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Barely two months after being diagnosed with aggressive bone cancer, the Rev. Matthew Gilbert, longtime priest at Salt Lake City's Holy Trinity Cathedral, slipped Wednesday into what Greek Orthodox believers describe as "the deep sleep" of death.
The gentle priest was being treated for cancer in Phoenix, when he died in the early morning, surrounded by his family. He was 58.
Gilbert "touched the lives of so many of our faithful," the Rev. Elias Koucos, a fellow priest in the Salt Lake Valley's Orthodox community, said in a note to the parish. They "looked to him for spiritual direction, friendship, consolation and inspiration sharing the love of God as he lovingly labored in the Lord's holy vineyard."
"Father Matthew," as he was known, was "one of the most faithful and devout Orthodox priests I have ever known," said Metropolitan Isaiah, the Denver-based regional head of the church.
In the 1970s, when Isaiah was chancellor at the faith's Hellenic College Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., Gilbert was one of the students.
The two met again when Isaiah moved to the diocese of Chicago, and Gilbert was assigned as an assistant. After that, Isaiah rose to metropolitan of the western region and Gilbert served parishes in Spokane, Wash., and California. In the 1990s, he landed in Utah, first in Price and later Salt Lake City, where he served until his cancer diagnosis.
"Father Matthew was loved by so many people," the metropolitan said Wednesday. "As a priest, he was concerned for the welfare of all the members. He went out of his way to help so many persons. He will be missed by the very many people he served."
Gilbert was drawn to church service as a child growing up in Bethlehem, Pa. For him, there was no burning bush or writing in the sky, only an ineffable tug toward the priesthood.
"It's a calling," he said in 2013. "You just know."
With his wife, Denise Gilbert, Father Matthew reared six children five boys and one daughter in the church, where they were embraced in that Christian community and learned the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Two sons followed their father into the priesthood: The eldest, Christopher, chose a celibate path, and is now known as Father Chrysostomos. Another son, Aaron, is married but has graduated from the seminary, Isaiah said, and is on the road to ordination.
Archbishop Demetrios, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, will attend Gilbert's funeral Friday at 11 at St. Anthony's Monastery in Florence, Ariz., which is where the priest will be interred. Two days later, each of the 50 parishes in 12 states within the Denver diocese will host a memorial service for the priest, Isaiah said, "for his repose before the Lord."
Gilbert's daughter, Christina Kakis, will miss her dad's humility, courage, strength and faith, she wrote in a Facebook post.
"Not once did he say, 'Why me?' He accepted this cross and carried it till the end," Kakis wrote. "Even in his last breaths, his strength and faith shown through."
In his final hours, the soft-spoken Gilbert continued to reassure his grieving family.
"I am only a prayer away," he told them, "but I'll be one step ahead."