ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Serving a Diverse Community

Orthodoxy unites one multicultural church in Wisconsin

On a quiet Sunday morning, Dori Panagis is racing down the aisle of a grocery store, gathering as much fresh basil as she can find.

She is not preparing a sauce for an early morning brunch, but rather taking the herb to her church, St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, in the small Wisconsin town of Cedarburg, north of Milwaukee.

The basil will scent the church’s holy water. Ms. Panagis’s mission is especially urgent this day as her church is celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, an important celebration in which flowering basil plays a crucial role.

The feast marks the fourth-century discovery of the true cross of Jesus Christ by the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Empress Helen, who was traveling in the Holy Land to uncover sites associated with the life of Christ.

According to tradition, after weeks of searching for the true cross, St. Helen wandered onto a barren piece of land where she found a tiny flower. She believed this was a sign and ordered her soldiers to dig deep below the spot where the flower bloomed. There they found the three crosses that had borne the bodies of Christ and the two thieves who had died alongside him.

A sick person was brought by St. Helen to the site and laid on the crosses one by one. When the afflicted man was placed on the third cross, he was miraculously healed.

The flower that St. Helen had found was sweet basil, or vasiliko in Greek, the object of Ms. Panagis’s supermarket sweep.

The story of the Wisconsin church – the building, the pastor and the parish – is one of transformation and diversity.

The church was previously owned by Lutherans who had outgrown the building. But the size was just right for St. Nicholas’s congregation, a small community founded in 1989. The congregation moved into the former Lutheran church in 1994.

A simple neo-Gothic hall church, the building lacks architectural elements considered essential to the Orthodox: a central dome and a half dome over the altar. Nevertheless, the interior of the church now has an Orthodox look and feel. The Lutheran communion rail was transformed into an iconostasis, a screen of icons separating the sanctuary from the main area of an Orthodox church.

The church bells come from Greece and were donated in memory of John Philosophos, a member of St. Nicholas.

A circular icon, which depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ, hangs above the altar. Other icons adorn the walls, candles flicker and the smell of incense wafts through the church. The pews remain, but are used much less by the Orthodox, who traditionally stand during services.

Like the physical structure of the church, the pastor is the product of a series of transformations involving diverse spiritual traditions and backgrounds. Father Bill Olnhausen was born a Methodist. He attended a Methodist seminary but left in search of a pre-Reformation form of Christian worship.

He entered the Episcopal Church, where he remained for 26 years. But again, he felt increasingly drawn to the earlier traditions of the church and found a home in Orthodoxy.

Father Olnhausen is of German, Irish and Welsh stock, as is his wife. He said he feels at home at the parish where the membership roll includes names like Panagis, Jablonsky, Spice, Mansour, Abu-Hatoum and McIntyre.

Cal McIntyre joined St. Nicholas four years ago. Raised a Presbyterian, he said his love of Orthodox liturgy and traditions led him to St. Nicholas.

Just after the morning liturgy celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Mr. McIntyre stood behind a coffee and snack bar, where parishioners were gathering. An apron with the church logo protected his white shirt and red, white and blue tie from potential stains.

“We have everything from soup to nuts here,” Mr. McIntyre said as he waved his arm over the offerings on the table in front of him.

About half of the parish’s 175 members were raised in other church traditions. Others are second – and third – generation Greek or Russian Orthodox. About 40 are Arab. With this kind of a mix, everyone is thankful for the exclusive use of English in the Divine Liturgy.

Three of the youthful members are Chinese and were adopted by a local family. The oldest child is blind. She has learned the liturgy by heart and chants it with the choir. Her father watched her with pride while her siblings squirmed in the pew.

Though the congregants come from different ethnic backgrounds, they are united by their faith and the traditions of the Orthodox Church. “When there is a disagreement, it is never along ethnic lines,” Father Olnhausen said.

He takes care to explain again and again the meaning of the church’s traditions for newcomers. Repetition, he explained, reinforces tradition.

Some traditions require more from the congregation than just listening. Prostration is common in the Orthodox Church, and on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross parishioners knelt and bowed during the procession of the cross.

Among the joyful noises on that day were the voices of the youngest parishioners, some still so young they were wrapped in blankets and lay cooing in the pews.

St. Nicholas is child-friendly. A crying room in the back of the church was full of active toddlers whose parents retreated there for a “time out.” Preschoolers attended church school, returning for Communion with the adult parishioners.

Children and adults alike dressed in their Sunday clothes. Ties and white shirts were standard for boys and men and dresses for girls and women.

Community participation is also strong at the church. The church double tithes: 10 percent supports the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. The other 10 percent goes toward charities and needy individuals.

A week after celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, church members participated in the Cedarburg Wine and Harvest Festival, which attracted more than 30,000 people.

Volunteers from St. Nicholas had their own booth, where they followed the guidelines of the volunteer sign-up sheet: “Greet passersby. Visit with parish friends. Enjoy the fresh autumn breeze. Sell baked goods, books, icons and literature. Chat casually to those curious about Orthodoxy.”

The pace at which the goodies sold did not leave the volunteers much time to chat. “Get your international homemade pastries here,” parishioner Nancy Zompolas called out. “We have Greek wedding cookies, Welsh cakes, English lavender cookies and American brownies.” She then pointed down the street toward a small shop. “You can get Colombian coffee right there.”

Refreshment was also available for the four-legged, with bowls of water set out for thirsty dogs making the rounds with their owners.

Back at the church, the curious often drop in during the week and chat with Father Olnhausen. Some residents of Cedarburg think the church has a connection with Judaism, the term “Orthodox Jew” being more familiar than “Orthodox Christian.” Others think the parish must be Greek and ask where all those Greeks come from in a town known for its German heritage.

With so many cultures and traditions in the parish, Father Olnhausen can only laugh while listing the ingredients of the church’s ethnic blend, all united on Sundays by the Orthodox faith and the sweet smell of basil.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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