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Profile: Meet the artist/priest of Cardiff

Artist Michael Sitaras at home, with his double self-portrait.
Artist Michael Sitaras at home, with his double self-portrait.
(Maurice Hewitt)

If you live in the Encinitas area, you’ve probably driven by the gold-domed Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church many times, but did you know the sun-reflected cross on the dome wasn’t part of its original design—just a happy outcome or perhaps a testament to divine intervention?

And have you ever been inside the church, admired its Byzantine-style chapel, and had a chance to meet the pastor, who happens to be an award-winning artist as well as a priest?

Born in Greece, Michael Sitaras moved with his family to the U.S. when he was six years old. His father and grandfather were priests, and he’s been the pastor at the church for the past 10 years, but his main interest early in life was making art.

“As far back as I can remember I was making stuff out of plasticine,” he said. “And when I came to this country, I didn’t speak English, so I communicated by drawing. I’d carry a sketchpad with me wherever I went.”

Father Michael Sitaras in the chapel, with some of the mosaic saints.
Father Michael Sitaras in the chapel, with some of the mosaic saints.
(Maurice Hewitt)

As his father was transferred from parish to parish, the family moved down the East Coast. In North Carolina, when he was 12, a parishioner gave him a paint set, and he started doing portraits; his first painting was of Abraham Lincoln. By the time they reached Florida, he had acquired enough skill in painting to attract the attention of a local artist who welcomed him into his studio and began recommending him to important people who wanted their portraits done. While still in high school, he was already a commissioned artist, featured in a group show in Palm Beach.

“Those commissions helped pay for my college education,” Sitaras said. “And a woman who saw the show knew the dean at Syracuse University and told me to submit my work there. They gave me a scholarship, and I got to spend my junior year abroad at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. Then right after graduation, I went with a friend to New York City, moved into a railroad flat in the East Village, and started living the artist’s life in what felt like the center of the universe.”

He loved the city but took a two-year break when he was offered a teaching assistantship at Louisiana State University. “I essentially got my MFA for free, and they gave me a huge studio, so I was able to create a body of work to take back to New York,” he said. He spent five more years as a successful working artist, even having a solo show in Soho. Then, suddenly, he was not so happy anymore. As he put it: “The thought of the priesthood came back into my head with a vengeance.”

Mary and Michael Sitaras at home
Mary and Michael Sitaras at home, beneath his prize-winning family portrait. “I was dating an artist, and I married a priest,” she said.
(Maurice Hewitt)

He spent the next four years at Holy Cross Seminary in Massachusetts, but in the Greek Orthodox tradition, before he could be ordained, he had to be married. Fortunately, he had met the right woman— Mary Archer Seely, with whom he’d been having a sometimes-long-distance relationship over the years. In 1993, they made it legal, and his first assignment took them to Alabama.

They went on to parishes in Miami and Massachusetts, becoming a family with four children along the way. In 2012, he accepted the pastoral position here and they found a home in Carlsbad—it’s the longest he’s ever lived in one place.

A shaped-canvas swimming pool. (7x5 feet)
A shaped-canvas swimming pool. (7x5 feet)
(Maurice Hewitt)

Within two years, he was part of an important group exhibition at Quint Gallery in La Jolla. In 2019, he had a solo show in La Jolla, at St. James Gallery By-the-Sea, and at the end of that year, his Family Portrait won first prize at the Oceanside Museum of Art Biennial.

“Art is a calling too,” he said. “I never thought I had a choice with either art or the priesthood.”

A work-in-progress by Michael Sitaras, in his home studio.
A work-in-progress by Michael Sitaras, in his home studio.
(Maurice Hewitt)

You can meet the artist/priest in September, at the 42nd annual Cardiff Greek Festival, Covid-canceled for the past two years and now returning to the spacious church grounds. Besides all the outdoor festivities—Greek food, music, dancing, and special performances—Father Michael Sitaras will be leading tours of the church and the gorgeous “post-Byzantine” artwork inside the gold dome.

Cardiff Greek Festival

Saturday Sept. 10, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 11, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church

3459 Manchester Avenue, Cardiff.

Admission: Free-$3. Church tours: Noon, 2:30 and 6:30 pm.

For more information go to www.cardiffgreekfestival.com


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