Smaller is Better

old-friar-famWanted to publish this rather excellent apologetic for smaller parishes made by one of our favorite pastors, Fr. Marc Vranes, on the 100th anniversary of his parish’s existence today. It is the parish church where my wife and I were engaged in the spring of 2003. We join in the chorus to wish Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Willimantic, Connecticut many, many, many more blessed years of ministry.

9 October 2016
Feast of St Tikhon, Apostle to America

Your Eminence, Reverend Fathers, My Beloved Community at Holy Trinity, Students from the UConn OCF, Both Current & All Alumni, Honored Guests, & Friends of HTOC in Willimantic, Connecticut-

As we hear in the Orthodox Church throughout the year, “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom hast Thou made them all” (Psalm 103).

Several years ago as I was about to embark on a long discourse with a friend about a subject that required detailed explanation – it was no doubt an opportunity for me to set the record straight on some baseball related matter – I rhetorically asked my friend the time-honored question, “I don’t know where to start?” He responded by suggesting, “How about at the very beginning? It always works for me.”

htoc-history-ii-047-1I promise not to go back to 1916 today; unless, of course, you want me to. 100 years is, after all, a very long time. But in understanding the history of our parish community, one must be prudent and discerning when determining how we have arrived at this historic occasion today.

If indeed the shortest distance between two points is a straight line – from 1916 to 2016 – then be assured – be very assured – that our church has traveled the world in order to arrive at where we are today. Straight lines between two points have never, ever, existed at Holy Trinity.

You must know too, Holy Trinity has always one of the smallest churches, perhaps even the smallest, in the Diocese of New England/Orthodox Church in America. Struggle and personal sacrifice has always defined us. I learned the great extent of this struggle and sacrifice when reading the parish’s history. “Should the parish dissolve …” became the prefix and suffix to seemingly every recorded church document.

The humility and sacrifice this parish community was founded on is overwhelming. A wood-stove was the only source of heat for over 30 years in the original house-church. It was on May 27, 1945, only a few months prior to the end of World War II, that the Holy Trinity Building Committee met for the first time to discuss building a new church. Although parish records indicate monthly meetings were held, there was only one brief entry over the following two years about building the new church.

dsc1213Our time-line today begins 71 years ago. Momentum to erect a new church began to build during the summer, 1948. It was during the pastorate of V. Rev. Prokopy Radiuk that Holy Trinity purchased a parcel of land on November 3, 1948, on the corner of Valley Street & Mansfield Avenue for $2,300. Donations to purchase the land were offered by Mr & Mrs Pafnuty Juszak, Mrs Anna Hnath, Mr & Mrs John Konkolovich, and the Holy Trinity Sisterhood. By now many know this particular story from memory. How after the 414 Valley Street property was purchased, just $423.84 remained in all combined church accounts; then how the foundation was poured two years later (1950), and stayed that way until 1957. “Build the church, or else …”, Willimantic city officials advised us. Construction began soon thereafter.

Through ten decades now, simplicity remains one of the defining characteristic of this community. For the past 58 years our altar was the packing crate the original icons were shipped in from Kew Gardens, NY, replaced just this morning, thanks to our Mr Jon Matcheson, who has spent the past five months building a new altar table for HT. We invite you to join us on April 1, 2017, when our altar is consecrated.

It trying to discern and explain how Holy Trinity has reached this historic milestone, it is not humanly possible. God alone, is the only explanation.  To celebrate 100 years of community life at Holy Trinity is not simply historic, it is, in every sense of the word, ‘miraculous’. And this is what makes today so joyful, so celebratory, and which fills our eyes with ‘tears of joy’. What we are celebrating today is a miracle.

There is a story which has circulated among our parish community since the mid- 1990’s, after one particular unproductive and contentious parish council meeting, which led our exasperated Archbishop at that time to offer, “Willimantic is grace proof. No amount of grace can save this place.” But God’s grace has indeed saved this community from extinction.

dsc0584Our celebration today is not limited to simply a remembrance of the past 100 years, but I believe with great conviction, and even greater resolve than I have at any time in the past, we are poised to make our presence known in eastern Connecticut for many years to come.

Throughout the years many have heard me say the single biggest reason for our church remaining open since the turn of this century was the symbiotic relationship and unbreakable bond that was formed between Holy Trinity and the UConn Orthodox Christian Fellowship. Now, I know with certainly, especially after reading 883 pages of journal entries early this Spring, there would be no Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Willimantic, Connecticut, there would be no Centennial Celebration today, if it had not been for the commitment the UConn OCF made to Holy Trinity in the early 2000’s.

The students came, they served, they sang and still do, they read and they helped to transition the perception of Holy Trinity from old, irrelevant, and dying; to young, passionate, and full of the Holy Spirit. I would ask each OCF student, from the past who is with us today, along with all current students, to stand as the rest of us offer you 15 years of proper thanks. (Standing O).

dsc1260With the OCF as our new cornerstone, young families with children began to attend. Something very powerful began to take place, and it continues to this day. The foundation was  love for God, love of the gospel, and a deep passionate love for one another. This is the foundation on which the new Holy Trinity has been built.

Many times over the past decade I have been asked what worked? How did the turnaround happen, and how does it sustain itself?

Like many answers, the response is brief, and I apologize, not so very cerebral or erudite.

We are a small church, have been one for a century now … and we are comfortable being a small church … and we don’t spend our time trying to figure out how we can become a big church. 100 years has taught us we are who we are, and we embrace who we are. We have learned our history lesson well; we get is. We do not mistakenly perceive ourselves as a future large church. To do so would take away who we are; we would lose our identity. We have never been embarrassed by being small, instead we have used it to our advantage. Every church community can thrive I have learned, no matter what size it is.

There are many wonderful attributes of being a part of a small church community. The small church is different; and in our case, the small church is so much better. We don’t consider our being small as a problem; we accept it as a blessing. Our emphasis was always been on being healthy, not necessarily being big. Permit me please, to detail just a few reasons why the smaller church can be a better church. This is our Holy Trinity:

  • The small church places a high priority on relationships.
  • At Holy Trinity, we care more about people than anything else. The functional and administrative aspects of ministry somehow get taken care of.
  • Developing relationships, for example, loving each person is the single most important component to what are building. I have often stated in speaking for each of us, “We will not be out-loved.”
  • Parishioners feel valued, needed, and are nourished in this type of small environment. I am convinced that a small parish is where most people receive their greatest spiritual nourishment and find a place of mission and ministry.
  • Our own community is very young. There is no divisive gap between future vs. past.
  • We are intergenerational. Our older members know each of our smaller children by their first name. This is so huge.
  • We accept & affirm those who may have been rejected, or else not welcomed elsewhere.
  • There is a place for everyone at HT. We also enjoy tremendous support and encouragement from non-Orthodox spouses who are a significant part of our parish. They are our brothers & sisters in Christ. Please stand: Angie Bull and Bob Dolan. We applaud you – and thank you for your nearly two-decade commitment to HT.
  • By being small, we are able to actively celebrate each other’s victories; and emotionally bear one another’s burdens. Long-time pastor V. Rev. Daniel Rentel, now retired, once told me, “When you belong to a small church, you just don’t get to show up.”
  • When smaller churches like ours take attendance, we count faces, who is missing. In larger churches, people count furniture, the number of empty pews.
  • We are small enough to respond when one of our own is in crisis. We are able to provide assistance spontaneously and immediately, rather that working our way through an elaborate structure which only increases response time.

Small churches do not need to become big churches. They just need to become healthy churches … and by what each of you have experienced here today, I would ask if you consider us to be healthy, no matter what our size? I have learned that even small churches can still contribute to the growth of God’s Kingdom.

Our focus has always been on relationship building. Even in the late 1990’s, no matter how many people there were for Liturgy, it was agreed that would be loving and engaged with each other. If there were going to be 10 souls for Liturgy, then those 10 would care for each other in a way that no other 10 people on earth cared for one another. Our belief equaled our action.

We never complained about our position. We have always been grateful for Liturgy, Eucharist, and fellowship w/ each other. We took what God had given us and continued to try and grow it. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase’ (I Cor.  3:6).

In spite of our size, we at Holy Trinity feel we have impacted the church in a positive way. Six students from the UConn OCF have gone on to theological studies at either St Vladimir’s, Holy Cross, or St Tikhon’s. A former female OCFer is married to a priest, and one of our current college students from Eastern Connecticut State University is dating a third-year seminarian at Christ the Savior in Johnstown, PA. What their parents, families, and home parishes nurtured in them, we were at the minimum able to provide a spiritual home for them during their four undergraduate years at the UConn and Eastern. If we had not been here, perhaps they may have used their college years for other activities. Currently, there are three UConn OCF students whose fathers are priests, so there is at least a remote possibility they also make trend towards theological studies, and in the process grow our own list.

dsc00649Another aspect of ministry that has been successful for us is community service. Small churches are often built on worship and outreach. Here at HTOC, we have been able to extend our ability to build relationships with those from the community where our church is planted. The Covenant Soup Kitchen at St Paul‘s Episcopal Church knows who Holy Trinity is.

We don’t have a flashy or catchy mission statement. But since 2012, we do have three words which define us: Mission  .  Mercy  .  Ministry. I would ask Tim Fetzko to stand and be recognized for his work in making us aware that this is the focus of our work at Holy Trinity. Personal engagement, participation, and inclusion are the keys for the strengthening of a smaller church. We prefer the word BUILD as opposed to GROW. Building implies a strengthening element, whereas grow seems to be defined by purely gaining numbers.

In closing, I would like to make special mention of the pastors who have served this community is long and extensive. Twenty five (25) priests alone served from 1916-1945. +Fr Radiuk came for an eternity – 10 years (1945-1955), and was followed by +Fr Ilja Adamov who served the community for 20 of the next 23 years, and is the priest whose name is most closely associated with our church. We offer Memory Eternal to all those clergymen who served this community since 1916 and who have reposed in the Lord, and Many Years to those who still serve the church, or are enjoying the fruits of their retirement.

—————————————–

As my own pastorate begins to wind down, and I reflect upon my two decades with you, I am overwhelmingly convinced of our need to continually appeal for God’s mercy and grace. Without mercy and grace, we are nothing & we are condemned to two deaths; 1) The first in this world because we will be separated from God’s beauty, and 2) Death in the next world where we will be condemned to a life of eternal ruin because we have chosen not to be changed by the free gift of God’s grace.

I am overwhelmed in knowing I am a small part of this parish’s history. I will be forever indebted to all those who have embraced me like one of their own sons. Yet, I know as I grow older, that I will be able to give less and less.

I stand before all of you this afternoon knowing what I am not able to offer, through my own weakness and litany of human excuses. The list is long, and it is endless.

So, I will instead extend to you what I am able to offer … that is my unconditional love – and the fullness of my heart – for all of you here today – and for our humble and blessed 100-year-old Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Willimantic, Connecticut.

May God bless each of you, and keep you safe from harm.

Fr Marc Vranes

October 9, 2016

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