Rooted in past, poised for future
- 2004.11.06 Naples Daily News:
Naples Daily News
Philip Saliba, center, is led in during the opening procession during an
outdoor service at the St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church before the
groundbreaking of their new 6,000 square foot church on Sunday, October 31,
2004 in Naples Fla. The Metropolitan, who is the top leader of the
Antiochian Archdioscese, visited the church celebrating the groundbreaking
for the new church.
Rooted in past, poised for future
Antiochians in Naples celebrate new facility, growing congregation
By JENNIFER GRANT, jlgrant@...
November 6, 2004
Under a pitched white tent nearly 200 in folding chairs pray, fanning
themselves from the mid-morning heat. It's a far cry from the cramped room
this group started in, yet still a long way from where it wants to be.
Everything's coming together and happening quicker than anyone ever
dreamed. When churches across the country and the world are dealing with
decreasing numbers and atrophy in its pews, the Antiochian Orthodox Church
of North America seems to be basking in the glory of God.
"It's missionizing," says Philip Saliba, the top leader of the Antiochian
Archdiocese who visited St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church Sunday. He was
in Naples to celebrate the church's most recent success - a groundbreaking
for its 6,219-square-foot worship area. "It's been the best-kept secret.
But it's the oldest one (church) in the world."
According to antiochian.org, the church has roots traced back to
first-century Antioch, the city in which the disciples of Jesus Christ were
first called "Christians." The Orthodox Church considers itself the oldest
and second-largest Christian group in the world.
The Antiochian Archdiocese, under the leadership of Saliba, is - and has
been over the past 20 years - on a mission to bring America to the ancient
Orthodox Christian Faith. They've joined their brothers and sisters in
various other Orthodox Christian jurisdictions affiliated through SCOBA
(the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the Americas) -
Greek, Orthodox Church in America, Romanian, Ukrainian, and more - to
complete this missionary endeavor.
"In the world, it's dormant in the world," Saliba says frankly of his
church. But in the U.S. things are different. Things are, how shall he put
"America is a dynamic society. Every year things are changing, things are
And when it comes to religion, Saliba says Americans are looking for
something new and different, yet something that's never changed, something
that's rooted in tradition.
And that something is what his church is all about. That's why he thinks
the Antiochian church is flourishing, while many others are floundering.
He smiles at the thought and notes that because of this growth he gets to
spend much of his time traveling around North America, attending ground
breakings such as the one at the only Antiochian church in Collier County.
Dan Abraham, left, kneels down to take communion from Father Joseph
Antipas, right, during a special church service held in a tent outside at
the St. Paul Antiochian Church to celebrating the groundbreaking of their
new 6,000 square foot church.
"What is a church if it doesn't spread the good news?" Saliba says. "The
Holy Spirit doesn't work in stones, he works in people."
And this North Naples Church is vibrant with believers. Of course, "It's
the first time I've done it in 90-degree weather," he jokes after the
Sunday groundbreaking. But he knows that's the way it goes.
Despite a few beads of sweat, Saliba and the congregation celebrate. On
this Sunday it's the usual mass, with lots of pomp and circumstance.
Gold-framed pictures of Jesus and St. Paul line the front of the outdoor
altar along with gold crosses that match the ornate robes of Saliba and St.
Paul's pastor, the Rev. Joseph Shaheen.
The congregation of the St. Paul Antiochian Church gathers outside to
celebrate the ground breaking for their new 6,000 square foot church.
They stick to the old world ways during this mass. Everything has its
place and there's no thought of making it new and shiny - that's something
saved for the robes and the crosses.
There's lots of genuflecting and milling around. It may look like a mass
of confusion at times, but it's anything but. It's a worship service
steeped in tradition, beginning and ending not with the time on the clock,
but with the energy of the congregation and the clergy.
As soon as mass is complete - late as usual - the congregation takes the
few steps to where the new church will go - just in front of the little
white house that's been home for several years.
Metropolitan Philip Saliba, center, the top leader of the Antiochian
Archdioscese, prepares to bless the ground of the new St. Paul Antiochian
Amidst ant piles and a few errant wasps Saliba shakes a white plastic
flask of holy water (marked with a gold cross) onto the sacred ground.
"Preserve these grounds," he says, adding that they remain unshaken.
"Protect this place from hurricanes."
Despite the solemnity of the moment, the congregation laughs.
It's such an inspiring day, says church member George Darany, who after
the symbolic shoveling of soil notes the church has paid off its land and
collected quite a bit of money toward its new building - with fewer than 60
members on the books.
"Thank God," Darany says. "We're lucky to have a lot of good people."
Like Nadia Masabny, who's been attending the church for the last several
years. She doesn't make it every week, as "I don't drive. My brother does."
But she smiles at the thought of a new building, bigger than the little
1,000-square-foot house she currently worships in.
"That's our home," she says with a widening grin, as a light breeze
catches her shoulder length gray hair. As she slowly shuffles her way back
to the old building to greet friends, she mentions spirit. The church has
it, she says, and others agree.
The Rev. Shaheen says the congregation he's led for four years is a
special one, all right. "If you aren't greeted and welcomed here you're in
the wrong building." He prides himself on leading a flock that always has
its arms open ready for newcomers.
"Some are kind of feisty," Shaheen says with a laugh, noting there are
those who sometimes want to know a little more about visitors than just
what their name is. "They all adapt to this, they're all in the missionary
That seems to be the way Antiochian Orthodox congregations have become,
and they like it.
"We're growing so much," Saliba says. There were 65 parishes when he
began as bishop in 1966. It's expanded to 250 today.
"It's a miracle," he says. "Every gift is from God."
The most recent gift - before Sunday's ground breaking - was being able
to name three new bishops on Oct. 29. He named one for the Midwest, West
Virginia and Pennsylvania, one for Canada and one for upstate New York.
It's the result of an Oct. 14 vote of the Holy Synod of Antioch, which
approved a constitution of self-rule for the Antiochian Christian
Archdiocese of North America. It's a new era, indeed, but not so new that
they forget where they've come from, Saliba says.
"I don't point fingers at other churches," he says. But he does have a
message for those who'd also like to see growth in their own congregations.
His is a church that didn't just begin yesterday, or even a couple hundred
years ago. It's more than 2,000 years old. "It has very deep roots."
That's the key, he says - knowing how to keep those roots firm, yet
flexible enough to keep growing and thriving.
Copyright 2004, Naples Daily News. All Rights Reserved.
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