The church I visited is St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church in the Saint Louis metropolitan area. Having done some research, I found out that it is a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was founded in March 1985. So, the church is not old. The founders were Orthodox people who wanted to find a traditional non-ethnic place of worship among existing ones. They did not find such a place, so they decided to found a new one, and called it later after St. Basil. Originally, it was functioning under the jurisdiction of the Greek Old calendar Church of North America. It was until 1992 when the perish requested to be accepted into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia under the guide of Archbishop Alypy of Chicago and Mid-America. The parish is not numerous, though it continues to grow. Some years ago, it numbered about 100 parishioners. St. Basil’s provide a complete range of religious services according to the Russian canon. Confession and communion are rather frequent. All the services are conducted in English; sometimes, some Slavonic texts are included. The priest of St. Basil’s is Fr. Martin Swanson. He is originally from Southern California, and he is a convert to orthodoxy. He has served as the Rector of the Church for his whole priestly career.
I visited the Church on Sunday. I found out that, on Sundays, they serve Divine Liturgy, and it starts at 10 a.m., so I came 15 minutes earlier not to be late and have enough time to look around. The Church is housed in a one stored building – it is not big, I must admit. There is one dome crowned with a cross. In the church yard, there are a lot of flowers. As for the interior of the church, it is rather specious and light. Different shades of blue predominate in the color-scheme of the interior. On one of the walls, which is the central one and is called the icon stand, there are six big pictures of saints – icons. A big chandelier stands in the middle of the church.
The service started in time and was called Divine Liturgy, as I mentioned before. Having set my cell phone in a silent mode, I entered the church. What surprised me was that all the people in the church were standing during the service. The men were bear-headed, while women were wearing headscarves. They were all listening to the priest with great attention, repeating some words after him from time to time. They were speaking English, so I could understand that the words they were repeating were the words of the prayers. From time to time, the people crossed themselves. I noticed that they did it from right to left, while the Catholics, as I know, do it from left to right.
After the service, the parishioners came up to the priest one by one, and the priest asked them something in a low voice. Having answered the questions, a man or a woman stepped aside allowing the next parishioner to come to the priest. I was told that the ritual I witnessed was called confession – the parishioners confessed their sins. After the above ritual, the priest gave each person something to drink and eat. It was wine and special bread – it was what they call communion. Having done that, the priest delivered a short homily.
The atmosphere in the church was very lively and friendly. I could see it well both during the service and after it, when a light meal was held in the church yard. I was told that after all Divine Liturgies the parishioners always hold a light meal and have a kind of social hour. These occasions are characterized by discussions on a great number of spiritual topics, and by abundant food, they give the parishioners a nice opportunity to socialize. Not all of the parishioners are original Orthodox, more than a half of the members are converts from Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Parishioners come from different layers of the society, educational levels, and work backgrounds. So, such Sunday meetings help people find common interests. Though they are all different, they are united by one faith.
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As for the social engagement of the parish, I can say that they organize a variety of activities, namely pilgrimages to Orthodox places of interest, discussion groups, and an Orthodox Film Series program during three summer months. Those who want to study more about the Orthodox faith can attend individual lectures. In addition, St. Basil’s supports a Sunday school for the children, offering the program of social and religious studies. Thus, children are getting accustomed to the activities of the parish. St. Basil’s is also involved in other social activities – it sponsors the outreach of the mission, which is situated in Columbia, Missouri, it serves as a parish away from home for Orthodox students who study at local colleges and universities.
As for the roles the men and women play in the congregation, I think they are quite equal. A good example is Fr. Martin’s wife Katherine, who is an active and important participant of the St. Basil’s community. Women look after the flowers in the church yard; they prepare some dishes for Sunday meal.
Speaking about any distinctions between older and younger members of the congregation, I must say that the majority of those present at the service were quite young. I did not notice any one older than 60 or 70. I was surprised to learn that the average age of the parish is one of the youngest among all Orthodox Parishes in St. Louis. I liked the way the parishioners treated each other with love and respect.
Though being ethnically quite diverse (only about 25 % of the parishioners are Russian emigrants), the members of the parish strive to preserve cultural customs and maintain the fullness of their Orthodox faith. The fact they include some Slavonic music into the service and pronounce their prayers not only in English, but in Russian shows their devotion to the land of their ancestors and respect of those who are not ethnical Russians.
As for the music during the service, there was none (I did not hear any organ playing), but there was beautiful singing. The singing helped to create an inimitable prayerful atmosphere. The melodies were very solemn; sometimes, they even made my flesh crawl. St. Basil’s can boast of a good choir! It numbers fifteen volunteers who do their best to accompany well the service. As I have learned they sing mostly in English, though they include some Russian and Kievan Chant, as well as Serbian, Romanian, and Greek music.
Attending the service in St. Basil’s was a great experience. I have never been to any Orthodox church before, so it impressed me greatly. To tell the truth, I did not expect to see so many young people and children in the church. I learned quite a lot about the orthodox worship – the way they cross themselves, the way the priest delivers the homily. The communion was something I had not seen before. I was surprised to see those people, whose ethnic motherland is thousands of miles away, striving to preserve their customs and language and, therefore, their own identity.