St. Thomas Sunday Pilgrimage Brings Thousands to the Spiritual Center of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA in South Bound Brook, NJ
By Elizabeth Symonenko
Early Saturday morning, as the robins were singing their songs, and the geese were flying overhead, silhouetted against the darkening clouds, the words “Христос Воскрес/Christ is Risen“ echoed cheerfully through the Metropolia Center, echoing through the damp air across the complex.
As the bells of the St. Andrew Memorial Church began to chime, the faithful made their way up the steps and with awe entered the newly renovated church. The icons twinkled in the candlelight as His Eminence Archbishop Daniel began the Divine Liturgy. The church was filled with the members of the Metropolitan Council who had remained after their meeting which had concluded on Friday, as well as individuals who had arrived for the St. Thomas weekend activities.
Upon concluding the Divine Liturgy, His Eminence, along with the faithful headed to the cemetery to serve Memorial Services upon the gravesites of loved ones. While serving a panakhyda at the grave of Protopresbyter Michael Zemlachenko, the heavy grey skies opened up, drizzling cool sweet water over the faithful, hiding the tears of many of the mourners.
Throughout the cemetery umbrellas popped open, and while the conditions became wet, it did not dampen the spirits of the faithful who carefully walked among the graves, visiting and praying for the departed. As the sweet chords of “Christ is Risen” traveled in the damp air over the river and to the Metropolia Center, a multitude of vendors were arriving and setting up shop in the Cultural Center. With damp hair, but, warm hearts, those present happily prepared for Sunday’s warmer temperatures, and anticipated greater crowds.
As the late afternoon hours of St. Thomas Saturday arrived, about 100 people arrived to St. Sophia Seminary for a picnic, sponsored by the Ukrainian Orthodox League. Seminarians treated everyone present to the traditional barbeque. The evening concluded with the celebrations of Vespers at the Seminary’s Three Holy Hierarchs Chapel.
As the bells of St. Andrew Memorial Church began to peal, echoing throughout the Metropolia Complex, the faithful, which had arrived for the St. Thomas Sunday festivities, gathered at the foot of the church steps to greet their hierarchs. The children of St. Andrew Memorial Church School (under the leadership of Director Pani Halyna Martynec), dressed in Ukrainian Vyshyvanka (embroidery), squirmed and rehearsed the words they would say upon greeting His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, and His Eminence Archbishop Daniel.
The hierarchs, preceded by clergy from local parishes, where resplendent in their Paschal white vestments which literally glowed as they walked up to the steps to the church. Both hierarchs smiled broadly as the youth of the parish came forward greeting them with poetic grace and handed them bouquets of roses. Having happily accepted the gifts, the hierarchs spread their arms wide enclosing the children in a wide group hug.
With everyone joyously smiling the hierarchs were welcomed to the parish by Pani Matka Lesia Siwko, along with the parish Starosta Dmytro Kozluk, and finally by the parish pastor V. Rev. Yurij Siwko. Having been so warmly welcomed, His Eminence Metropolitan Antony thanked everyone, and prayed that God blesses the parish family of St. Andrew Memorial Church, along with all the guests, with much health, happiness and many blessed years. With the clergy leading the way in to the church, the hierarchs smiled and greeted the faithful pushing in around them, as the choir (under the leadership of Dr. Michael Andrec) exploded in a joyous and magnificent rendition of “Christ is Risen”!
The Divine Liturgy, which is always glorious, seemed even more so, with both hierarchs celebrating, surrounded by a cloud of clergy, and altar servers. The faithful filled the church, pushing forward as far as they could, while many overflowed onto the front porch and entry steps. Assuredly, God was smiling from the Heavens when everyone joyously exclaimed loudly “Indeed He is Risen!” in response to “Christ is Risen!”
The Reading was from the Gospel of John, retelling how Christ had first appeared to the Apostles who were scared and in hiding; and how St. Thomas, who had not been with them earlier, did not believe they had seen Him. Later Christ appeared again, with Thomas being present, and having invited the doubting Apostle to touch His wounds to prove to himself that He was truly Jesus Christ, the Lord blessed all those who believe without having physically seen Him.
Still pondering upon the Lord’s words, the faithful were transfixed with the magnificence of the Liturgy; the voices of the choir spiraled, ebbed and flowed, echoing angelically throughout the tall steeple, winding back down to envelope the people below. The faithful, radiant under the veil of spiritual brilliance which was engulfing them, moved forward as one, to partake of the Mystical Gifts of the Lord. His Eminence Archbishop Daniel’s voiced echoed not only through the church, but, through the hearts of those gathered before him, as he recited the Prayer before Communion. With His Eminence, Metropolitan Antony watching, the faithful came up to partake of the Eucharist.
With souls replenished, and hearts overflowing with love and joy, the faithful eagerly listened as upon the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, Vladyka Antony took the opportunity to remind everyone of just how blessed we are here in the United States, living in relative peace and comfort, while others in the world are suffering, wars are raging, and people are dying. He reminded us that it is our responsibility, as the One Living Body of Christ, to do as Christ would. He instructed us to be kind, loving and generous, concluding by assigning us all with a relatively simple, yet, crucial duty. His Eminence instructed us, that when we pray our morning and evening prayers, that we not only pray for our loved ones, for ourselves, for those who have asked us, unworthy though we be, to pray for them, but, that we pray for those “who have nobody to pray for them.” While the words seem simple enough, the force behind them is immense. There are countless individuals in this world who are either physically, or spiritually alone. If we all pray for them, with true belief, we can be instruments of change in their lives.
Before concluding the Service and heading outside, the hierarchs took a moment to greet a couple of special guests, Mr. Rem Behautdinovand his wife Margareta. Mr. Behautdinovhad created a large bronze icon, which now hangs on the wall near the church entrance, depicting the history of Christianity in Kyivan Rus. In addition to the above mentioned iconographic depiction, Artist Behautdinov presented the Metropolia Center of the Church with six others works, which will be displayed at the Ukrainian museum of NJ. The faithful made way as the hierarchs headed to the back of the church, where they blessed the icon, as well as the newly renovated side chapel. The Metropolitan took the opportunity to bless all those near, sprinkling holy water over them, making the already smiling people bubble over with laughter and joy.
Having concluded the Divine Liturgy, the faithful poured out of the church milling about the steps, awaiting their hierarchs, who emerged and led the way around the church, through the Holy Resurrection Cemetery to the Great Memorial Cross in the center which in 1971 was blessed in memory of those who gave their lives fighting for the independence of Ukraine. Here the hierarchs stopped and served a short Memorial Service, asking God’s mercy upon the souls of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. Orthodoxy teaches that physical death only temporarily separates us from our loved ones. While we mourn their absence from our current lives, we know they are not gone, and therefore, we journey to their gravesites to share our joy at Christ’s Resurrection with them. It was very moving to see hundreds of faithful congregate for the general Memorial Service in the center of the cemetery and pray for their loved ones.
Completing the service, the hierarchs led the way down to the Mausoleum to serve a panakhyda at the tomb of Patriarch Mstyslav. Gathering around his tomb, His Eminence Metropolitan Antony’s, and His Eminence Archbishop Daniel’s voices swirled around the small chamber, echoing off the marble walls, carrying through the halls of the Mausoleum and up through the open doors to the faithful standing outside. With the sweet smell of incense filling the air, all those gathered joined in singing “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; and to those in the tombs bestowing life!”
While some people lingered at the Patriarch’s tomb praying, others walked to the side room to look at archives pertaining to the Patriarch’s life, including his vestments, and miter. Leaving them to their prayers, thoughts and reminiscing, the hierarchs proceeded back to the front of the church property to the Veteran’s Memorial, where they served yet another Memorial Service in gratitude to all those who laid down their lives protecting their country and loved ones. With flags sharply flapping in the breeze, people prayed as His Eminence Archbishop Daniel censed the monument, and His Eminence Metropolitan Antony placed a wreath before the memorial.
Everyone fell silent as at the conclusion, as a lone bugle playing Taps. The lonely melody echoed off the black marble of the Memorial Monument touching the hearts of all present.
As the hierarchs walked back towards the church, having concluded the general ceremonies, the people spread out along the cemetery, to visit various gravesites. Walking beneath the blooming dogwood one could hear the conclusion of a memorial service on the right, with the priest singing “Christ is Risen!”, while turning to the left another was just beginning, and ahead people were talking and laughing, awaiting the arrival of their own priest. The cemetery which is usually thought of as a dark and lonely, if not spooky place, reserved for the dead, was overflowing today with life. People were singing, talking, retelling stories, and episodes from the lives of the departed, as priests prayed at various graves, and children darted hither and dither among the headstones, squealing with joy and laughter. The cemetery was not dead today, but, very much alive.
For those who did not pack a meal, the Sisterhood hall was once again offering super delicious Ukrainian fare. The hall quickly filled to capacity as patrons enjoyed varenyky, holubtsi, pork cutlets, sauerkraut, sausage, and countless other dishes and desserts. The voices inside rose to a loud din, as people sat with strangers at various tables and got to know each other. People found long lost friends and acquaintances, while others met for the first time their long-time Facebook friends. Laughter permeated the air, and the people having satisfied their spiritual hunger in church, now satisfied their bodily hunger with a good Ukrainian meal. Those who’d already eaten went for walks through the cemetery meeting up with old friends, visiting the graves of loved ones and acquaintances, some wondered through the woods, others played by the river and some just sat singing and laughing, while their children ran around, and danced beside them.
Having prayed for their loved ones, many people walked over the bridge to the Consistory Complex, climbing the steps to the Cultural Center, pausing to take photos at the “Ukrainian Hut”, and then wondering inside the center to purchase any number of Ukrainian gifts. The stalls overflowed with jewelry, magnets, embroidered shirts, pysanky, T-shirts, scarves, embroidered tablecloths, as well as all manner of religious items such as icons, service and prayer books and church supplies such as incense, candleholders, and icons.
The day concluded peacefully with an Ice-Cream Social, as the hierarchs, along with many from their flock, relaxed on the veranda of the St. Sophia Theological Seminary, enjoying refreshments as the youth played soccer below, while other children played with balloons, balls and yet others enjoyed their second bowl of deliciously cold ice-cream.
As the sun began to set in the West, painting the sky in various shades of purple and red, the faithful began packing up and departing the Metropolia Center. The hubbub of human laughter and activity, slowly got replaced by the songs of the birds, and the honking of the geese. Hours of festivities seemed to fade away in minutes. However, the day’s events left an indelible mark upon those who had been present. Even though they were physically tired, they were spiritually renewed, and were returning to their everyday world, with new resolve to make this world a better and more peaceful place. As the last of the cars drove off in to the darkness, you could hear the people yelling their final farewells, and the last words that echoed off the St. Andrew Memorial Church, and the Metropolia Center walls were, “Christ is risen!” “Indeed He is Risen!”
2017 St. Thomas Sunday Pilgrimage - 04/24/17
Photos by Elizabeth Symonenko, Lev Khmelkovsky, Ethan Nixon, Seminarians of St. Sophia Seminary