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BY ROBYN PASSANTE, The Island Packet
Published Saturday, November 5, 2005

Photo: The Rev. Peter Telencio will lead the congregation at Holy Resurrection Greek Orthodox Church on Hilton Head Island. The retired Army colonel and chaplain commutes from Columbia each Sunday to fulfill his responsibilities.
Erin Painter/The Island Packet

When asked what it's like to jump out of a plane, the Rev. Peter Telencio scrunches his eyes shut tight.

Then he opens them and smiles.

"Every jump I did I was scared," says Telencio, an Orthodox priest and retired U.S. Army chaplain. "Every time I jumped, I got closer to God."

That's about 50 times closer to God than when he left his first parish assignment and joined the military back in 1975. Telencio, who retired from the Army in 1999 as a colonel -- the first Orthodox chaplain to attain that rank -- is a veteran of more than 50 jumps with the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions.

Now he's taking another leap of faith, this one back into parish leadership at Holy Resurrection Greek Orthodox Church on Hilton Head Island.

To Telencio's delight, it's a far cry from the steel mill town in Pennsylvania where he started his religious career.

"There was nothing there for me. I was too young," he says of the depressed area to which he was assigned at age 23. "The parish was dead. I was burying more people than I was bringing in."

Telencio knew that area well, having grown up in an Orthodox children's home in eastern Pennsylvania. He and his seven older siblings were sent there after his mother had a nervous breakdown. He was 18 months old and remembers nothing about his mother, who died some time later. His father, though unable to care for the children, saw them occasionally over the years.

The siblings were reared by a Russian Orthodox priest and his wife, whose home was next to a monastery, a place Telencio loved. His sole ambition was to become a priest.

"It was in the stars," he says.

But once married, ordained and assigned to a church, Telencio couldn't help but think there was even more he wanted to do.

Restless, he thought of his four older brothers, serving in three separate branches of the military. Something inside Telencio clicked, and at age 25, he joined the Army, melding his calling into the ministry with his love of the military to shape one impressive career.

"The (military) ministry was fantastic," Telencio says. "I wouldn't trade it for the world."

The energetic young chaplain was eager for action right from the get-go.

"I wanted to serve in Vietnam, but they were all pulling out right after I joined," he says.

Action would come soon enough though. In 1983, he served as a Russian interpreter in Grenada for the 82nd Airborne and the Justice Department. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his work there, a mission he says is still too secretive to discuss.

Telencio says his favorite assignment was the three years he served as a chaplain and Russian interpreter in Berlin during the reunification of Germany.

"That was history in the making," he says. "We were responsible for defending Berlin."

Telencio was the first Orthodox chaplain to become director of combat development for the U.S. Chaplain School in Fort Jackson, S.C., in 1994, a title he held for five years. He determined doctrine, training and logistical requirements for the school, and was responsible for long-range planning for the utilization of the military's chaplains.

The priest says he accomplished a lot while serving on the administrative end of the chaplaincy program. But he remembers with fondness the years he spent in the field, counseling soldiers.

"You get to appreciate the value of religion on the battlefield," he says. With more than 200 faith groups represented in the Armed Forces, chaplains and soldiers alike also "learn to respect each other's denominations," he says.

"(Soldiers) look at that cross ... and they don't care what denomination you are. They're just glad you're there with them," he says.

Success as an Army chaplain comes only when you believe in the military and the soldiers as much as you believe in God.

"You need to be totally dedicated to the mission of the military," he says. "You've got to be with the soldiers."

An example of that dedication is parachuting with the troops -- which isn't required of chaplains.

"You've got to volunteer for it," says Telencio, who did just that, partly because he was "young and dumb," and partly because he knew it would instill trust and respect from his troops.

"I wouldn't jump anymore," he says, smiling. "I'm smarter now."

After moving 13 times in 23 years, Telencio's wife, Martha, and two sons were ready for some permanence. So at his family's urging, he retired from the Army in 1999.

"Sad to say, I didn't want to retire," he says. "I would go (back in) tomorrow if I was re-called."

But he adjusted to civilian life fairly easily, becoming administrator at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia.

In November 2004, he started leading services twice a month at Holy Resurrection Greek Orthodox Church. But in July he was temporarily assigned to another parish.

When there's no priest to lead the liturgy, the members still gather for prayers and readings, says founding church member Rick Haight. But it's not the same.

"Some drop off, some go to other denominations," Haight says.

But now Telencio's back, driving from Columbia each Sunday to preside over worship services for the congregation, which has about 20 families. He sees great things for the tiny church, which rents a few rooms in Heritage Plaza on the south end of the island.

"I think it's got a lot of potential. This church was never given a consistency of services," he says. The church's last "full-time" priest, the Rev. Nick Trivelas, traveled from Charleston.

Telencio wants to start an outreach ministry, but for now his focus is marketing the church. He and Haight are sure potential parishioners are out there.

"We're the only (Orthodox church) right in this area," says Haight, who's been trying to build the membership and maintain cohesiveness since the church was founded in 1990. The congregation includes followers of several Orthodox denominations, including Greek, Antioch, Russian and Bulgarian.

"Our key thing is finding people," Telencio says.

If anyone can find followers, it's Telencio, whose made a career of it.

He remembers all those times he stood with the 82nd and 101st Airborne troops in those nerve-wracking moments before parachuting into danger. It's too noisy to pray aloud in the plane, so he'd huddle the soldiers while still on the ground to ask God for protection.

Then he'd voluntarily load up with the others, take off, and fall from the sky.