Orthodox America

   Parishes and Missions Church of  the Nativity of Christ An Old-Rite Parish in Erie, Pennsylvania

by Vassa Kozloff

The golden cupolas, rising from Erie’s waterfront and visible from across the bay, are a beacon to the faithful, both residents and visitors alike.  Today, the spiritual lives of some three hundred families are anchored there on Front Street, beneath the lofty three-bar cross of the Church of Our Lord’s Nativity, which is the focus for this flourishing community of Old Believers (Staro-veri) or Old Ritualists (Staro-obriadtsi).  With its predominantly English services and active parish life, it manages to successfully nurture younger generations in the faith, as well as to attract newcomers, a fairly remarkable achievement considering the rigorous demands-the longer services and strict fasting practices-of the Old Rite tradition.  It was not always so.

The Old Believer community has been on the lakefront since not long after the turn of the century; the church was first dedicated in 1919, on the feast of the Dormition.  Adherents of the Old Rite have a bitter history of persecution and exile, after being excommunicated by Patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century for refusing to accept his reforms.   As a result, the community was rather isolated from the rest of the Orthodox world and came perilously close in the ensuing years to losing its identity.  New generations, born and raised in the United States, felt keenly the impact of a secular culture.   Fortunately for the future survival of the Church of the Nativity and its faithful, enough people were concerned and learned what was needed to rescue this parish and its Old Rite heritage from possible extinction.  The principal weaknesses of the community were identified as language and lack of priesthood.

The language barrier was the first obstacle to be tackled, a formidable task. Many were too comfortable with the “sound” of the Slavonic hymns, readings and prayers.  Under duress, they might have conceded that to introduce English might be beneficial, but they didn’t want the change to come until after their repose! Meanwhile, as fewer people spoke or understood Russian-let alone the ancient liturgical language of Church Slavonic-less and less of the knowledge, the enlightenment of the faith was passed on.  There was little teaching, little inspiration.  The resultant shallow understanding of Orthodoxy combined with the infusion of Americanisms into everyday life, bred confusion between religious truths and ethnic customs, which were often simply nostalgically remembered as something “Papa/Mama” or “Jeda/Baba” said. Fasting became a matter of pick-and-choose; services were poorly attended; the English-language Bible was even discouraged from being read because it was considered to be “Catholic”, i.e., Roman.  Such ignorance is difficult to imagine in this day and age.  Gradually, however, beginning in 1979, English was introduced.  At last the faithful were able to understand the Gospel and Epistles!. God still spoke to us.  Now that was inspiring!  Even more critical than the language problem was the lack of a priesthood.  We were led by a “nastavnik” who had spiritual authority to perform only abbreviated services.  We really had no idea what we were missing, and thought priestly duties belonged to the Roman tradition!   In 1976 Pimen Simon became our Nastavnik.   Through his reading of the Holy Fathers, it became increasingly clear to him how far we were from participating in and experiencing the fullness of the Church.  We had no bishops, therefore we were without the Church. We had virtually no sacramental life: our sins were not absolved; we were not chrismated, anointed or buried with the full burial service and prayers.  Most importantly, we were not participants of the Divine Feast, the grace-filled Sacrament of the Eucharist, the partaking of the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  Investigating the possibility of returning to the fullness of the Church entailed much discussion, prayer and research. It was in our nature to be overly cautious and suspicious in matters concerning the faith-one we had inherited from our much-persecuted forefathers; generational wrongs are not easily laid down. The fact that, in 1974, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad had issued an ukase recognizing the Old Rite as truly Orthodox and salvific was very hopeful, and we were further encouraged in our pursuit of liturgical fullness by Fr. Dimitri Alexandrow, who subsequently became our bishop. Dialogue with the Church Abroad proved fruitful, and in July 1983 Father Pimen was ordained to the priesthood.  That same year, on the Feast of Dormition, the parish partook of the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time!  What a celebration.   The excitement and joy were beyond description.

In returning to the bosom of the Church from our three-hundred-year journey in the wilderness, we were blessed to discover our ties of spiritual kinship with other Orthodox Christians.  No longer were we isolated or exiles from the greater Orthodox community.    And when Vladika Daniel became our bishop, we truly felt complete. He is a fount of wisdom and knowledge, a man of great kindness and humor, one who constantly amazes us with his little stories and anecdotes.  Our debt to him will forever remain outstanding.

Today the parish is actively guided by Father Pimen Simon and Father Theodore Jurewicz.  The task of leading their spiritual children is not taken lightly.  To our discomfort we are exhorted to keep to the traditional teaching of the Church, be in the world but not of the world.  We are chastised for our laziness-in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, Christian love and example, chastity, humility.  While we might not always want to hear a particular homily instructing us in the ways to lead an Orthodox lifestyle, we accept that our spiritual fathers are accountable for their children’s welfare.  It is their duty to teach, guide and chastise when necessary.  Because of their wisdom and knowledge of the human condition, they are sensitive to the undercurrent in the parish and how we are affected by the world situation.  How many times have we been amazed to hear a sermon exactly reflecting emerging thoughts or a recent conversation?  The governing body of the church, the parish council, and the spiritual leadership are distinctly separate.  There is a cooperation, but the priests are afforded the respect and authority needed to lead the parish on the path of salvation.

There is an active educational program during the school year for all ages:

Sunday school for pre-schoolers, six- to eight-year-olds, pre-teens, teenagers and adults.  All facets of Orthodoxy are taught regarding the Old and New Testament, Holy Tradition the Church’s feasts, the teaching of the Holy Fathers, the lives of the Saints, contemporary interpretation and application of the Church’s teaching and the basic concepts of how Orthodox Christians should conduct their lives.  Orthodoxy is a way of life, every day, all day, for our entire life.   During Great Lent there is a popular Sunday evening discussion group and each year five different topics are addressed.  They present an opportunity for much enlightenment and lively exchange.

Church school is offered to the youth (and adults) who wish to learn how to read Church Slavonic.  In order to “graduate” to the cliros, ability to read Slavonic is necessary.  While most of the services are conducted in English, there is still much kept of the Slavonic to keep the flavor of our heritage intact.  This is also due to the fact that the Znamenny Chant is intricately guided by the Kryukovoye Pyenie (kriukee).  English is not easily adapted to the chant.  The Eight Tones are more melodious and allow adaptation to the English easily, which has been done.   The beauty of the words and the education offered through the English translations is wondrous to all who will hear and listen.   Choir practice follows the weekly classes to allow the choir members to learn different versions of liturgical songs and practice seasonal songs that can be somewhat difficult.  It is the chance to practice using the kriukee.  Initially the Znamenny Chant may sound different, but the ear quickly grows accustomed to it.

There are special classes for those interested in converting to the Faith and for those in the parish who desire a better understanding of the Church. These are well-conducted sessions offering a history of the Church and an understanding of the Truth recognized in being a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Other educational classes are scheduled as the need arises for marriages, baptisms, etc.  There is an active Ladies’ Auxiliary and Mens’ Association that meet not only socially, but conduct fund-raisers for the Church.  There is a Youth Group that has activities to promote fellowship among our younger members.  In the late summer or early autumn there is a parish picnic that allows all parish members to meet in Christian fellowship for conversation, games, and delicious food.

We have a standing day of service at the Soup Kitchen the last Friday of each month and on the new style December 25.   Christians for Brotherly Love direct charitable activities as they present themselves.  Funds are raised through submarine sandwich and candy bar sales and other activities to finance the Translation Fund.  There is an extensive library of Old Rite texts in Slavonic that need to be brought into English for the benefit of those who cannot avail themselves of this knowledge otherwise.    It requires much dedication from our translators to bring the beauty of the Slavonic prose into English-but it’s well worth it.  Unlike many parishes in the Church Abroad, we are not primarily an emigre community.  We have not “recently” immigrated from Mother Russia and we do not await the return to our homeland. Most of our parishioners were born in the United States and have either grown up in the community or moved from one of the other Old Rite parishes in Detroit, MI, Marianna, PA or Millville, NJ.  Erie is our home.  We are citizens of this city and of this country.  Our customs are a blend of our Orthodox, Russian and American heritages.

We are a thriving parish, united in the desire to keep growing, learning and serving the Lord.  We are visited by people from all over the country and the world.  It is exciting to be able to extend Christian hospitality to our brothers and sisters in Christ and rejoice in our likenesses.  We have been blessed in those who have come to know and love us.   If you plan a trip to the area, we are easily located and your visit would be welcome.  As Old Ritualists, we are conservative by nature and would request that some simple practices be honored, such as the wearing of a scarf by all females above the age of babes in arms.  (Admission to the church proper will not be permitted otherwise.)  We also ask that you refrain from make-up, and showy jewelry and attire. Clothing should be modest and long-sleeved for both men and women.  Our services are communal prayer, one body of faithful offering prayer to the glorification of God. Unnecessary movement during the services is discouraged.  Veneration of icons is done only upon entering before the service actually begins and only the icons directly to the left and right of the entrance are venerated, unless there is a festal icon in the center of the church.  Benches on the edges of the church are available for sitting before services, during appropriate times of services and if the need exists because of infirmity or poor health.  There is a “crying room” for young children if they become disruptive during the course of the service.  If there are questions about conduct, the warden will direct you.  The Old Rite offers a richness to the Orthodox Church that cannot be measured or described.  The Church of the Holy Nativity offers you a chance to gain some insight and understanding of what the Old Rite is and how it has evolved without compromise in the modern, western culture.   We are struggling with some success to be in the world and yet not be of the world.  We are growing in spirit and strength.  You are invited to visit us and see for yourselves that we are truly one family in Christ. Perhaps you will find an  affection for the Old Rite and the Church of the Nativity that will surprise you.

Inquiries can be directed to Fathers Pimen and Theodore through the Community Center at 109 German Street, Erie, PA  16507  at (814) 459-8515.