek took the class last year and aced the Pater Imon.
“I love a good challenge,” she said, “but I did it for him. There’s no better reason. He has taught me how we can all expand, even in our late years when contracting is much easier.”
Even students who signed up just to learn a little New Testament Greek were moved by Father V’s expansive and profoundly ecumenical spirit.
“My sermon preparation is different because of him. I always consult the Greek translations now,” said Rev. Henry Key, senior pastor of St. John Baptist Church on Vance. Key and his wife, Dr. Shirley Key, took the class together in 2015.
“But it wasn’t just his love of the Greek language. He has such a genuine heart for all people. It’s given me a wider view of history and humanity and scripture.”
For nearly half a century, Vieron’s Adult Greek Class was its own sort of divine liturgy.
The Greek word for liturgy is leitourgia. It comes from two other words – leitos, meaning people, and ergon, meaning work.
“The word leitourgia was used in Greek antiquity to describe those services and acts which were performed for the benefit and common interest of all,” it says in the Divine Liturgy’s introduction.
Father V performed his Adult Greek Class for the benefit and common interest of all.
Laura Fox Ingram and her daughter, Anne, have taken the class a dozen times, including last year. They were planning to take it again this year.
“I love the way Father Vieron communicates God’s love for everyone, not dwelling on the differences among the major faith traditions, but embracing those things all the major religions have in common,” Laura Ingram said.
“I wasn’t there to convert anyone,” Vieron said. “I’m proud to say that no one has ever taken this class and then joined this church. But I hope many people who have taken this class have had their own particular faith strengthened and deepened. I also hope they had fun.”
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.