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"I Married a Mailman!" – An Interview with Archpriest Dimitri & Matushka Natalia Ermakov

More than a century ago, the founding fathers of Holy Dormition parish came here, to southwest Pennsylvania, leaving behind everything that was near and dear to them: their homes, families, and customs. They knew that, without hope in God’s providence, they would not survive. And out of this great faith, fidelity toward and love for God, in 1917 these people founded an Orthodox parish. The church became the center of their lives, the very thing that connected them to this land, their new country.

The following year, a church building was erected in McKeesport – a small but lovely church, dedicated to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, which would become a home both for the parish’s founders and for those who would follow after them. With the passage of time, the church became known as "The Little Church Around the Corner."

On October 29, 1967, Holy Dormition Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. Addressing the parishioners at the jubilee dinner, then-rector Archpriest Peter Kreta said, "Carry on! For proud and grateful as we are today, we must remember that we need a larger church. God grant it be soon!"

But Fr. Peter was not destined to see this new church: in early 1970, he reposed in the Lord. For two months, the parish was nourished by visiting priests, until – on June 3, 1970 – a new rector arrived at the church: Archpriest Dimitri Ermakov, along with his Matushka Martha and their five children.

For the current rector of Holy Dormition Church – Archpriest Dimitri Ermakov II – this church became the center of his life. He came here with his parents when he was eight years old. He studied in the Sunday school here, and served with his father in the altar.

This was the "golden age" of Holy Dormition Church. At Sunday Liturgies, the church was full, and the matter of building a new church soon became their first priority.

The last Liturgy in "The Little Church Around the Corner" was celebrated on August 12, 1973; on September 4, the "Little Church" was demolished, and construction on a new and larger church began. Three new bronze bells were ordered to supplement the old three, and all of the bells were programmed to play various peals.

On January 5, 1975, the first Liturgy was served in the church. On January 7, the first celebration of Christ’s Nativity was held. Over 300 parishioners were in attendance.

On June 9, 1975, installation of the new iconostasis began, modeled after St. Andrew the First-Called Church on Mount Athos, which was the first of its kind in America.

By February 1982, the frescoing of the church was completed, featuring over 60 icons. In June 1984, the central dome was adorned with frescoes depicting the Holy Hierarch Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, Tsar Nicholas II, and the Royal Family. In January 1986, the iconostasis was completed and all of the icons hung.

It was in the new church, at one of the parish dances, that Fr. Dimitri met his future matushka – Natalia. They were married in the McKeesport church, and it was here that he was ordained a deacon and priest.

December 21 marks the 20th anniversary of Fr. Dimitri Ermakov’s ordination to the priesthood.

Father Dimitri Ermakov: – My grandparents on my father’s side – Gerasim and Ksenia – were from Russia, as they would always say, although today this is Ukraine. They lived not far from Uzhgorod, but never knew one another in the motherland, but only met here in America, in Pittsburgh. They were married when my grandfather was 26 and my grandmother was 16.

My great-grandparents on my mother’s side came to America from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They came earlier, and my grandmother, Martha Rassen, was born in America in 1904. My grandfather’s name was John Sweda. All of my grandparents were Orthodox.

My parents met in the 1950s, when my father was studying at St. Tikhon’s Seminary. Shortly after he graduated seminary, they were married. I myself am the youngest of five children in my family, born in Pennsylvania, in the Pittsburgh area. At that point, my father was serving as rector of an American Metropolia parish in Canonsburg. I practically grew up in McKeesport, when my father came to be the rector here in 1970, and I’ve lived here ever since.

I was always a shadow to my dad. When he would bless homes, I would travel with him; when he served funerals, I was there; when he had to make sick calls to the hospital, I would jump in the car just to ride with him; I was with him for weddings. I would serve with him in the altar, and that as where I got my education, through hands-on experience. He taught me everything that I know. As far as ordination goes, it was something that was always in the back of my mind, but I never really pursued it. After Matushka and I got married in 1988, my father would always say, "Why don’t you get ordained a deacon?" And I would say, "No, not now, that’s not for me."

My father loved to write music. Once, while visiting him at his house, we went down to his office and he was doing something with the music, and I was shuffling through some papers. And he said to me, "What is holding you back from being ordained?" I was 32 at the time. "To be quite honest, I’m not worthy to be ordained," I answered. He put his papers down and said, "You’re not worthy? The first person who thinks he is worthy is the most unworthy person." That day, we were driving back to our home, and it must have been very quiet, and Matushka looked at me and said, "You’re getting ordained aren’t you?" I said, "Why am I always fighting this? I have the desire for it. And my father is right: the first person who thinks he is worthy, that is the most unworthy person."

This was the summer of 1993. I wrote a petition to then-Bishop Hilarion, who at that point was Bishop of Manhattan. Our parish had come under the omophorion of the Russian Church Abroad in March of 1994, and on the eve of St. Nicholas Day – December 18, 1994 – I was ordained a deacon. There I would serve with my father; at that time, he had started to get very ill, and it was difficult for him to walk and get around. Three years later, we decided that I would petition the bishop to ordain me a priest. On December 21, 1997, Bishop Gabriel of Manhattan ordained me a priest. Two years later, on August 3, 1999, my father reposed, and in October I was appointed rector.

Matushka Natalia Ermakov: – I never planned on being a matushka. My father was a priest and I saw the struggles that come with it, saw how difficult it was for my mother. I always used to say, "I married a mailman!" But when they started discussing it, I understood that his calling was here, and I was going to support him.

– Fr. Dimitri, tell us about your secular job.

– I became a mailman when I was 26. It’s very physical work; I do carry mail, I walk a route delivering mail with a satchel on my shoulder. The mail satchel can be as heavy as 35 pounds, but generally the heaviest load I carry is 20 pounds.

The first half of my day I walk, this is about 10 miles a day on foot (previously, when I had an all-walking route, I was walking much as 14 miles a day). In the second half of the day, I drive the truck. We carry bills, letters, packages, magazines. More than anything else, it’s packages; everybody orders everything over the Internet now, and we deliver those. They even buy tires, furniture, grills, patio furniture. We take all of these orders to their front porch. People even order crickets.

My work day starts at 8 o’clock in the morning, and I should be done by 4:30, but often we are forced to work later, and many days I’m not home before 6 o’clock. During the day, Matushka hangs on to the cell phone parishioners use to call me, and she will call me if there is something that I need to tend to immediately, or so that I can plan for that evening or the following day. But mostly I use that cell phone to tell her what time I’ll be coming home.

Because of my job, we have scheduled vespers services on Saturday at 6:30 PM. If I’m working after six, I will send the family down to the church and tell them to open the doors, and tell the people we will start when I get there. Sometimes they will bring clothes down to the church for me to change into, because I’ll head there right from work. My bosses know that I am a priest, and especially before Pascha they allow me to alter my schedule. I serve Liturgy at 8 o’clock in the morning, and then change into my postal uniform and start my route by 10:30.

Of course, it is sometimes strenuous and very stressful. A lot of time, with the mail volume we don’t even get a break. There are days when I will skip my lunch just to be done by 6 o’clock.

– What work does Matushka do?

Matushka Natalia: – I am a stay-at-home mom. I spend most of my time concentrating on the family. I have worked as a mother our whole married life. I do have a part-time job at a school district as a secretary. Right now, our second eldest daughter, Natalia, is also a secretary at that school, and sometimes we get to work together. I was offered full-time, but I chose not to, so that I could have more time with the family, at church, and caring for my elderly parents.

– How do Matushka and the five children help the rector in church?

– Our eldest, Alexandra, works as the caretaker and helps clean the church, teachings in our Sunday school, and sings in the choir. Our second, Natalia, sings on kliros. Our third, Ksenia, is on the parish council and teaches in the Sunday school. Maria helps clean the church, sings in the choir, and oversees publication of the parish bulletin.

We and the children planned out the recent 100th anniversary celebration of Holy Dormition Church. The whole family worked on a book about the history and present of our church. Our son, Dimitri, the youngest in the family, helped book the hall and planned the meal, arranged for commemorative gifts, and decorated the church. For several years now, our son has served in the altar, and recently learned to sew vestments. He recently prepared a school project where he spoke about his plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a priest.

– Dimitri III always shadows me, like I did with my father!

– During the jubilee celebrations of your church, we traveled through McKeesport and its environs, and saw clearly that, in the 1970s when your family moved here, the city was very different. This was a factory town, the center of steel production in America. But now a majority of the factories are closed. This has affected both the population and the makeup of your parish… How do you see the future of your city?

– The city has definitely changed a lot in recent years. In the early 1980s, when I was in college, the steel mills started closing. And then they closed, we lost many of our parishioners, because there was no work, and people had to move. Even now you can see boarded-up homes where no one has lived for many years.

But currently, the parish has managed to keep many of its parishioners. We have 180 members officially. There are also local American converts to Orthodoxy. But from the time that our family moved to McKeesport in the 1970s, a lot has changed. Our young people even ask what a steel mill is! There is an entire generation of kids who don’t know that the factories were here. There is only one steel mill left in our area, and the flame atop it is reminiscent of the Olympic Torch!

– Fr. Dimitri, what ethnicities make up your parish?

– We have a lot of parishioners whose ancestors came to America from Austria-Hungary, from Carpathian Rus’, from Galicia. They do not consider themselves to be purely Russian. But my father would tell me that my grandfather always considered himself Russian. One day my dad took a look at the map and figured that we were really Ukrainians! And my grandfather told him, "I still consider myself Russian: don’t call me Ukrainian! I was born Russian and I will die Russian." I remember as a young boy seeing a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II and the Royal Family in his house. When my grandfather died in 1970, the Royal Family had not yet been glorified, but my father would say that my grandfather considering the Tsar and his family holy, and he firmly stood his ground on that.

Back when our church was still under the omophorion of the Orthodox Church in America, my father ordered frescoes depicting Patriarch Tikhon and the Royal Family painted in the dome. This caused a controversy among the OCA clergy, because of all those depicted, at that time only Patriarch Tikhon had been glorified, and they did not consider them saints. Even some parishioners were opposed to the frescoes.

Recently, I told my parishioners in a sermon, "You’ve read in books that the Tsar was supposedly an unworthy rule, that he cared only about his own riches. But that was not Tsar Nicholas! If you will read about his life, you will see that he was a very religious, spiritual person. During meals, the whole family would listen to the Lives of the Saints instead of entertainment like other dignitaries would. The Royal Family could have left Russia, but they did not betray the Faith or abandon their people, and stayed with them to the bitter end.

After that sermon, some parishioners came up to venerate the cross and would say to me, "Father, we had no idea!"

– It is interesting that the interior of your church, being the creation of Carpatho-Russian – Rusyn – parishioners, is somewhat different from the traditional forms we are used to in an Orthodox church… Please explain, Fr. Dimitri, what the seven-candle stands in front of the iconostasis mean, with vigil lamps inside…

– The seven-candle stand symbolizes the seven Sacraments of the Church. Parishioners buy the glass vigil lamps and light the in memory of their living relatives and friends, as well as in memory of the departed. They burn for seven days, and by the following week they can put up a candle anew. This is a Carpatho-Russian tradition. When we close the church, the lamps are not extinguished. The people know that their lamps are lit, burning here both day and night.

It is also the tradition, during the reading of the Gospel and other significant moments in the Liturgy, for pious male parishioners to proceed to the center of the church with a three-branch "Trinity" candle in their hands, symbolizing the Holy Trinity.

– Some of the women also wear a chapel veil on their heads, rather than a head covering…

– This is an American invention, a sort of compromise, when women do not want to cover their heads with a head covering or scarf. When our parish was under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America, the women invented this sort of veil for the church. Sometimes they call them whimsies or doilies. They can be any color, but the most popular are white and black.

In our church, we are not fans of jeans or t-shirts. Even under their cassocks, the altar servers will wear dark pants and dark shoes. And only black cassocks, none of those varying colors!

– Fr. Dimitri, how would you like to envision your parish’s future?

– I think that our parish will stay the course and grow. Moreover, recently new tech businesses have begun to open in Pittsburgh, offering a chance to work. So, there is progress. As my father always used to say, "It can’t get much worse, it can only get better!"

But we do have our problems, among them a lack of discipline. It is terrible to see parents who don’t care whether their children are attending church and Sunday school. When they were little, our children would come to church with us. If a feast day service fell on a weekday, they would go to class early in the morning, then to Liturgy, and then back to school. Matushka would pick them up from school, and then later take them back from church.

Our Sunday school lessons begin at 9 o’clock in the morning, before Liturgy. And I tell the parents, that their children can’t make it to church by themselves – the adults have to see to this!

I often remind my parishioners how many people there used to be in our church! We even built a new, grand church, and even this was packed. There were many children in the Sunday school, and now Liturgy and Sunday school are dwindling, because parents prefer taking their kids to sports.

But the hardest thing that not only Orthodox have to deal with, but all Christian denominations, is that we are living in an ever less Christian society. This, I think, is a real challenge for our society. All around us is godlessness. The people are self-centered, they don’t need the Church, and they don’t need Her rules. And we must once more bring the people to church, convincing them that without God’s Church, we are nothing. And that they might realize that they need the Church, and the Church is here, on earth, for their salvation, and is waiting for them.

Interview by Tatiana Veselkina
Photos by the author / www.holyvirgindormitionmckeesportpa.com/

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