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Rochester, NY: Protection of the Mother of God Church in "The Flower City"

"The Flower City." This is another name by which the city of Rochester, NY is known. The annual Lilac Festival attracts up to half a million people from around the world to Rochester’s Highland Park, with more than 500 species of lilac and other flowers and shrubs. The first Lilac Festival was held here in 1898. The most lilac-covered Highland Park itself owes its creation to the work and talent of designer Frederick Law Olmsted, the same one who designed Central Park in New York.

Outside of Rochester, Lake Ontario is divided in half between the United States and Canada. Two hours from the city, you can drive to the American side of Niagara Falls and from here cross over (and even walk) to its Canadian side.

I did not see any lilac blossoms in Rochester, but I found the incredible beauty of the autumn array of the trees and shrubs – from lemon yellow to crimson red and even dark lilac. Among such a panoply of colors was built the Protection of the Mother of God Church, consecrated last September

"The community of Protection of the Mother of God Church began in 1948. Its founders were a group of Cossacks," says the rector of the church, Archpriest Gregory Naumenko. "Like Orthodox Russians in general, the Cossacks love the Most Holy Theotokos and her Protection, which is why so many churches dedicated to the Protection were built in the Russian Diaspora. In the Eastern American Diocese alone there are Holy Protection Churches in Rochester, Nyack, New Brunswick, Glen Cove, and others. So, for our bishops, it was always a problem deciding which church to visit for the patronal feast."

At first, the community served in different places: they rented a garage for a church space, rooms from the Boy Scouts, and in 1952 they managed to purchase a space in the center of Rochester. It was a big house, built by the doctor years before. A church was built on the first floor, and an apartment for a priest was arranged on the upper floor. In those years, the parish was served by Priest (later Protopresbyter ‒ ed.) Awksenty Rudikow (+1964) ‒ the first priest known to the parish.

Fr. Gregory was appointed to Protection of the Mother of God Church in 1984. He was 26 years old.

"Many parishioners kept telling me that we needed to build our own church," Fr. Gregory continues. "And Metropolitan Laurus (Škurla; +2008 ‒ ROCOR First Hierarch ‒ ed.), when he visited, also always encouraged us to build a new church.

"In 1986, we established a building fund and were going to save up $80,000. Once we reached this goal, we would start looking for a place for the church building.

"In the course of ten years, we managed to collect $20,000, and then the first miracle happened. My acquaintance, Hieromonk Averky from Jordanville, came to visit his friend, an antiquarian, and stopped by our old church. It turned out that our lamps, wall sconces, and other items were original Tiffany’s. Selling them earned us exactly $60,000 ‒ this plus our $20,000 was exactly $80,000!

"We began to look for land, but could not find anything suitable. Our city is large in area, and if you build a church on the periphery, people from the other end of the city would have to travel for about an hour. And then a second miracle happened.

Iconostasis carved by Andrei Vukolov (Moscow)
Iconostasis carved by Andrei Vukolov (Moscow)
Iconostasis carved by Andrei Vukolov (Moscow)
Mosaic designed by Holy Trinity Monastery
Mosaic designed by Holy Trinity Monastery
Mosaic designed by Holy Trinity Monastery
Iconography by Fr. Andrei Erastov
Iconography by Fr. Andrei Erastov
Iconography by Fr. Andrei Erastov

"One of our parishioners was praying to the Most Holy Theotokos and suddenly saw a sign posted – land for sale. He called the realtor, but was told that the land in question was almost all stony ground. Instead, the realter told him about a place that would be suitable for a church: a tree farm, part of the territory of which the owner was willing to sell for a house of worship. And in 1997, we put down a deposit and bought that plot near the center of the city.

"In two years’ time, we paid the cost of the plot, measuring 7½ acres, and at the end of 1999 began building the church. Metropolitan Laurus helped us every way he could, and came to observe the construction process. He blessed the mosaic over the entry to the church himself – it was one of three mosaics prepared by the masters of Holy Trinity Monastery.

"All throughout the construction process, every week we served molebens to the Most Holy Theotokos in the old church, until in 2002 we moved into the new."

The time came to install the cupolas. A third miracle took place with them, as Fr. Gregory explains.

"The cupolas, as is customary in America, were each prepared in four parts; we gilded them and cupola parts were being stored in a warehouse until it was time to install them.

"‘How can we transport 12 cupola parts?’, we wondered."

On one Sunday during Liturgy, the rector noticed a man – a churchgoer by the looks of him, and when he came up to the cross, asked him to stay for tea and the moleben.

It turns out that this was a long haul trucker, returning from Detroit to Brooklyn, and his truck was empty. The cupolas were loaded up, transported, and installed. And that man is now a member of the brotherhood of Holy Trinity Monastery.

On September 15, 2002, the lesser consecration of the church was performed, and although the church had yet to be frescoed, the first All-Night Vigil was served, and Liturgy celebrated the following morning. With time, a new wood carved iconostasis was installed. Almost all of the icons in the church, including in the iconostasis, are the work of Hieromonk Andrei (Erastov).

The church was fully consecrated by Bishop (now Metropolitan) Nicholas, First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, on September 5, 2021. Serving alongside him were Bishop Luke of Syracuse and a multitude of clergy.

"Now we have a strong community of Russian-speaking parishioners and Americans," Fr. Gregory continues. "All of the services are performed in two languages, with some parts in English and others in Church Slavonic."

‒ How did your parents come to America?

‒ My mother, Klavdia Sergeevna Naumenko (née – Kotenko) was the sister of Holy Trinity Monastery cleric Fr. Job (Kotenko; +2021), born in Kharkov. My father, Priest Vasiliy Naumenko, was born in the Kiev Oblast. By the way, for a long time I did not know that I was Ukrainian ‒ in the emigration, we all considered ourselves Russian.

My parents were married in Novo-Diveevo in 1954 by Bishop Andrei (Rymarenko; +1978). He also baptized me and my sister Elena.

Bishop Andrei was my first confessor. We lived in Spring Valley and during the schoolyear I was at the convent, under the tutelage of Vladyka Andrei, while in the summers I was at Holy Trinity Monastery, where we would go to visit my grandmother and where I would help Fr. Job.

I met my future matushka in Jordanville – Maria Pavlovna Naumova from Toronto. We were married on October 25, 1981, in Rochester, and could not even imagine that I would be the priest here. At the time, I was studying in seminary.

Two years later, Fr. Gregory finished seminary and served as a deacon in Albany. Once at lunch, Metropolitan Laurus proposed that he take over at the Rochester parish.

Masha and I decided: as Vladyka blessed, so we would do. He told us about the Flower City and we agreed! We arrived in Rochester on Thomas Sunday in 1984. At that time, I was working at a laboratory in Cooperstown, and so for the first while we would travel to the services on the weekends, finally moving in September. On the feast of the Protection, Vladyka Laurus assigned me rector of the parish.

Ironically, at 26 years old I was teaching pastoral theology at the seminary. "If you have any questions, come see me," Vladyka said, and after classes I did go see him and posed questions. In the intervening years, I would also teach liturgics and homiletics at the seminary, as well as continuing pastoral theology.

‒ How do you remember Vladyka Laurus?

‒ What I remember foremost as a priest is that Vladyka Laurus very much disliked any conversation in the altar. He always told a story about St. John of Shanghai. It was a regular Council of Bishops meeting in Holy Trinity Monastery. Vladyka Laurus, then a hierodeacon or hieromonk, was serving as caretaker of the vestry, and came into the altar to lay out the vestments. And he saw Vladyka John there. He approached the hierarch and offered to help him, which Vladyka John answered with total silence.

Vladyka Laurus thought that maybe he had not heard him, and repeated his offer. Vladyka John remained silent. It was only later, when they left the altar into the church, that he explained that even outside of the divine services, one must not speak in the altar, which is the Holy of Holies.

Vladyka Laurus would remind us that the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple only once a year. And he explained why our hierarchs have little bells on their vestments. In the Old Testament, when the priest was in the altar, the jingle of the bells would let those outside know that he was all right.

The altar today, a foreimage of which was the Old Testament altar, is even more holy than the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple, and Vladyka believed that if anything needed to be said, one should go into the vestry or sacristy and say it there. And if a response was needed in the altar, then just with the nodding of the head. In connection with this, Vladyka Laurus would recall Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky; +1965), who was also very strict about how one behaved in the altar.

‒ Your church is reminiscent of the church in the Shepherds’ Field in the Holy Land – it is similarly bright, airy, and alive. Did Vladyka Laurus visit your parish often and serve with you?

‒ Vladyka would visit our church twice a year: on the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos and on the second Sunday of Great Lent, in honor of the Holy Hierarch Gregory Palamas. This tradition as begun by Archbishop Averky (Taushev; +1976) of Syracuse & Holy Trinity, who would visit all of the parishes in his diocese twice a year.

Once he became Bishop of Manhattan, now-Metropolitan Nicholas began visiting us on these feasts and revived the tradition.

Photo after Great Consecration
Photo after Great Consecration
Photo after Great Consecration
At Lake Ontario
At Lake Ontario
At Lake Ontario

‒ Fr. Gregory, how do you envision the future of your parish?

‒ From the practical side, we hope to build, as originally planned, a separately standing church hall with classrooms for a Sunday school. Right now, we have to teach Law of God for various ages in different locations – under the altar, in the library. We have had to transition almost entirely to teaching in English, but we try to preserve Russian at least in conversation.

The future of our parish is to missionize among our youth, among Americans and the Russian population of Rochester, of which there are about 50,000 in the city. But they, unfortunately, often just "stop in," rather than become permanent parishioners. And also among Americans who are interested in Orthodoxy. That said, our goal is not quantity of parishioners, but the salvation of souls.

During the pandemic, we received four new parishioners. Perhaps this is not many, but for us this is already quite good, because they all come regularly to the Sunday services, and are becoming a mainstay of our parish.

Tatiana Veselkina (Eastern American Diocesan Media Office)
Photos by the author and from the archives of Fr. Gregory Naumenko.

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Eastern American Diocese | Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia