THE SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH ...

IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND CANADA: 25 YEARS OF MATURING

by Fr. Rade Merick

 

Most of us take for granted the fact that we have four diocese which make up the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada. Yet that is not a fact which should be taken for granted. The establishment of three dioceses in place of the single Serbian Orthodox Diocese of the United States and Canada in 1963 was a gigantic step forward for the Church, and a natural result of its process of growth and maturing.

When the old single diocese was first founded in the 1920’s, that, too, was a sign of growth and maturity. Before that time, the Serbian Orthodox parishes in North America had largely been on their own, a very strange situation indeed for an Orthodox parish. There had been little or no understanding of the traditional ecclesiastical structure of the Orthodox Church by many of the founders of these parishes, compounded by the fact that there was no Serbian Orthodox bishop present or available. If a bishop was needed (say, for the consecration of a church), often the Russian Orthodox bishop was called upon. Otherwise, there was little contact with any hierarch. A parochialism set in which was often jealously guarded by the local congregation. However, it gradually became apparent, especially after the Russian Revolution threw the affairs of the Russian Orthodox Mission in North America into confusion and crippled its effectiveness, that there was a need for a local Serbian Orthodox bishop in America. At that stage in its development, the Serbian Orthodox Church in America could only contemplate one diocese, and that diocese served the Church in the best way it could for a number of years, beginning with the appointment of Bishop Mardarije of blessed memory.

One diocese was better than none. But with the rapid growth and development of the Church after World War II, it became apparent that one diocese and one bishop was not enough to serve the ever-expanding needs of the Serbian Orthodox faithful in America and Canada. In the Orthodox Church, bishops have traditionally been close to their flocks. A bishop is ideally not simply an administrator of a large geographical territory, but he is also a pastor, teacher, and spiritual leader, actively involved in the life of the parishes under his omophorion. There was not way that a single bishop could provide this kind of pastoral care to such a huge and far-flung diocese. It was for this reason that Bishop Dionisije of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of America and Canada suggested to the Holy Assembly of Bishops that he be given assistance with the consecration of three new bishops from the ranks of his clergy: Archimandrite Dr. Firmilian (Ocokoljic), Archimandrite Gregory (Udicki) of Youngwood, Pennsylvania, and Fr. Stefan Lastavica of Windsor, Ontario.

25 years ago, in 1963, the Holy Assembly of Bishops elected these three as bishops of three new dioceses created from the territory of the old single diocese. That this action was coupled with the suspension and ultimate deposition of Bishop Dionisije, which brought on a tragic split among the Serbian Orthodox in America, should not cloud the basic importance of this silver anniversary. The establishment of the three new dioceses was a prerequisite for the further growth and development of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada along the lines of traditional Orthodox ecclesiastical life and the establishment of effective programs which transcended the limits of the local parish.

Bishop Dr. Firmilian, who became the bishop of the new Midwestern Diocese, had been Bishop Dionisije’s Episcopal Deputy. As the seat of the diocese in Libertyville was closed to him, he worked from Chicago at Holy Resurrection Cathedral. It fell to him to not only set up the new diocese, but also to play a leading role in the unfortunate litigation which followed the schism. Either task would have been demanding, but taking on both was truly a tremendous undertaking. Nevertheless, the diocese was organized despite the very difficult circumstances, and has continued to grow and improve to the present day. The diocesan see once again was established at St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville in 1979, where a beautiful bishop’s residence was completed two years ago. The original St. Sava Monastery Church was enlarged and renovated, and the monastery has also become the site of the new branch of the Theological Faculty of Belgrade. Since becoming ill several years ago, Bishop Firmilian has been assisted in his duties by Bishop Irinej of Nis and, for the past two years, by Bishop Dr. Sava of Sumadija, who is being assisted by vicar Bishop Mitrophan. The Midwest Diocese is the only one of the three dioceses founded in 1963 still headed by its original bishop.

The Western Diocese received as its founding hierarch Bishop Gregory. The parishes of the western diocese, widely separated by the great distances of the American West, had a special need for a diocesan bishop close to them, who would be able to address their needs and concerns and bind them into a body. New parishes have been founded and many established parishes have constructed new buildings. Bishop Gregory chose St. Steven’s Cathedral in Alhambra, California, near Los Angeles, as his see. Since his death in 1985, Bishop Irinej of Nis and then Bishop Dr. Sava of Sumadija have served as administrators. The diocese is still widowed. Nevertheless, signs of growth and development continue, such as the founding last year of the Diocesan Federation of Circles of Serbian Sisters.

The Eastern American and Canadian Diocese was headed at the beginning by Bishop Stefan. In the brief time allotted him as bishop before his untimely death in 1966, Bishop Stefan was able to organize the diocese. In 1967 Bishop Dr. Sava, then vicar bishop to the Patriarch, was elected to fill the vacant Eastern Diocese. Under his firm leadership the diocese grew and prospered. Property was purchased in Richfield, Ohio for a diocesan center and monastery. A diocesan newspaper, the Path of Orthodoxy, (subsequently the newspaper serving the entire North American Serbian Orthodox Church) was established, and a wide variety of educational and financial programs was put into place. Missionary work helped establish new parishes, particularly in Canada and the South. In 1974 a mansion in Sewickley, Pennsylvania was purchased to provide the room the bishop’s residence and diocesan see required. Bishop Sava was called to leave the diocese in 1977, when he was elected bishop of Sumadija in Yugoslavia. Replacing him in 1978 was Bishop Christopher (Kovacevich), who had served as parish priest in Johnstown and Pittsburgh before going to the South Chicago parish, where he was active in the affairs of the Midwestern Diocese. Progress has continued under his archpastorship.

In 1984 the Canadian part of the diocese was formed into a new diocese. This new Canadian diocese has had to meet the same challenges in laying down a sound spiritual and financial basis as did the other dioceses before it, but its life and growth has been an encouragement to all. With Bishop Georgije at its head, the Canadian Diocese continues to experience an active building campaign on the parish level, and diocesan programs are being put into place.

With the formation of these dioceses has also come the formation of Diocesan Federations of Circles of Serbian Sisters. These Diocesan Federations have played a vital role in the lives of the respective dioceses, and the same advantages of closer proximity and flexibility which have fostered the growth of the dioceses has also helped these auxiliaries work more effectively together than they could as separate parish groups.

The story of the past 25 years has been one of continued growth and development on all levels of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America and Canada. This growth is apparent not only in matters of new churches and other parish properties, and not only in the financial resources of the dioceses and parishes, but also, and eve more importantly, in the ongoing process of spiritual growth and maturity of the faithful of our Church. Our educational programs have advanced immeasurably. Our transition from being a church of immigrants to a church of natives, while not always easy or without its problems, is taking its natural course.

In short, the history of the new dioceses has been one of a process of maturing. As we look back over a quarter of a century of live as three, and then four, dioceses, we are struck by the greater maturity in spiritual and ecclesiastical matters we see. Parishes which once considered themselves “independent” now understand their relationship to their bishop and diocese. There is a greater awareness of the Christian life and what it means to be a Serbian Orthodox Christian. Each diocese, by being more local, is better able to find solutions to the particular challenges it faces in its own area, and to muster the cooperation of its parishes. Even while this is so, the dioceses are not isolated from one another, but are able to work together on a national scale through the Episcopal Council, the Central Council, the triannual Church Assembly (Sabor). Much of the growth and improvement we see has been aided immeasurably by the establishment of the several dioceses. Truly, the past 25 years have been able to establish a firm foundation upon which the future can be built.

From 1988 Calendar
of the Serbian Orthodox Church
in the United States
and Canada

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