A Sister-Parish Relationship
By Fr. Eugene Vansuch
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN GHANA
Within a short time of my arrival to St. Nicholas parish, I received a phone call asking whether our parish would be interested in hosting a visit by an Orthodox missionary priest and his wife as part of the nationwide Ghana Mission Tour. The purpose of the mission tour would be two-fold: to expose the Orthodox Church in Africa to the Orthodox faithful in the United States, and to provide an improved financial base for the Orthodox Church in Ghana along with liturgical, educational and building materials for the churches to become self-sustaining.
I thought this would be a great opportunity for our parish to be exposed to Orthodoxy world-wide, so I said YES! The visit was arranged, and our parish graciously hosted Fr. Kwame Joseph Labi and Presvytera Gertrude Labi to hear their message about the Orthodox Church in Ghana. Little did I realize at this time what doors would open and how our parish would become mission oriented as a result of this mid-week visit.
The number of parishioners who turned out for the presentation that evening was small. We were not at all disappointed with what we heard. In fact, the people in attendance were so moved by Fr. Kwame’s presentation that a commitment was made to help the Church in Ghana to the best of our ability. Our parish packaged twenty-five shipping cartons containing church vestments (for priests and altar servers), altar covers, icons, Church School materials, books, school supplies, a typewriter, children and adult clothing, clergy shirts and apparel and various office supplies. We transported the cartons to New York, enabling Fr. Kwame to add our donation to the other donations he received while on his tour. Before he left our parish, Fr. Kwame gave us something as a remembrance of his visit. The African tapestry stole hangs in our church as a visible reminder of our personal parish-to-parish relationship.
Ghana Mission Fund Established
This was our first opportunity for outreach beyond our own parish family. The presentation that evening was so inspiring that several parishioners were moved to establish a Ghana Mission Fund, which would provide a financial base for the construction of a new church. Fr. Kwame gave us a figure he felt would be sufficient to build a new church and our parish said, “Go ahead with the building!” We committed ourselves to raising $10,000.00 to build a parish in Ghana.
Thus, a sister-parish relationship was born between St. Nicholas Parish, Bethlehem, PA and Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Accra, Ghana, West Africa. This was in September 1988. In the course of the next two years, we would become very busy raising funds for our sister parish. In April 1991, which coincided with the 75th anniversary year of our parish, a check for $10,000.00 was presented to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Board of Missions as our commitment to build the church in Ghana.
“TWIN PARISH PROGRAM” WITH RUSSIA
One month later, in May 1991, a letter from the Orthodox Church in America arrived on my desk announcing the “Twin Parish Program,” an opportunity for parishes to be in contact and cooperation with Orthodox believers in the Soviet Union. Since we already had an established relationship with the Church in Ghana, we wanted to pursue the establishment of direct communication with a sister parish in the Soviet Union.
In the letter was a “Parish Profile,” which we completed and submitted to the OCA Chancery for their review. We waited to hear of our match, sometimes rather impatiently, as we did not want the enthusiasm of the parishioners to wane. Finally, in June 1992 we received word from the OCA Chancery that a match had been found and our sister parish would be the Church of St. Tikhon in Klin, Russia. This parish is the first church dedicated to St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.
We were given the name, address, telephone number and name of the parish priest along with a brief biography of the parish. Fr. Joseph Fester, coordinator of the Parish-to-Parish Program at the time, enclosed photos he had taken on his recent visit to Klin. Photos included the restoration work done on the parish church and adjoining building and of officials. Accompanying this information was a Parish-To-Parish Handbook to guide us through the initial contacts with our “sister parish.”
We called a meeting of our Sister Parish Committee and began the process of establishing contact with the parish of St. Tikhon. The first order of business was to send a letter of introduction with information about our parish. Accompanying the letter were parish anniversary books containing pictures and articles about the parish. We were not sure how to mail the letter and books as our concern was the length of time it would take to receive the mail and whether or not it would even be received. A member of our committee learned of a friend who was going to Russia and contact was made. She agreed to take the package with her and mail it from Moscow.
In late September 1992, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Theodosius was in Russia and in the city of Klin for the consecration of the Church of St. Tikhon with His Holiness Patriarch Aleksy. Upon His Beatitude’s return to the United States, he brought a response to our introductory letter along with newspaper articles of the consecration. The letter contained a phone number and a fax number for St. Tikhon’s Parish. Our sister parish in Russia had a fax number! We could not fax them, however, because we did not have a fax machine in our parish! It did not take too long before we could receive our own fax which would enable us to communicate directly via the fax mode.
At the next meeting of our Sister Parish Committee, a call was placed to the parish priest, Fr. Anatoly Frolov. We were successful in reaching him and conversed with him in Russian (at the time Fr. Anatoly spoke no English). Several members of our committee are fluent in Russian, which enabled us to ask many questions concerning the needs of the parish and how we could be of assistance to them.
The next year was devoted to fund-raising activities within our parish community to purchase items for St. Tikhon Parish. Our next concern was, “How do we get the items to our sister parish” Do we ship them? Send them by air freight?” Since many of our parishioners had never traveled to Russia, we asked: “Why not take them ourselves?”
A November Trip To Russia
A November trip to Russia, over the Thanksgiving holidays, was planned to transport the purchased items. Boxes were carefully packed so that each one in our group had a box as part of their required luggage, thus avoiding an extra charge for parcels. The Thanksgiving season was chosen because of lower air fares and the natural vacation time available during this season, which meant fewer days of missing work. A group of 15 parishioners left the day before Thanksgiving, for a 7-day journey, carrying with them the following:
A personal computer with monitor and printer
A case of computer paper
Embroidery thread and supplies for the parish embroidery center (the parish operates an embroidery center which makes clergy vestments and instruction classes are offered to those who wish to learn the art of embroidery)
Cassock material, buttons and hoods for several cassocks
Vegetable seeds for the parish community garden
Aspirin, toiletries, tooth paste, combs, brushes
Adult and children’s clothing; and
Souvenirs from Bethlehem and the U.S.
The latter part of November means it is very cold in Klin. Most of us were housed in the parish center, while a few stayed with parishioners. We had no heat in the evening and no hot water during the day or evening. What an experience taking care of your personal needs with no heat or hot water, comforts we have come to expect and enjoy in America! Our hosts were very gracious and most appreciative for all that we had done for them. Our meals were in the parish center, which operated as a soup kitchen for the homeless in Klin.
Several of our parishioners helped the parish with monetary gifts, which were given to them directly, enabling them to purchase a new stove and other kitchen items as part of upgrading their facilities. Since we were in Klin for the Nativity Fast, we quickly learned how many ways one can prepare cabbage and potatoes for delicious meals.
Following the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, we presented all our gifts to the parish. A huge hit with the people were the Polaroid pictures. As presentations were made, pictures were taken and given to each child or adult in the photo. The people were amazed at the instant pictures!
On this particular visit to Klin, Fr. Anatoly introduced us to a parishioner, Alexei Kurenkov, a last-year student at Moscow University and a graduate of the Orthodox Theological Institute at Moscow University. Fr. Anatoly asked if there would be any way we could help Alexei attend an Orthodox Seminary in the United States as he desired to study for the Holy Priesthood. We advised Fr. Anatoly that an answer to his inquiry would be given once we returned to the United States and investigated the possibilities.
A commitment was made by our Sister Parish Committee to secure funding in order that Alexei could study in America. His Eminence, Archbishop Herman met Alexei in early 1994, while on one of his official trips to Russia, and officially invited Alexei to attend St. Tikhon’s Seminary, South Canaan, PA. We sponsored his airfare and raised the necessary tuition fee for Alexei to enroll as a seminarian at St. Tikhon’s and begin his 3-year study. His studies concluded in May 1997, when he graduated with an M.Div. degree.
Fr. Anatoly And Sergei Chapnin Visit The US
During the year following our November journey to Russia, we extended an invitation to Fr. Anatoly and the president of the St. Tikhon’s Brotherhood, Sergei Chapnin, to visit our parish. We sponsored their round-trip air fare to visit Bethlehem and other cities in the United States where personal contacts had been made by Fr. Anatoly or Sergei through international Orthodox church programs or agencies.
The visit to our parish enabled our parishioners to hear of the work being done in Klin as a result of our assistance. In appreciation for our generous support of St. Tikhon’s parish, Fr. Anatoly presented our parish with a handwritten icon of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow. The icon was written by an accomplished iconographer who teaches the art of iconography in the parish. In addition to the icon, Fr. Anatoly brought two sets of priest’s vestments, made by the parish embroidery center. The ever-present icon and the vestments are visible reminders of our special parish relationship. Having this opportunity to meet Fr. Anatoly and Sergei enabled our faithful to personally identify with our sister parish involvement. Their 10-day visit to our parish was a great opportunity for them to see our seminaries and monasteries in the East, and to visit many Orthodox churches in the immediate tri-state area.
A Second Trip To Klin
The most recent trip to visit our sister parish occurred in July 1996. We planned the trip around that time so we could attend the wedding of our seminarian, Alexei Kurenkov, in Klin. Throughout the year we raised money for our sister parish with a monthly Coffee Hour following Sunday Divine Liturgy, a lenten Fish Dinner, Pascha Bake Sale and a frozen Pizza Sale. Oftentimes, we will receive donations “in memory of” which are designated for the Sister Parish Fund.
With a slightly smaller number of travelers for this trip, we limited the type of items we were able to transport. Our concentration was placed on educational materials: book backpacks for children; the Orthodox Study Bible; past issues of our Diocesan publication, Alive in Christ; The Tikhonaire, especially those issues featuring the canonization of St. Alexis; and many books on Orthodoxy for all ages, in English, for the parish library.
Their parish library is very large, containing hundreds of volumes of published material for the parishioners to use at their disposal. Our aim was to provide as much material as possible concerning the lives of Orthodox Saints in America. A large icon of St. Alexis was presented to the St. Tikhon Parish along with information on his life and wooden pieces from his casket.
Additional items presented were: clergy shirts, material for two cassocks, incense and wooden hand crosses for the parish priests. Whatever monetary donations were received from our parishioners, all was given to the parish for their particular needs. Smaller icons of St. Alexis and packages of incense were given to any monastery or parish church we visited while on tour. In America, we purchased hundreds of paper icon prints which were given to all members of our group to distribute to people they met. For the parishioners in Klin to know something about the city of Bethlehem, a book on the history of our city along with special gifts reflecting the religious and cultural heritage of our hometown city were presented to the parish.
During our visit we found the parish was in the first stage of a program to complete the interior with icons. A sketch depicting the over-all scheme of the icons was on display. It moved several of our parishioners to donate icons for the parish. Since then, an iconographer from the parish has begun to write the icons which are being installed by the parishioners.
The ending of our wonderful visit in Klin was the wedding of Seminarian Alexei Kurenkov. As our bus came to get us for the return trip to Moscow, the wedding reception was interrupted in order that everyone might say their good-byes and bid farewell. What a sight at the bus! The bridal couple, their families and wedding guests gathered around us, shedding tears of joy in appreciation and grateful thanks for our visit to Klin. Through the kindness and generosity of our parishioners, Alexei was able to bring his wife, Maria, to America to be with him for his senior year at St. Tikhon’s. In September of this past year, they returned to their families and home parish in Russia.
ST. CATHERINE’S IN MOSCOW
Helping a parish in Russia did not end with our visit to Klin. We made a special visit to St. Catherine’s Church in Moscow, the OCA’s representation parish, where Fr. Daniel Hubiak is the Dean. We presented 6 Vesper music books and 48 hardback Divine Liturgy books, all in English, to the parish. Our visit and donations were made with the knowledge of Fr. Daniel Hubiak prior to our leaving for Russia. Since Fr. Daniel was in America at the time of our visit, monetary donations from our parish to St. Catherine’s parish were given directly to Fr. Daniel to take back with him upon his return to Moscow.
POSITIVE IMPACT ON PARISH
The five-year sister parish relationship has had a positive impact on our parish. The parish has grown with a positive attitude concerning mission and outreach. As a result of our involvement with the Orthodox Church in Ghana and now in Klin, Russia, we have been able to turn our attention to mission and outreach in our local area, in our diocese and throughout the Orthodox Church in America. Our parish budget includes a certain percentage designated for Mission and Outreach. An agenda item at our monthly parish council meeting is the allocation of budgeted funds for Mission and Outreach.
As this article is being prepared, so too are preparations being made for another trip to visit our sister parish in August 1998. We take the opportunity to visit other places in Russia whenever we visit Klin. Our first trip was mainly Moscow and Klin. The second trip was to Moscow, Klin and St. Petersburg. The upcoming trip will include Moscow, Klin, and Ukraine. All our trips are arranged through the office of FOS Tours in New York.
The success of our sister parish relationship is based on continuous open communication and prayer. In between visits, we regularly communicate via e-mail, fax, letter or personal phone call. With every Divine Liturgy celebrated at St. Nicholas Parish, the names of the parish priests of our sister-parishes are remembered and commemorated. Once the personal contact is made, a bonding relationship begins; a relationship that can forever be an integral part of the personal lives of the parishioners and the life of the parish.
A sister parish in Eastern Europe can be received by contacting the Office of Humanitarian Aid, Orthodox Church in America, (516) 922-0550, Ext. 126.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
1) Does our parish have a mission and/or outreach program?
If yes, has it been successful? In what areas could there be improvement or expansion?
If no, would this be a good time for our parish to link up with a sister parish in Eastern Europe, or locally with one of the mission in the US?
2) What are the kinds of things that a parish would need to do to insure that undertaking a sister parish program would be a successful partnership?