Rising from the ashes.
St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brampton, Ontario burned to the ground Saturday morning. No one was injured in the fire, but the destruction of the building and its contents is like a death in the family for a close-knit parish community as well as a loss for the wider Church. Orthodox blogger Flavius Josephus got it right when he wrote that "St. Elias has been THE place to look for liturgically proper and genuinely beautiful services," and the presence that the parish has enjoyed on YouTube and on Flickr has helped to bring those services to people around the world. Many who have encountered the parish in person can attest that St. Elias is a warm and welcoming community, a true family of faith. I'll admit that I am biased insofar as St. Elias is part of what drew me to Toronto to study theology, and I've assisted regularly at services there for the past two years and hope to continue doing so after ordination. If you don't want to take my word for it, you can listen to others - for example, you can read the testimony of parishioner Kate Hendry and these reflections by Adam DeVille.
The last service that I attended at St. Elias before the fire was the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, served scarcely thirty-six hours before the destruction of the church. A three-hour penitential service typically offered in the Slavic tradition on the Fifth Thursday of Lent, the Great Canon is a physical as well as a spiritual workout, involving repeated rounds of prostrations as well as a great deal of singing and standing. I was a little reluctant to go out to St. Elias on Thursday night: in the last week of the academic term, I was tired and busy with schoolwork and less than eager to make the hour-long drive to Brampton. Nevertheless, I wanted to make it to church for the Great Canon and I pushed myself to go. Preparing to leave the house, I felt a sudden urge to bring my camera; since I wasn't serving that night, I thought I might take some photos of the service. I only took a couple of photos that night, including the image seen above, but in retrospect I am very glad that I did so, as those photos may be the last ones taken in the church before it burned down.
Driving out to St. Elias on Saturday evening after the fire, I thought of many things. Above all, I thought of the clergy and the parishioners who worked so hard to build the church and of the heartbreak that comes from seeing a much-loved temple reduced to ashes. I also thought of elements of the building itself, like this Pantokrator icon located at the highest point of the church, the center of the cupola in the middle of the sanctuary. Seeing this icon took a bit of effort, requiring one to lean back and to crane one's neck. Looking at this image now, I think of a time in the fall when a group of students in a special architecture program at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga came to St. Elias with their teacher to look at the church. Regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, the students were visibly awed and inspired by the beauty of the structure; sitting cross-legged on the floor, they listened with rapt attention as Father Roman, the pastor, pointed out and explained various aspects of the church's architecture and iconography. Pointing up to the cupola, Father Roman asked the students whether they could read the inscription around the icon. One young man immediately volunteered, and looking up with furrowed brow and squinting eyes he read out the inscription word by word, as if proclaiming a new and previously undisclosed teaching: "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the consummation of the world" (Mt. 28:20).
Lo, I am with you always, even unto the consummation of the world. These words came to me repeatedly this weekend as I saw the reaction of many St. Elias parishioners to the loss of a much-loved temple. Yes, there was much sadness, but also hope and even joy - the joy of a community gathered not only to grieve but to celebrate bonds of faith and fellowship that disaster cannot destroy. The parish gathered on Sunday morning to celebrate the liturgy at a Brampton high school and met for evening vespers on Saturday and Sunday at the rectory, where (as pictured here) many lingered long after services to talk about the past and the future. Borne up by many offers of financial and material support from the broader community, the parishioners of St. Elias are committed to building a new temple as beautiful as the one that has been lost. Though I grieve the loss of the old church and look forward to the completion of the new one which will arise, with much hard work, from the ashes of the old, above all I am inspired by the strength and resilience of the church that really matters: the faithful people of St. Elias. May God preserve and protect this community until the end of the world. AMDG.