"Dies Before Altar in Row with Priest; Near-Riot Follows" article - New York Times, October 3, 1921
Published in The New York Times, October 3, 1921
DIES BEFORE ALTAR IN ROW WITH PRIEST;
Fig Merchant’s Mysterious Death Leads to
Free-for-All Fight in Greek Church.
AUTOPSY TO BE HELD TODAY
Police Seek to Discover Whether Blow from Candlestick
Killed President of Trustees.
WIFE AND SON SEE TRAGEDY
Shouting Men and Screaming Women
Rush to Street and Detectives Get Confused Story of Case.
Nicholas Varzakakos, a well-to-do fig merchant of 48 Washington Street, fell dead yesterday in front of the altar of the new Greek Orthodox Church at 155 Cedar Street, after a controversy with the pastor. The cause of death was a mystery, and an autopsy will be held today to learn whether the merchant was killed by a blow from a candlestick or died from natural causes.
The tragedy was followed by a free-for-all fight in which adherents of the Rev. Kerlilo Vafiadakis, the priest, came to blows with the followers of the dead man, who was President of the Board of Church Trustees.
Varzakakos’s wife and 12-year-old son witnessed the tragedy.
In the noise and confusion of combat the body of Varzakakos was carried to the sidewalk. Most of the congregation followed. Men were shaking their fists and shouting at each other; women were screaming, and the noise brought half a dozen patrolmen to the scene, where they tried vainly to find out what had occurred.
The body of the fig merchant was the only tangible thing to guide them, so they drove most of the congregation back into the church and held them until detectives arrived. The detectives selected several men and boys as witnesses, including the priest and sexton, and took them to the Old Slip police station.
Police Seize Brass Candlestick.
There out of the faultily interpreted babel of tongues, the detectives and Assistant District Attorney Dineen of the Homicide Bureau, obtained an incomplete account of what occurred.
A brass candlestick, which the police seized, was said to have been used in some way as a weapon, but there were no marks on Varzakakos’s head or body to indicate that he was struck. Dr. Benjamin Vance, assistant medical examiner, said that he could not determine the cause of death without an autopsy.
In the meantime all the witnesses, including Father Vafiadakis and the sexton, Xanafou Rieskkas, were released, the latter two being given written requests to appear today at the District Attorney’s office for further examination.
Enough was learned by Mr. Dineen, however, to show that the death of Varzakakos was the result of a long feud between the pastor and the Board of Trustees, in which Varzakakos had acted some months before as the only supporter of the priest. It was due to his efforts, it was said, that Father Vafiadakis had not been removed from his pastorate.
Father Vafiadakis has been with the church for four years. He is a man of distinguished appearance, short, with a white beard trimmed like a Vandyke. As he sat in the detectives’ room of the Old Slip Station he toyed with a large cross, which hung from a cord about his neck.
Financial Difficulties Cause Row.
About two years ago the present church building was constructed. It cost a good deal for the small congregation, and there has been some trouble in paying for it. Father Vafiadakis aroused the hostility of the Trustees because of his attitude toward financial matters. They wanted him removed. He went to the office of Varzakakos and begged to be given another chance, it was said. The chance was given. Recently, however, another dispute arose, and Varzakakos heard that the pastor had been talking about him.
The President of the Trustees went to the church yesterday determined that Father Vafiadakis’s contention that the church was bankrupt should be disputed openly. He was one of the founders of the church and had been President of the board for four years.
After the mass Father Vafiadakis addressed the congregation. He said the church’s financial affairs were in such bad shape that it would have to close today. Varzakakos, who sat in a front pew with his wife, Mary, rose and went to the front of the church, just before the altar, to wait until the priest had finished. When the opportunity came he told the congregation the church finances were not tangled; that the debt would be paid off today, and that there was no reason for Father Vafiadakis’s statement.
Priest Moves Toward Merchant.
At this point the priest demanded that he sit down. Cries arose from all over the congregation: “Let him speak!” “He has a right to speak!” “Go on Varzakakos!” It was evident that the sympathies of a large part of the congregation were with the fig merchant. Again the priest demanded that Varzakakos keep still, and when the latter showed a disposition to continue, the priest ran down from the altar toward him.
The rest is confusion, except that at the end the fig merchant was found to be dead. His son George, 15 years old, who was in the choir, told Mr. Dineen he saw the priest with a candlestick in his hand, and the sexton holding his father by the throat.
“The candlesticks were on a small table between the altar and where my father was standing,” said the boy. “He picked up one of the candlesticks, and as I saw him do it I ran forward to get between him and my father. I saw the sexton grab my father by the throat, and at the same time saw the priest with his hand in the air holding the candlestick over my father’s head. My mother screamed then, and I turned to look at her, and when I looked back my father was on the floor.”
No other witness corroborated the boy’s story. Another boy of the same age said he saw Varzakakos walk back toward his pew as the priest advanced from the altar, and collapse just as he reached his wife’s side. The candlestick, a very light, hollow cylinder of brass, was taken to the police station, but no marks could be found on the dead man’s head or body to indicate that it had struck him.
When Varzakakos collapsed the congregation rushed toward the front of the church. Some blows were exchanged. The boy, George, jumped at the sexton and kicked and pummeled him until dragged into another room. Varzakakos was lifted and carried to the sidewalk, where his clothes were unfastened and his shoes taken off.
Patrolman Frederick Wills, hearing the commotion, ran up and asked what was the matter. Nobody would tell him. He saw the body on the sidewalk and telephoned to the Old Slip Station and to the Broad Street Hospital. The surgeon who arrived said Varzakakos was dead.
To view a copy of the actual article go to
The New York Times - Archive 1851 - 1980