Russian Church Battles for Future in NJ
Russian Church Battles for Future in NJ
By REBECCA SANTANA 7 hours ago
BUENA, N.J. (AP) The Cold War lives on in this
wooded corner of New Jersey under golden
onion-shaped domes of a Russian Orthodox church.
A small group of worshippers gathered Sunday at
the Sviato-Pokrovskiy Russian Orthodox Church for
what may have been their last service. The tiny
congregation is facing eviction because they
disagree with their parent church's decision to
reconcile with the Moscow Patriarchate in Russia.
Their fate could be determined this week, when a
judge is expected to rule on a lawsuit brought by
the diocese seeking control of the roughly
five-acre church property located halfway between
Atlantic City and Philadelphia in an area that
was settled by Russian immigrants.
The diocese's decision to reconcile was abhorrent
to worshippers like those in Buena, who revile
the Moscow Patriarchate for its cooperation with
the Soviets years ago and for its close ties with the Russian government today.
"This was seen as just a Soviet church, a
man-made arm of the government," said Maria
Nekludoff, 56, one of the Buena church's three
trustees along with her husband and mother. "I
just don't understand how suddenly this became
'the mother church,' and we need to unite with
it. It just doesn't make any sense to me."
The church has been without a full-time priest
since Maria Nekludoff's father, Nikolai, died in
2004, so a full service is held only when a
priest can travel to the church every month or
so. A typical service attracts about 20 people.
Adelaida Nekludoff, Maria Nekludoff's 83-year-old
mother from Ukraine, dismissed the legitimacy of
the Moscow church with a shake of her scarfed head: "It's not a church."
The Sviato-Pokrovskiy church was established in
1957 as part of the Russian Orthodox Church
Outside of Russia, an extensive network of
churches created after the Bolshevik Revolution
by people who'd fled the Soviet Union.
The Soviets tried to destroy religious belief in
a country that had been mostly Orthodox for
hundreds of years, slaughtering thousands of
priests and destroying churches. Many believers
who survived the purges made their way to the United States.
But the fear of persecution was never far away.
For example, in Buena, the church's elaborate
iconostasis, a central part of any Russian
Orthodox church that holds paintings of saints,
was built so it could be taken down in an hour if members had to flee.
Even with the fall of the Soviet Union, it was
not until recently that the Church Abroad decided
to reconcile with the Moscow Patriarchate.
But for worshippers like those in Buena, the
Moscow Patriarchate is still thought to be
riddled with people who collaborated with the Soviet government.
There's also a worry that the Patriarchate is too
closely aligned with the current Russian
government, which they feel is sugarcoating
Communism in order to revive Russians' pride in Soviet-era history.
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington
D.C., Alexey Timofeev, said the unification was
something desired by all Russians, in and out of the country.
Although there's no official count of how many
parishes or parishioners have left the Church
Abroad, priests and worshippers say it has driven
apart churches, priests even families.
"Husband and wives, mothers and sons, everybody
has been divided. It is a very big tragedy," said
Bishop Vladimir Tselichtchev, 41, who led what
may be the last service at the Buena church.
Many Russian Orthodox churches and worshippers
are following the Buena lawsuit closely, to see
what effect it may have on their own situation.
"Maybe the Cold War is not the same but it's not
over," said the Rev. Stefan Sabelnik, who has led
the Trenton-based Assumption of Holy Virgin
Church, which also broke away over the reconciliation with Moscow.
Nicholas Ohotin, a spokesman for the Russian
Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, said people
are allowed to leave the church but they can't
take church property with them. Ohotin said the
agreement with the Moscow Patriarchate allows for
a "very broad independence," and Orthodox
believers shouldn't fear they'll be subject to Moscow's rule.
"The church hopes that all of its parishioners,
any of its members that left the church do find
their way back to the bosom of the church," Ohotin said.
Maria Nekludoff grew up attending the Buena
church and her father, uncle, brother and
grandmother are buried in the well-tended
cemetery. She said her parents and parishioners
put their life into building up the church.
"That would break my heart to see that basically
their life's work was taken away," she said. "I
feel blessed that I was able to defend these
people who were defenseless ... I felt it was my duty."