George Papaioannou, 66, the Greek Orthodox bishop of New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic states who for 27 years was the priest of Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Bethesda, died Nov. 22 at Suburban Hospital after a stroke.
Bishop Papaioannou collapsed after having spoken Sunday night at the annual stewardship celebratory dinner at his former Bethesda church, which he built from a core of 75 families in 1971 when he began his pastorate. Today it has more than 800 families from the Bethesda, Potomac and Gaithersburg areas.
After concluding his remarks, which ended with his declaration that "I am a steward of this church, and I will be until the day I die. I love you," the bishop sank into a chair, complaining of dizziness. Later he lost consciousness and was rushed by ambulance to Suburban Hospital, where he was placed on life support systems. With his three daughters present and with their consent, the life support systems were withdrawn, and he died about 3 a.m.
Bishop Papaioannou was named a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church Archdiocese of America in 1998, becoming only the eighth bishop in the 1.5 million-member archdiocese and the first accepted from the ranks of married clergy. His diocese consisted of 52 parishes in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. As in other Eastern Orthodox churches, Greek Orthodox parish priests are allowed to have a wife and family, but bishops are not. Bishop Papaioannou's wife, Maria, died in 1993. But because of the Greek Orthodoxy's emphasis on lifelong celibacy, no other widower had been named a bishop in the century-long history of the church in the United States.
His elevation to the episcopacy capped a career in Bethesda that began when he assumed spiritual leadership of a religious community that had no permanent house of worship and scant resources. When he left, the church had a new sanctuary; an extensive program for children and youths; a Greek school, where Greek language and culture were taught; a 12-room educational wing; and a social hall that doubles as a gymnasium.
Additionally, over a 25-year period, the church provided lodging on its property for more than 1,000 Greek families that needed a place to stay while their children received treatment at the National Institutes of Health.
Bishop Papaioannou, a diminutive, energetic and flamboyant priest, was known for an inexhaustible work ethic and an ability to persuade members of his congregation to take on difficult tasks. He was a skilled fund-raiser, not only for his church but also for other charitable causes. In 1985, he helped raise $185,000 for a liver transplant for a young Greek boy. In 1997, he helped raise $265,000 for a liver transplant for a monk from Mount Athos in Greece. He was witty and outspoken and was sometimes seen as critical of narrow interpretations of church policy and dogma.
For 12 years, he wrote a column in the Orthodox Observer, the official publication of the Orthodox Church in America, in which he urged compassion and common sense as guides to the enforcement of church policies.
"I am outspoken. I am candid. I have compassion. I feel rather uncomfortable as a clergyman seeing abuses of wealth and power. Whenever I have said or written something which might be interpreted as criticism, it has been with some pain. I take no joy in disagreeing with my fellow clergy, and more especially with my superiors. But I have never sought acceptance or approval of my views," he said.
He wrote several books, including "From Mars Hill to Manhattan: The History of the Archdiocese of North and South America," "The Odyssey of Hellenism in America" and "The Diamond Jubilee of the Greek Archdioceses of America 1922 to 1997."
Bishop Papaioannou was born in Thebes, Greece, and graduated from the Theological School of Halki, Turkey. He received a doctorate in theology from Boston University.
In 1956, he was ordained to the priesthood and served at Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in Istanbul. He then was reassigned to the parish of St. Demetrios in Hamilton, Ontario. There his work included finding jobs for Greek immigrants who were arriving in Canada by the thousands.
In 1962, he was reassigned to the Orthodox Church of St. George in Manchester, N.H., where he remained until 1971 when he was assigned at St. George in Bethesda.
Survivors include three daughters, Alexandra Moski, Eleni Spirou and Vasiliki Szczesny; a brother; and six grandchildren.
CAPTION: George Papaioannou led Bethesda's Church of St. George for 27 years.