Priest from Modesto helps tiny African village

When Simon Thomas was an altar boy in Modesto two decades ago, he dreamed of becoming a doctor.

His triumphs on the dance floor and on Beyer High's soccer field and his student honors status helped prepare him for pre-med classes at the University of California at Davis. But when he arrived, he felt a tug back toward the church. And he couldn't shrug it off.

"I felt like Jeremiah or Jonah in the Old Testament and said, 'I don't want to do this,' but God said otherwise," Thomas said of his path to the priesthood. "It took some convincing on his part."

A course correction led to the seminary in Boston, a Central California coast parish, connections to rock 'n' roll elite and later this month, he hopes, to a tiny village in east Africa.

Thomas, 34, is one of two ordained priests produced in recent years by Modesto's Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. For 3½ years, he's been head priest at Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, leading 175 families, about half the size of Modesto's congregation.

For the record, an unordained graduate from Modesto now directs a Kings Canyon retreat for the church's national office, and two other locals are current seminarians. Yet another potential priest married a young woman from Modesto, so "we claim him," said Modesto's Father Jon Magoulias.

Magoulias is Thomas' "spiritual father," counseling him from his youth. He describes Thomas as "a very bright person; soft-spoken, compassionate, understanding."

The last three have not commonly been used to describe his father, Dave Thomas, who afflicted power brokers as a conservative radio talk show host in 2000 and 2001 and who continues the fight as an outspoken member of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association. He's very proud to be a father's father.

In more ways than one.

Greek Orthodox priests often marry, and Simon Thomas exchanged vows in 2002 with the former Stephanie Ronson, a Modesto High School graduate. Their 6-month-old son, Demetri, and 3-year-old daughter, Elpinike, were named for Dave Thomas, who was baptized Demetrious, and his mother.

Father Simon's mother, Elaine, now lives in Elk Grove.

"I would say he is successful in serving to bring God's love to the people," Magou-lias said of his protégé, "and I would say he is successful in being a husband and father."

Dave Thomas doesn't need much persuading to visit Santa Barbara, where parishioners include world-class vintners, artists and musicians. Chris Hillman, a member of the original Byrds, sings in Father Simon's choir.

Ready for a mission

In February, a local opera star's performance pulled in $75,000 for the Tanzanian mission, enough to build the church that will be nearly finished when Father Simon visits in late January. It's in Kazinga, a rural village where the next goal is to dig a well with clean drinking water.

Tanzania's violent neighbors, Uganda and Rwanda, were depicted in the movies "The Last King of Scotland" and "Hotel Rwanda." Another nearby country, Kenya, came to the brink of civil war two years ago. Tanzania, home to the famed Mount Kilimanjaro, is far more stable, though life expectancy hovers around 50 years and the average yearly income is about $1,100.

"To build a building is beyond their financial means," Simon Thomas said. "To support a building is within their means. We're building infrastructure they can use to build themselves up, instead of throwing money at them."

Thomas' group will bring medical supplies and doctors, a reminder of a dream long past.

"Father Simon realized God was calling him not to become a physician of the body," Magoulias said, "but a physician of the soul."

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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.

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