For Karen Woods of Jacksonville, attending Divine Liturgy, the primary worship service in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, has meant making a 90-minute trek one way to Quincy’s St. Raphael of Brooklyn Mission Church each Sunday.
Woods, a convert to Orthodoxy along with her husband, Martin, and son, Andrew, 18, is hoping to generate interest in the faith in her community of about 20,000, 35 miles west of Springfield.
The idea, says Woods, who operates a publishing business out of her home, is to form a parish, but she admits that might be down the road. Currently, a dozen or so members — numbers have reached as high as 20 — gather monthly in a small chapel inside Grace United Methodist Church for Vespers, or evening prayer.
On a recent Sunday, the faithful, a mix of full Orthodox members and inquirers, cross themselves and venerate icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary on stands flanking the altar.
Prayers for a litany of hopes — for bishops and clergy, for civil authorities and armed forces and “for seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth and for peaceful times” — are chanted with a response of “Lord, have mercy.”
As three members take turns singing the apostikha — literally “hymns of the verses” — the Rev. Thaddeus Nielsen uses incense in the entire chapel, an ancient ritual symbolic of offering up the prayers of the saints to God.
“We have something to offer,” says Woods in a church parlor afterward, over a light meal of soup and bread, “and what we have to offer is Jesus Christ.
“Orthodoxy is nothing more and nothing less than the authentic church Christ founded, proclaiming the gospel from the apostolic age until today. Christ is present here, and he is present strongly.
“That is the heart of Orthodoxy. It’s a faith one lives.”
‘A well-kept secret’
Peyton Tosh, 18, of Jacksonville is, like Karen Woods, a convert to Orthodoxy, which she calls “a life-changing experience” for her and her family — father, Peter, mother, Jennifer, sisters, Lydia, Rebekah and Daphne, and brother, Gabriel.
“It really is a beautiful faith,” says Peyton, who regularly attends St. Anthony’s, a Greek Orthodox church in Springfield. “Unfortunately, it is a well-kept secret in this country.”
Worldwide, there are about 250 million adherents of Orthodoxy, with about 5 million in the U.S., where ethnic enclaves started many churches: for example, Greeks in Springfield and Russians in Benld, a town an hour south of Springfield.
“Orthodoxy is not all that visible (here in the U.S.),” Woods says, “probably because ethnic communities are somewhat, to outright, insular.”
Woods claimed the Orthodox faith after growing disenchanted with the Episcopal Church. A 2010 study by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, Calif., revealed that half the members of the Orthodox Church in America are converts mostly from Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant backgrounds.
Like Peyton Tosh, Woods got in on “the secret” of Orthodoxy, a faith she finds both exuberant and demanding.
“It’s not something you put on on a Sunday and take off an hour later,” Woods says. “God calls us to sanctification; in Orthodoxy, we call it deification. Not that we become God, but we become more God-like, more dedicated to the faith.
“In the liturgical cycle, the church gives us periods of feasting and fasting, periods of deep introspection. All of the senses are engaged: the incense of the prayers offered up, the beauty of the icons. It’s a full-body experience.”
Adds Tosh: “We asked the harder questions of other faiths and would get vague answers. We pretty much found the answers here.”
‘Up to God’
Rev. Nielsen, the priest-in-charge at St. Raphael, a mission church located in a storefront in downtown Quincy, has been driving to Jacksonville to tend to the needs of the Orthodox community here. Nielsen and others might know more about the future of the movement in the coming weeks when Bishop Matthias (Moriak) of Chicago and others take up the matter.
The bishop may give the community permission to celebrate Divine Liturgy, in addition to Great Vespers. He could assign a priest, send a rotating or supply priest from the area, or wait until numbers grow.
“The possibilities are endless,” Woods says.
Nielsen knows a little bit of what the Jacksonville group is going through. The Quincy group had a similar grassroots beginning going back to 2000 before the mission was designated in 2004. Nielsen came to Quincy in 2005 from northwestern Wisconsin.
The next step for St. Raphael’s, Nielsen says, is for it to be designated a parish.
“We’re flying by the seat of our pants,” Nielsen says. “The Orthodox (Church) has not been historically strong in reaching out to people. We’re trying to show the faith can be meaningful here.”
For now, Woods is networking around the area and has established a website. Numbers-wise, she likes the group’s chances.
“Where it will go from here,” she says, “is up to God.”
A brief history of the Eastern Orthodox Church
Adherents see the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church with lineage to Jesus Christ and the apostles. It has a shared history with the Roman Catholic Church; in 1054, though, Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, who issued a mutual excommunication that wouldn’t be removed until 1965. Two primary disputes were the primacy of Rome, and the insertion of the “filioque clause” (essentially, the phrase “and the Son”) to the Nicene Creed.
Although there are ethnic distinctions, Eastern Orthodox churches are theologically unified.
Eastern Orthodoxy came to North America in 1794. Easter dates differ with the Roman Catholic Church for a number of complex reasons. Some churches, such as Holy Dormition in Benld, part of the Russian Patriarchate, use the Julian calendar, meaning Christmas is celebrated Jan. 7.
Steven Spearie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 622-1788.
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