Eastern Orthodox members trying to grow in Jacksonville
Eastern Orthodox members trying to grow in Jacksonville
(Il) 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
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
“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
“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
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
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
The next step for St. Raphael’s, Nielsen says, is for it to be designated a
“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.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at spearie@... or at 622-1788.
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
Although there are ethnic distinctions, Eastern Orthodox churches are
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.
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