McKeesport, PA: Metropolitan Hilarion leads Centennial of Holy Virgin Dormition Church
When the parishioners of St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in McKeesport, PA – immigrants from Carpathian Ruthenia – welcomed their new priest in 1915, the last thing they expected was to be told that they had not, in fact, been worshipping in an Orthodox Christian temple, as they had been led to believe, but rather in Eastern Rite Catholic church. There was shock and outrage, and even a lawsuit to determine rightful ownership of the parish, but the courts agreed with the status quo. Thus a group of the faithful in the suburbs of Pittsburgh asked for a priest and in November of 1916 one was sent – Archpriest Gregory Kobasa.
Fr. Gregory took to his new assignment with fervor, and the first services were held at the local Serbian church. The first Divine Liturgy was served on January 7, 1917 in the Serbian church hall, with later services being performed in rented local halls. The first rector of the newly former Holy Virgin Dormition parish was Priest Lukian Zemba, and that same year, property was purchased on Shaw Avenue that would be the parish’s home for the next 100 years. Services were conducted in a chapel in the rectory, but parishioners wasted no time: in 1918, the cornerstone was laid for the first church building, which would become known to locals as "The Little Church Around the Corner."
A quick succession of rectors, none lasting more than six years, cared for the parish until 1935, when Archpriest Peter Kreta was assigned. By 1947, only 30 years after the parish’s founding, the church mortgage was fully paid and ceremonially burned. In 1954, parishioners broke ground on a new Russian Orthodox cultural center and rectory, blessed the following year by Archbishop Benjamin (Basalyga) of Pittsburgh. Even before his blessed repose in 1970, Fr. Peter foresaw the need for the ever-growing congregation to build a new, larger church.
Upon Fr. Peter’s passing, the parish was quickly sent a new rector: Archpriest Dimitri Ermakov of Buffalo, NY, who arrived with his matushka Martha and their children: four daughters and a son, also named Dimitri. Fr. Dimitri took up the baton Fr. Peter had laid down, and by 1973, the parish had a mortgage of $750,000 to begin building the new church. The last Liturgy in "The Little Church Around the Corner" was celebrated on August 12, 1973, and services then moved to a nearby chapel vacated by the local Presbyterian church. Demolition began on September 4.
Again, though, progress was quick, and the first Divine Liturgy in the new edifice was celebrated on January 5, 1975. The church was packed for the feast of Christ’s Nativity. The first wedding performed in the new church was that of Fr. Dimitri’s daughter Larissa to seminarian Stephan Romanchak, and the first ordination was that of Stephan to the diaconate – Fr. Stephan would later become the rector of Holy Trinity Church in California, PA, serving there until its closure. The icons on the iconostasis were completed in 1982. Of note is that, in 1984, Fr. Dimitri commissioned frescoes of the Royal Martyrs of Russia and Patriarch Tikhon – well before recognition of their glorification in the OCA. All of the frescoes in the church were completed by 1986.
Throughout the decades, Holy Virgin Dormition Church served as a center of Orthodox worship and Russian culture in McKeesport and beyond, often hosting Pan-Orthodox events, community dinners and fundraisers, picnics, concerts, and even a 15-minute radio program, "The Light of Orthodoxy." The parish was where the Western Pennsylvania Balalaika Strings Orchestra was born.
In 1982, the parish fatefully recommitted itself to the Julian "Old" Calendar, which put it on a collision course with their diocese and the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church in America. Having become convinced that they stood to lose their traditional calendar, the parish voted in 1993 to request to be received under the omophorion of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. They were received, and the following year, Fr. Dimitri’s son Dimitri was ordained to the diaconate by Bishop Hilarion of Manhattan, vicar of the Eastern American Diocese – later First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad.
Fr. Dimitri the elder soon fell ill, however, and his son was ordained to the priesthood in 1997 to help him with the divine services and fulfilling the needs of parishioners. In 1999, Fr. Dimitri reposed in the Lord. Having been leader of perhaps the most distinguished community in McKeesport for 27 years, Fr. Dimitri was beloved by the city. In the words of the parish historian, "his funeral was one of the largest in McKeesport [history,] with over 100 cars in the procession. It included a police escort to St. Gregory Cemetery in West Mifflin, where he was laid to rest next to his parents. Many local Orthodox priests were also in attendance." His son, Priest Dimitri, soon took the mantle as rector of Holy Virgin Dormition Church.
On Saturday, September 3, His Eminence Hilarion, Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York, arrived in McKeesport to lead the centennial celebrations. More than a year of planning by the 100th Anniversary Committee and the tireless efforts of the parish council and countless parishioners and friends culminated in these joyous days. The church was specially adorned and the choir had practiced the repertoire of the hierarchal service for months. Beautiful royal blue candles with the ‘100’ embossed in gold flickered throughout the church.
Metropolitan Hilarion led the All-Night Vigil on Saturday night and celebrated Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, co-served by His Grace, Eastern American Diocesan vicar Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, Archpriests John Sorochka (dean of Pennsylvania), Emilian Hutnyan (rector of St. Andrew Church OCA in Maple Heights, OH), John Kreta (rector of All Saints of North America Mission OCA in Salisbury, CT), and Dimitri Ermakov (parish rector), Priest Michael Lillie (rector of Nativity of Christ Patriarchal Church in Youngtown, OH), Protodeacon Gregory Petrochko and Deacon Nathaniel Sorochka (clerics of St. John the Baptist Church in Mayfield, PA), Deacons Dimitri Krenitsky (cleric of Holy Trinity Church in Vineland, NJ) and Andrew Temple (cleric of Christ the Savior Church in Wayne, WV). Fr. John Kreta is the grandson is the former rector, Archpriest Peter Kreta, while Fr. Andrew Temple grew up in the parish, and his family remain active parishioners. The services were held under the aegis of the Protectress of the Russian Diaspora, the wonderworking Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God.
After Vigil on Saturday night, a reception was held in the parish hall for those present, which included a varied exhibition on the parish’s history, featuring old photographs, newspaper clippings, and mementos from throughout the last 100 years.
Before the start of Liturgy on Sunday morning, altar server Luke Kwasniewski was tonsured a reader, and Dimitri Ermakov II was awarded the right to wear the orarion. At the Little Entrance, Fr. Dimitri was awarded the right to wear the jeweled pectoral cross. A multitude of parishioners and guests, having made their confessions, communed of Christ’s Holy Mysteries.
Upon completion of Liturgy, Metropolitan Hilarion addressed the gathered faithful with a sermon and then said, in part: "On this grace-filled, great, and holy day, when we glorify Christ’s Holy Resurrection and give thanks to Him for all of His mercies to us, and as we continue to celebrate the great feast of the Dormition of the Most-Pure Mother of God in the presence of her most holy Kursk Root Icon… we mark a most auspicious celebration: the hundredth anniversary of your parish. We commemorate those stalwart faithful who initiated and founded this parish, and all those who in the course of these 100 years were the pastors and parishioners, and who lived in this parish. In the Gospel reading today, we heard the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen. In this parable, the vineyard is the Church, both the Old Testament Church and the New Testament Church; and Christ’s words pertain as well to every parish, which is a vineyard where the word of God is sown. Today we congratulate the rector, Fr. Dimitri, his assistants, the parishioners, and all those who serve on the parish council, in the sisterhood, in the choir, in every different aspect of parish life. We congratulate you on this rare and joyous occasion, and pray that the vineyard of your church will continue to bear abundant fruits of the spiritual life, the fruits of virtue, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We are very joyful to be here with you for this great celebration."
Metropolitan Hilarion congratulated Fr. Dimitri on receiving the jeweled cross, the newly tonsured Reader Luke, and Dimitri Ermakov II on receiving the orarion, and then presented a diocesan Gramota to Fr. Dimitri and the entire parish on the occasion of their centennial.
A visibly touched Fr. Dimitri welcomed His Eminence, His Grace, the concelebrating clergy, and all those present, thanking them for their love and joint prayer, and offered his sincere thanks to all those who had labored in organizing the feast. He then presented both of the hierarchs with a beautiful blue set of eagle rugs, and wished them God’s aid in their lofty archpastoral service. After a group photo was taken, all of the faithful came up to kiss the cross.
Following Liturgy, a reception was held for the hierarchs, clergy, and organizers, while later in the afternoon a festal banquet was held for all in attendance at the local Greek hall Stratigos. Guests were presented lovely commemorative gifts as thanks for their participation, including wooden copies of the parish’s patronal Dormition icon, and a bound book of greetings to the parish. Among those offering their well-wishes were the governor, senator, and local representatives of Pennsylvania.
Among those who spoke at the banquet were Metropolitan Hilarion, Bishop Nicholas, Fr. Dimitri Ermakov, Fr. John Kreta, the parish council president, and more.
In his comments, Fr. Dimitri tearfully noted the personal significance of his receiving the jeweled cross: his father had officially been awarded the jeweled cross by the Synod of Bishops, but reposed before it was granted to him in person.
After dinner and speeches concluded, entertainment was provided by St. Nicholas Balalaika Orchestra from Mogadore, OH, under the direction of Mary Jane Malackany, a longtime parishioner.
May the Most Holy Theotokos continue to bestow upon the church of her Dormition in McKeesport many blessed years!
Metropolitan Hilarion leads Centennial of Holy Virgin Dormition Church - 09/03/17