New Russian Orthodox Church Rises in Winfield
Sept. 23, 7531 [civil calendar: 10/6/23]
St. John Russian Orthodox Parish is building a Church temple in Winfield, with groundbreaking being celebrated this weekend (Oct. 8). Excavating and laying the foundation are scheduled to be done by Thanksgiving, with the building to be up and enclosed by early 2024 and occupancy by summer, according to Church officers.
This week’s groundbreaking is being celebrated with prayers and a group photo on Sunday featuring members and supporters at the Winfield site, off of Felmey Road near the Union Twp. offices. Equipment is on the site and work is scheduled to begin Monday (10/9).
St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church is the only Orthodox parish established in the central Susquehanna region, and was founded in 2015 by converts to Orthodox Christianity and associated with the Orthodox Christian community at Bucknell University.
The community has had a steady stream of new converts since, with five local people from Protestant and unaffiliated backgrounds currently in training to be baptized as Orthodox Christians. Families who are members include former Protestants, Catholics, and atheists who found inspiration in the ancient but living faith of Orthodox Christianity, which traces back to the apostolic Church through Byzantine culture that missionized Russia in the Middle Ages.
Since then, its denomination, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, was founded in 1920 by exiles from Communism during the Russian Civil War. The denomination is based in New York City and is autonomous in governance from the current Church in Russia, although they renewed mutual communion and symbolic connections in 2007. The parish welcomes worshippers of all backgrounds, including those from different parts of the worldwide Orthodox family of churches, whether Greek, Ukrainian, African, American, or other.
The local mission, which currently meets in rented worship space at the Lewisburg Club, recently had a second priest ordained to help with the growing community, a longtime professor at Bucknell University, Paul “Alf” Siewers of Lewisburg, who had been serving as a Deacon previously.
Currently the mission parish conducts weekly services in Lewisburg, and a weekly community Bible Study at the Bucknell Bookstore, which draws participants from other faith backgrounds as well.
“People are hungry for the beauty and depth of traditional Christianity found in Orthodox tradition,” said the Rector of the mission, Father George Sharonoff, of Drums, PA, who himself was born in the faith and descends from White Russian exiles from Communism.
“We say that we are evangelical, but not Protestant; Orthodox but not Jewish; Catholic but not Roman; not non-denominational, but pre-denominational,” Sharonoff noted. “As the Scripture says, ‘come and see.’”
The area around the Susquehanna Confluence previously has not been served by an Orthodox parish, lying somewhat outside the anthracite coal region that historically defined areas of Slavic immigration to northeastern and east-central Pennsylvania. Nearest Orthodox parishes are in Berwick, Mount Carmel, and Williamsport; there is also an outpost chapel of the Orthodox parish in State College, located in Beavertown in west Snyder County.
Father Claude Vinyard, 95, of Danville, was founding priest of the Lewisburg-Winfield mission in 2015. He was former priest of historic “coal town” parishes in places such as Mount Carmel and Centralia.
“I was approached by converts to Orthodoxy in the Lewisburg area who were hoping to start up a parish there because there was none nearby,” Vinyard recalled. He in turn went to the local Russian Orthodox bishop, then based at the historic Orthodox cathedral in Mayfield, PA, also in the coal region, and received a blessing to proceed.
Siewers, the Bucknell professor and Orthodox priest, also a former Chicago newspaper reporter, noted: “As the Orthodox Christian writer Dostoevsky said, ‘beauty will save the world.’ Even in our small mission, newcomers will find the beauty of the iconography, the music, and of aspects of worship such as incense, that mark traditional Christianity, to which we seek to remain true in apostolic succession both in worship and in life practice.”
A former Unitarian and Christian Scientist by family background, whose study of early Irish Christianity and Russian literature helped lead him to the Orthodox faith more than two decades ago, Siewers said: “Russian Orthodoxy is a spiritual tradition that endured Communism and extreme persecution in the last century, and has been kept alive and flowered abroad. But you don’t need to be Russian to be Russian Orthodox any more than you need to be Roman to be Catholic, and we include both early Irish Christian missionaries and saints of North America such as our mission’s namesake St. John of San Francisco in our living heritage. It is part of an ancient and worldwide tradition of the early Church that continues today.”
The new structure will be a small and simple temple on the outside, Sharonoff noted, but will be decorated over time with traditional iconography inside. The parish is raising funds for an onion dome with a Cross on top to be placed on it when construction is finished, a traditional feature of Russian churches. Space on the Church’s 6-acre parcel of land, which includes the former Chestnut Hill Cemetery (now St. John’s Cemetery), could include room for an additional building in future years, Sharonoff said, although there are no specific plans currently.
For more information on St. John and its services, Bible Study, and new temple, Orthodox Christianity, and how to visit or help, including online materials and contact information to reach clergy, please see stjohnthewonderworker.com.