Monday, January 04, 2010

Orthodox Philadelphia in the news.

Yesterday's edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer included a "special report" examining the health of a handful of Orthodox churches in the city neighborhood of Northern Liberties. The district in question is a onetime Slavic immigrant enclave currently being transformed by gentrification into a haven for hipsters and yuppies. As Inquirer reporter David O'Reilly observes, the loyal parishioners of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral and its sister churches carry on without drawing much interest or support from the area's newer residents:
In the resurgent neighborhood of Northern Liberties, among the smoked glass condos, hipper-than-thou restaurants, swank salons, and teeming cafes and bohemian tea shops, Old World holiness still flickers to life on Sunday mornings.

Hardly anyone notices.

The ages-old glow of Christendom's most elaborate, enigmatic liturgy no longer is a guiding light for the community. But inside St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, beneath four blue onion domes, the sanctuary is as luminous as the day it opened in 1902, if not nearly as brimful of youth and hope.

The Rev. Mark Shinn, bearded and gold-caped, appears through the "royal door" [sic - royal doors] before the altar, an ornate chalice in each hand. Murmuring a prayer, he raises the goblets toward the worshipers, who bow and make the sign of the cross under the wide-eyed gaze of saintly icons. In a gesture of humility, some sweep their fingertips across the oak floor. A flew prostrate themselves to kiss it.

. . .

On a typical Sunday, about 80 people attend. For that, the archpriest is grateful.

"We keep no rolls and collect no dues," Shinn said. "If you come, you're a member."

If you come.

Therein lies the challenge for the five historic Eastern Orthodox churches in Northern Liberties, some hanging on for dear life on this one-third-square-mile patch of Old City. Their very reason for existence - the Eastern European immigrant wave of the early 20th century - has come and gone from a neighborhood transformed into Philadelphia's trendiest avant-garde niche, population of 5,000 and climbing.

"I don't see much interest in religion in these people," said the Rev. Vincent Saverino of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church, which marked its 100th anniversary last month.

Attendance may swell to nearly 300 on holy days - including the Orthodox Christmas on Thursday - but on routine Sundays it is about 60. As in the other Orthodox churches, not one member is from the neighborhood.

"They come from all over, just not here," Saverino said, twirling a finger to indicate Northern Liberties.

Stop newcomers on busy streets and chances are they will say they aren't religious so much as spiritual. The faith described is free-form, unfettered by institutions.

"It just manifests itself in different ways than attending church," said Chris Clark, 33, who works in public relations for a pharmaceutical giant. "I try to be a good person. I try to treat others as I'd like to be treated."
To read the rest of the article, click here. Though I appreciate the evident care with which the article was written, it strikes me that reporter David O'Reilly's basic premise is flawed. The exodus of Eastern European families from Northern Liberties started decades before gentrification came to the neighborhood; as some of the priests and laypeople quoted in the article suggest, most of the Orthodox churches in the area have been serving commuting congregations for many years. Given this reality, it seems probable that the indifference of secular neighbors represents less of a threat to the churches' continued survival than does the diminished religious commitment of second- and third-generation parishioners. Even so, the notion that these churches' "very reason for existence" was solely to serve the East European immigrant wave of the early 20th century" is utter nonsense. As long as there are people who are willing to maintain an Orthodox Christian presence in Northern Liberties - even if they drive long distances to do it - these parishes will have a mission to fulfill.

Like many of his colleagues in the news media, reporter O'Reilly regrettably accepts the fallacious notion that one can be 'spiritual but not religious.' To embrace this false dichotomy is to embrace a misleading definition of the terms involved; if you think that a person can be spiritual without being religious, then you don't know what spirituality is. Contrary to the views expressed by one of the newer residents of Northern Liberties quoted in the Inquirer article, the effort "to be a good person" and "to treat others as I'd like to be treated" is not a mark of true spirituality but simply a sign that one embraces basic ethical principles that need not be backed by any notions of transcendence.

Despite its flaws, yesterday's Inquirer article on the Orthodox parishes of Northern Liberties does raise important questions about evangelization. One may fairly ask whether church communities like those mentioned in the article could be doing more to educate their neighbors about what being religious is really about. Parishes should offer a warm welcome to newcomers who may be attending services for the first time, but they also need to find ways to somehow attract the attention of people who might never have thought of going to church on their own. In other words, part of the challenge is to reach people who don't know what they're missing.

Of course, it also bears mentioning that there is more to maintaining a successful parish than raking in big numbers. In my experience, small 'commuter' parishes can often be vibrant and self-sustaining communities. On the same token, large parishes can sometimes feel cold and impersonal to individual churchgoers. The fact that a particular church doesn't draw large numbers doesn't necessarily mean that it is struggling. A look at the website of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in North Liberties suggests an active and perhaps surprisingly youthful community, not the shrinking and dying congregation that may be implied by the Inquirer article. Beyond that, the concern with numbers expressed by the Inquirer reporter may be out of place when considering parish communities (including St. Andrew's) that apparently don't keep formal membership rolls. As Jesuit Father Robert Taft once said, "'Eastern' and 'statistics' is an oxymoron." In a time of change and uncertainty, may the people of St. Andrew's and its sister parishes take comfort in the words prayed during the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great: "Preserve this holy house until the end of the world." AMDG.

The above photos of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Philadelphia are taken from Flickr and from the parish website.


At 1/05/2010 10:38 AM, Blogger Josephus Flavius said...

"The fact that a particular church doesn't draw large numbers doesn't necessarily mean that it is struggling."

If you ask the priests they'll say they're struggling as will the parishioners. They're struggling to keep the bills paid and to get young families in as their parishes continue to age. No one I talked to when I went to some of those parishes last year thought things were going well nor did any of them live in the area. They kept going because they had a history there. People have moved to the suburbs, but the buildings can't move with them.

At 1/05/2010 12:46 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Your point is well-taken - some of the comments that priests and parishioners make in the article bear witness to the struggle, and your experiences there confirm it.

The key word in the sentence of mine that you quoted is "necessarily" - I believe that a relatively small parish can survive as long as it has a dedicated core of parishioners and a fairly low overhead that can be sustained by said parishioners. Of course, it takes a lot of effort (and a lot of grace) for a parish to survive in such circumstances - even if the parishioners are very dedicated, the loss of a few people can have a devastating blow if there's no one to replace them. The distance question is also an important one, as it gets harder and harder to summon up the will to support a church that is far from where you live (especially if you are confronted by other pressing obligations or if your interest is flagging).

My parish in New York has managed to survive for over seven decades with a relatively small community (albeit one that has changed over time - it isn't the same group it was a few decades ago) widely dispersed over the metro area (literally no one lives near the church). This existence has often been precarious, but the church still manages to pay its bills and survive year after year. How long it continues to do so is ultimately up to God, but the parish still makes an effort to welcome newcomers (some of whom thankfully do stick around).

The reason that I chose to comment on the numbers question was to respond to what I saw as one of the biases of the article, which seems to suppose that small parishes are necessarily struggling ones. Just as I feel compelled to criticize the "spiritual, not religious" line, I also have to take issue with the assumption that churches have to rake in large numbers to be considered 'relevant' - in this and may other ways, I emphatically do not think that we should seek to emulate the Protestant megachurches (a rant for another day, perhaps, and not one that fits the contours of this discussion).

I do acknowledge that the churches of Northern Liberties are struggling and that current trends call their survival into question. Even so, I pray that somehow they can beat the odds. In this sense, I hope that the publicity that the Inquirer gave them does some good.

At 1/05/2010 4:06 PM, Blogger Josephus Flavius said...

Same here. If even 10 people go to one of those parishes as a result of having read the article I think they would be delighted!

At 1/08/2014 10:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reporter O'Reilly never said that he believes that it is just as good if a person is spiritual rather than religious. O'Reilly was quoting a "secular" hipster type from Northern Liberties who said that. Furthermore, why is is that the Orthodox churches in this area sometimes do not speak to one another? That is changing, I know, but there are still bumps and bruises to be eliminated. Parochial bickering is never good.

At 1/09/2014 4:57 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Agreed on the parish bickering point. My basic critique of O'Reilly on the SBNR point is that he seems to accept the local "secular hipster" types' statements about spirituality and religion at face value and doesn't probe them any further; they claim to be 'spiritual,' but we never get any insight into what that actually means for them, aside from one person's statement about trying to be a good person, which gets into ethics rather than spirituality.

My more serious critique of the article is with the underlying premise that a lack of neighborhood outreach is necessarily a problem for these churches. As the article itself notes, a lot of the churches in Northern Liberties have been commuter parishes for decades. This works as long as there is a sense of ongoing investment on the part of the commuters, and a more immediate challenge seems to be the dropping off in commitment on the part of the children and grandchildren of the people who've kept the parishes going for decades after they loved out of the neighborhood. This sort of situation is familiar to me because I've been a part of a number of parishes which were in the same boat - it's a pastoral challenge, but it's also a reality for many church communities.

The 'neighborhood outreach' question is a tough one to answer. One of the priests quoted in the article jokes about opening a doggie daycare, which actually does get at part of the challenge: a lot of the gentrifiers aren't really tuned into religion at all, so it's hard to say what sort of evangelical outreach would be most effective. Of course, reaching out to the neighbors can also challenge the deeply-engrained sense of ethnic identity that a lot of these parishes have: for better or worse, they're used to thinking about their misson in ethnic terms and it would take a major adjustment for them to actively recruit outsiders (which is a different thing from accepting outsiders who come forward out of their own accord, without any particular prompting on the part of the parish).


Post a Comment

<< Home