Starting from Scratch
by Fr. John Whiteford
Having an English language mission, without having a permanent priest was difficult, but we did regular reader services, and were able to get priests to travel to serve the liturgy on a somewhat regular basis. It was when we began St. Jonah’s that I began posting liturgical rubrics online, as well as texts for Reader Services.
When it comes to starting missions in ROCOR, one of the advantages is that our bishops are willing to start missions even when they have meager financial means. The disadvantage is that there is not much in the way of outside help for such missions, and so those who start a mission have to be prepared to struggle, and need to be patient enough to allow the mission to reach a critical mass that allows them to get over the next hurdle. For us, the first hurdle was not being able to do the Liturgy regularly in an area in which there were other Orthodox Churches that did have the Liturgy. We finally overcame that hurdle, when on January 14th, 2001 (n.s.) I was ordained a priest by Bishop Gabriel.
The next hurdle was to get into a more suitable facility. We had our first Liturgy in my home. Then we had a family that hosted our services for some time, but then that family made the decision to return to St. Vladimir, and so we were back at my house, and were having services in a 135-square-foot room, which made for cozy services. When people would call and ask about our services, they would often sound very interested, until I gave them directions, and explained that we were having services in a house… usually such people never showed up even once. However, over time we had built up a small but relatively committed group of people.
Our income was rather meager at this point, and so it was difficult to find a storefront rental that would be within our budget… and though we looked and made many inquiries, nothing panned out. Then one day, Providence took matters into hand. I came home from work, and much of my home was flooded, because a pipe had cracked, and this particularly affected the room we used for a chapel. We had no choice but to find another location, or not have services until repairs could be completed, and that was going to be several weeks at least.
However, a few days later, Matushka happened to look at the Greensheet (a paper mostly consisting of want ads and sale ads), and found a storefront location on the feeder road of I-45, and they only wanted about $300 a month. This space was only 600 square feet, but compared to what we had, that was incredibly spacious. The downside was that we shared a wall with a black Pentecostal church that had a very loud band, and a loud preacher – so we had to time our services to have our service coincide with the least noisy parts of theirs. The highway noise was also quite loud, even with the door shut. But it was a big step in the right direction, and our parish began to grow more rapidly. And while it was a step of faith to move into this storefront, and have a monthly rent payment, a light bill, and insurance to pay, we never had any difficulty paying our bills. God provided.
The next hurdle was to get into a larger storefront location, and again we had to reach a critical mass. Finally, we found a location that was a about 2400 square feet, and would cost us over a $1,000.00 a month – and once again, we shared a wall with another black Pentecostal church, though because they had classrooms along that wall, it was less noisy. Again, it was a leap of faith to take on such a lease, but again we grew, and never had any difficulty paying our bills. This location had the space to allow us to do our first big outreach, which was an Icon Exhibit. We had a parishioner with a large collection of 18th and 19th century Russian Icons, and so we first held a one day exhibit, which was very successful, and had the effect of letting people know we were there, and brought new people into the parish, both Orthodox and inquirers.
Even a sizable storefront facility, no matter how nice it might be, does not appeal to many people who are used to going to a nice, freestanding Church, and so the next hurdle was for us to buy our own property. We had several generous parishioners that donated $20,000.00 each, which put us in a position to hunt for property. We found several potential locations, but always there were a number of families that did not like the location because it was too far from them.
We didn’t think that there was anything affordable close to where we were, but finally we engaged a local real estate agent, and ask him to try to find something as close to our current location as possible, and preferably with a building already on it that would be suitable for services, at least initially. In short period of time, he found what turned out to be far better than any of the other properties we had looked at. It was walking distance from our current facility, it had a large house and a barn on it, and it was big enough to allow for further expansion. So we closed the deal in March of 2008, and moved onto the property in May, after knocking out walls, and remodeling the home to make it suitable for services. This was just a little bit shy of our tenth anniversary of the founding of our parish.
In 2009 we received a very sizable donation from a generous parishioner that put us in the position of being able to begin plans for our “phase II” Church. As the project developed, more donations from outside and inside the parish came in, and when we finished the construction of the new Church, it had cost about a quarter of a million dollars, but we were able to pay for it all in cash.
Our parish began as a mostly convert parish. It developed into a mixed parish, with about half of the adults being converts, and the other half cradle Orthodox, from Russian, Polish, Arab, Serbian, and Greek backgrounds. This has been a healthy mix, because it is good to have the zeal of the converts, but it is also good to have that zeal tempered by the grounding of those who have grown up in the Church.