‘Praying for a miracle’: Utah parishioners mourn cancer diagnosis for Greek Orthodox priest of 35 years

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

June 5, 2016

After doctors eliminated the cancer-ridden connective
tissue in Jim Aerakis’ leg, his Greek Orthodox priest
joined him to celebrate.

Rev. Matthew Gilbert and his 42-year-old parishioner
toasted their health two weeks ago in the last of the
prayer-and-coffee meetings that became ritual after
Aerakis’ November diagnosis.

They were unaware that the same disease also had swiftly
and aggressively targeted Gilbert, 58, who would be
diagnosed with late-stage bone cancer on June 28 after a
week of searing stomach pain and doctor visits.

“Three weeks ago, he was completely normal,”
said Denise Gilbert, his wife. “It’s beyond
anything we could have imagined.” Gilbert was too
weak to speak, she said.

Parishioners of Utah’s Holy Trinity Cathedral are
mourning after their leader’s final service before
leaving for treatment near Phoenix. On Sunday, Aerakis
said, Gilbert expressed concern for his wife and six
children. He urged his congregation to forgive.

Gilbert struggled to speak as pain radiated through his
body. The cancer also has spread to his kidneys, liver and
other organs.

“We’re praying for a miracle, but [we are] also
resigned to the fact that whatever God has written cannot
be undone,” said Denise Gilbert.

Parishioners this weekend received a letter from officers
in the Denver office of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of
America, asking them to keep the Gilbert family in their

“This is, of course, a very tragic
circumstance,” wrote Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver.
No plans to instate an interim reverend have been

“We’re still a little bit upside down with all of
this,” said Ted Sargetakis, co-president of the Salt
Lake City parish council, the congregation’s
legislative body. “It’s shocking and very deeply

Meanwhile, Gilbert’s congregation is recalling his
trips to monasteries in Arizona and in Greece, where he
asked monks to pray for members of his parish who were in
crisis. He also picked up oils to anoint them in the
faith’s tradition.

The pilgrimages were appreciated. Dino Tsortanidis, 50, of
Salt Lake City, said he believes Gilbert’s prayers in
2002 cleared the blockage in his arteries that doctors
thought would cause a stroke — and helped his wife
become pregnant at age 46 and give birth to a healthy baby

Gilbert has focused more on fostering close relationships
with parishioners than on wowing audiences with his
sermons, Tsortanidis and Aerakis said. The priest of 35
years helped Aerakis’ father cope as he successfully
fight stomach cancer eight years ago.

The Aerakis family is “so, so sad,” said Kathy
Aerakis, Jim’s mother.

Even though tensions between the parish council and some
Utah clergy divided the church in recent years, said
former council President Philip Floor, “I’m sure
he would not want to dwell on that aspect of his time in
Salt Lake City.”

The division took a toll on Gilbert, who retained his job
after some of his counterparts were removed from the
church payroll.

On Sunday, one of his last words was about
forgiveness,” Floor noted. “That’s primary
in our faith, is to forgive.”

For nearly two decades, Gilbert has kept constant contact
with parishioners he believes may need his help, calling
and visiting their homes, said his son Anthony Gilbert,

He isn’t pushy, his son said, but if he felt a family
needed him, “he would leave in the middle of the

Gilbert has “been a blessing for our family,”
said Kathy Aerakis. “We will pray for him. You never
know — miracles do happen.”

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