LEWISTON — The people of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church understand why the Rev. Theodore Toppses is moving on. That doesn’t mean they have to like it.

“We understand his reasons for leaving, yes,” Linda Simones said. “We love Father Ted. He’s like one of the family, he really is.”

Simones laughs a little. “We forgive him,” she said.

“This is very bittersweet for us,” said Linda’s husband, Jim. “He’s a saint and we’ve had him for nearly 13 years.”

That’s right — for 13 years, Toppses has been presiding over services at Holy Trinity. That’s the longest run for any priest in the church’s 104-year history and that’s no coincidence.

When Toppses came to Lewiston from a Washington, D.C., suburb in the months immediately after 9/11, his presence made an immediate impact.

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“The parish has really flourished since he’s been here,” said Georgia Chomas of Auburn. “It’s been just wonderful. This is going to be quite a change for us.”

As she waited at the Hogan Road church on a rainy Wednesday night to say goodbye, Chomas was reflective. She remembers holding Toppses’ oldest daughter when she was just 4 months old.

“Now she’s 13,” Chomas said. “We’ve had him for a long time. This is going to be quite a change for us.”

Toppses has been known for more than just guiding and comforting his flock. His reputation as a man of God spread throughout the community, drawing worshippers from other churches or those who were in search of a faith.

“We actually came over from the Episcopal church when we learned he was a priest here,” said Roger Park, a member of the Holy Trinity. “What a warm reception we got from Father Ted and from the community.”

Standing in the dim church foyer as a driving rain fell outside, Park became reflective as well. For church members, describing Toppses in just a few words seems to be a difficult task. There’s so much to him, they say.

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“A very thoughtful man; a prayerful man,” Park said. “A real man of God. He’s very, very placid. When things are tight, he really gives you a sense of peace.”

Park thinks on it some more, smiling faintly.

“He’s really quite a fisherman, too,” he said. “I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying that with him. It’s been a real pleasure.”

Toppses is leaving for St. Gregory the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church in Mansfield, Mass. In fact, he drove there Thursday morning. The change is not only a big one for the congregation; it’s big for Toppses and for his family, too.

Behind his spectacles, Toppses’ eyes are in intense and he smiles almost constantly. When someone approaches — friend or stranger — he extends his hands and smiles even more broadly. His warmth is apparent at once. He’s a man who exudes peace.

Inside the church Wednesday night, he stood with his daughter, Julianna, under one arm, Nicole under the other.

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“This isn’t easy for them,” Toppses said. “The only thing they know is Maine.”

He didn’t spring the news on anyone. A month ago, when he decided to leave the Lewiston church, he told his family and his congregation. Everyone had time to prepare.

It still wasn’t easy.

“I remember when he first came here,” Jim Simones said. “We really hit it off. He’s just a very well-liked man. He’s somebody to look up to.”

“He’s been great,” Stavros Mendros said, “great for the church. He’s a good man with a lot of energy.”

Part of Toppses’ popularity, church members say, was his accessibility. He wasn’t someone they only saw during services. Toppses and his family have been a part of everything. His children attended local schools. The family frequently dined at local restaurants. He was often spotted driving through town with a kayak strapped to the roof of his car.

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“They’re out in the community,” Linda Simones said. “They’re part of the community. We’re lucky to have that kind of connection. It’s been a privilege. A lot of people don’t have that.”

Wednesday night at the church was a fairly subdued gathering. People said goodbye quietly and then drove off in the rain. It was the second round of goodbyes, really. The previous Sunday, the entire congregation got together to say farewell to the man who had led them for so long.

“It was so touching to see the community come together that way,” Linda Simones said. “People were literally in tears. He’s been so dear to all of us.”

That feeling works both ways. Toppses said he and his family are answering God’s call by moving on, but that also doesn’t completely soften the blow of missing the people he’ll leave behind.

“We love our home here in Lewiston,” he said. “We love the people here. I would never trade my years here. Never. These people will always be a part of my family.”

Big shoes? You better believe it. And who will step into those shoes? Nobody knows yet. They will get by with a temporary priest while the search for a permanent one gets underway. It’s a little distressing, but Toppses reassured them, as he has always done.

“The people here are very warm, very friendly,” he said. “That’s something I’m positive will continue after I’m gone.”

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