“A taste of the Kingdom”
BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — When the Very Rev. Father Samuel Haddad first unearthed the two-page document buried within the annals of Beckley’s St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, he had no idea what he was seeing.
He doesn’t read or speak Arabic, after all.
But when translated, the pages — dated Oct. 13, 1943 — contained familiar names and an invaluable piece of church history.
It was 75 years ago Saturday — as documented on those two pages, the minutes of a meeting — that the church was founded.
Haddad, or Father Samuel as he prefers to be called, has led St. Nicholas for the past 16 years. But although he’s the longest serving priest in the history of the South Heber Street church, he’s quick to point out he is only temporary.
“We continue from generation to generation,” he says. “Every priest has to have an understanding that the history of the church doesn’t begin when they arrive and end when they leave.”
Today’s southern West Virginia Lebanese community isn’t as large as it was a century ago, or even 75 years ago, but when coal truly was king, Lebanese families flocked to the area, and many of those families operated successful businesses and wanted a place to worship.
That’s when a group of 15 men met with Metropolitan Antony, the presiding bishop of New York and all of North America, at the home of Nichola Rahal to discuss establishing an Orthodox church.
Money was collected that evening and it was decided the collection would be used for either building or purchasing a church.
The lot at 211 S. Heber St. was purchased just a few months later and, because World War II was raging, it took a few years, but in 1948 the church hall — now the basement — was completed and services commenced.
Nine years later, in March 1957, the upper level of the church was completed and services moved there, while the basement was used for functions, dinners and other events.
“It’s not the most extravagant church you’ll see,” Father Samuel says, looking around. But everything in an Orthodox nave or sanctuary serves a purpose, he says.
The front of the church is lined with an iconostasis, or an icon screen, where important icons have been placed through the years.
“Everything is for worship,” he says. “Placement is extremely important.”
Father Samuel points out Mary and Child to the left of the Holy Doors. Above that, he points to a representation of the “Mystical Supper” and Crucifixion.
“When you open the doors, you’ll see the icon of the Resurrection and the second coming, sitting on the throne,” he says. “That’s the salvation history.”
An icon of St. Nicholas also hangs on the iconostasis.
“He’s our patron,” Father Samuel says of St. Nicholas.
“Most people don’t know who he is or where he came from. They think of St. Nick (Santa Claus). He was a fourth-century saint and was really quite beloved and known for his generosity. I’m very happy he’s the patron of this church. It’s quite meaningful to us to know he’s looking out for us and praying for us.”
Father Samuel delivers the liturgy from behind the iconostasis, where he stands with his back to the pews for the majority of the service.
“Orthodox churches always face the east,” he explains. “I don’t face them (the people) for the majority of the service. It’s said that Christ will return from the east. So the orientation of the priest is so that God is the audience. This is not a performance but a worship service.”
Stained glass windows — adorned with the names of former church members — cast beautiful colors across the pews during the morning hours.
Father Samuel explains that everything from the icons to the smell of burning frankincense to the Byzantine music is important in the Orthodox faith.
“We worship with our eyes and our nose and our ears and our beautiful music,” he says. “What you see here is a representation of a heavenly celebration.
“A taste of the Kingdom.”
Church services are much smaller than they were when founding members still lived in Beckley and surrounding areas.
Father Samuel points to a picture in 1985 as proof.
“Most of these people that you see here, these are all Lebanese people,” he says. “Many of them have passed or gone away to a different place.”
In fact, at one point, before he became the priest, Father Samuel recalls a church member who handed the keys of the building to the bishop and said, “We have no money. We should close.”
“But the bishop said, ‘I want you to do exactly as you’ve done before and if the people remain faithful, this church will never, ever close,’” Father Samuel recalls. “And he handed him back the keys. And that was prophetic because the church has never closed.”
Instead of a large Lebanese membership, Father Samuel says he now has a wide ethnic congregation — half of them people who have converted to Orthodoxy.
“The door is open and folks come in,” he says. “Some are Orthodox and some want to know about Orthodoxy.”
He says he believes that is because people are interested in learning about the “ancient church.”
“They want to know what the church was like after Pentecost,” he says, explaining the Church of Antioch, established by Saints Peter and Paul, was, it says in Acts, where people were first called Christians.
″(They want to know) ‘What was it like? What did they teach?’ And they find that in an Orthodox church because we’ve preserved that here very well. My job is not to embroider. My job is tell the truth and to pass it on as it was given to me for the rest of generations.”
Just as the church has passed on from generation to generation.
“It’s a beautiful church and I’m very thankful to all of our relatives who built this church,” he says. “They did so with love.”
And on Oct. 19-21 the church will honor that love with a 75th Anniversary Celebration during which members will travel in from far and wide for dinners, programs and memories with Bishop Thomas, Auxiliary Bishop of Diocese of Charleston/Oakland (Pa.), presiding.
“I’m very happy that many are coming who maybe haven’t been here since they were very little,” Father Samuel says of the weekend. “They can tell stories I haven’t heard and I’m hoping we can preserve that and pass them along.”
But beyond that weekend, Father Samuel says the doors are always open to those of the Orthodox faith and to those who might be interested in learning. He says it’s a welcoming church and always will be.
“They really are a loving community,” he says of the church members. “They really get along with each other. It’s a great place to be a pastor. They love their church. They love God and we continue from generation to generation.
“When it was an Arabic community it had its own character. When it’s this community, it has its own character. But the one thing that’s consistent is they’re Orthodox and they’re Christians. It’s a very vivid fabric of 75 years here in Beckley, W.Va.
“And I’m very thankful to be here.”
Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com