New priest arrives
New life for Calistoga's iconic Russian chapel
By John Waters Jr.
FOR THE STAR
Saturday, January 2, 2010 12:11 AM PST
For the better part of three years the wonderfully iconic church at the corner of Cedar and Berry streets in Calistoga has rested quietly in the shade of its wooded lot, quiet, lacking a priest to lead its diminished congregation of Russian Orthodox faithful.
Well, a revival is under way.
"Right now, our parish is quite small, but I'm confident that as the faithful learn that we are once again worshipping here it will grow," said Father Joakim Provatakis, the new presiding priest of Saint Simeon Russian Orthodox Church.
Younger in appearance than his 43 years, Father Provatakis felt the call to Calistoga when he'd learned the parish was available.
"I used to come here with family as a child," he recalled following a celebration of St. Nicholas on Dec. 19. "I've always enjoyed Calistoga, so when I learned there was no priest here, I gave it some thought, and decided this is where I should be."
Amid scores of iconic images that adorn the church, Provatakis sat and explained his mission is to open his will to the whole will of the divine. A native of Santa Cruz, his calling has led him to congregations in Niagara Falls and Manhattan's East side.
"It was close to the site of the World Trade Center," he said. "But not close enough to be considered nearby to most New Yorkers."
In the beginning
Christianity is filled with symbols and icons of the divine, but in the Russian Orthodox church, Provatakis said virtually every item in the church serves as a reminder of some aspect of God's plan for his people.
"In the orthodox church we have worked to retain the earliest teachings and traditions of the church," Provatakis explained. "In a great way, we consider orthodoxy one of the tribes of Israel that was separated from the rest, and we keep many of the Jewish traditions.
"We are essentially Jews that have accepted Jesus as the messiah."
Provatakis said the origins of orthodoxy began at Pentecost and grew throughout the ancient Middle East, but that in about 1054, Christianity branched away from the true church after Roman law claimed supremacy. Later, Western Christianity further shattered into myriad sects through Protestant reformation.
The original, or "true Apostolic church," as orthodoxy sees it, continued to survive in Greece, Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East. Today, services are still conducted in Slavonic, a kind of creole, or mix of Russian, Greek and languages spoken in the Balkans.
Services in today's Russian Orthodox church is the same practiced by the nuns at Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga. [OCA]
"The difference between them and us is simple," Provatakis said. "We are a parish, they are a monastery, where they live a life of devotion to the savior."
Holy Assumption Monastery was founded in 1941 by a small group of nuns who fled from Russia and China with St. John Maximovitch in search of freedom to practice their faith. After a several years absence and improvements to the Washington Street facility the nuns of Holy Assumption have recently returned, and are working within the community.
Delivering a message celebrating the work of St. Nicholas, Provatakis stood amid seemingly hundreds of beautiful artifacts, paintings, statues, tapestries and more virtually each an icon, or symbol of the divine.
"There are hundreds of stories behind the many iconic images that fill this church," Provatakis said, from the domes atop the church building Byzantine in nature which celebrate in architecture the communion of Heaven and Earth, to the Russian cross, venerated by the faithful as a reminder that Christ is the King of Glory.
The cross bears a footboard slanted upward on the right in recognition of the thief crucified with Christ and who repented and another which slants downward on the left recalls the thief who railed the crucified King of the Jews.
Candles burn to represent the light of truth. The iconostasis, a kind of screen, bears the images of many saints and figures of the Bible. It acts to separate the floor of the church from the most holiest of places.
"Our temples are fashioned based on the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans around 75 A.D.," Provatakis said. "In the temple, there was the Holy of Holies, where the priest spoke directly to God."
As parishioners return to the revived local church, Provatakis said he believes that because of the unity of the sacred, the community will begin to realize the true beauty and order of the divine in all things, visible and invisible.