I love my work. A few weeks ago I got to attend the first Orthodox ordination in the state of Montana. If you are not familiar with Orthodoxy, it is complex, ornate, exquisite, formal. It's beautiful. It makes the traditionalist in me very happy, even if does run a bit on the long side.
Mostly my work is just images. I have to gather enough information to write up the photo captions, but the reporting of stories, isn't my job. And I like it this way. But sometimes, it just seems to make sense that I write the story as well as photograph it. This ordination became one of these cases. It was a two hour ceremony on a Sunday (both photographers at our newspaper have Sundays off and as many reporters as can have off, take the day, so we have a bit of a skeleton crew on Sundays. I had to go because I wanted to photograph it. But reporters can do a lot of their job over the phone or after the fact. Photographers must be there.
When I got back to the office and started going through all the images, I realized there was so much information, not just visually, but with all the traditions, the decorations, the cultures. I felt as though I had to tell this, because I was the only member of the Inter Lake who saw it. I made it my project, my responsibility.
And...I got too close to the story.
My editor gave me an 800 word limit. This is a lot. The last story I did, I was granted 300 words. Yikes. How do you explain the entire Orthodox experience in 800 words? It can't be done. At least, that is what I convinced myself of.
When you get too close to the story, you loose perspective. It's like looking at one of those painting that uses the pointillism technique. From a distance you get the whole picture, up close, it's all just a bunch of chaos and individual specs. I got too close. I got so wrapped up in the details that I didn't actually find the story until the very end. My word count, just under 2,600. Five pages. WAY too long to print in a newspaper.
So, not one, but two editors worked their magic and created a much shorter version of this story. As soon as I have the link I'll share it here:
But even though it's too long and I am too close, there is something about the longer version that I still like. I'm still proud of this. Still glad I got to explore both the written and visual side of this experience. Since this version will never be printed, I figured it is just about perfect for a blog.
I hope you enjoy it. And forgive me...it's very long.
Orthodox Ordination Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake
Daniel Kirk, 29,is a seventh-generation Montanan, raised on a ranch near Cardwell, Montana and homeschooled. He is also the first Eastern Orthodox priest to be ordained in the state of Montana.
Kirk got his start with Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Butte.
“Holy Trinity is an old parish, 113 years old. When I considered the priesthood I never thought about being a first on any level,” Kirk said. “Priests have come and served in Montana, but none of them have been ordained here. For me, this is a unique blessing.”
“When I began to feel I might have a call to the priesthood there was a natural draw for me to return home and serve here,” Kirk said. “In Orthodoxy I felt I had found my spiritual home and I wanted to bring that to Montana, but honestly I never thought it would happen. In the old world it is common that one of your neighbors would receive the call and become the local pastor. In American, we don’t seem to have that because we are such a transient society. Added to that, there is the size of the diocese. Our diocese, which has its cathedral in Los Angeles covers the state of Alaska, from the northern border of the continental United States down to the southern border of Mexico and from Colorado all the way over to Hawaii, is geographically one of the largest in the world, and yet there are only 40 parishes. So you go where there is a need, and for Anne and I, there was a need here.”
In the beginning
Tikhon Hanlon, a founding member of Kalispell’s parish, moved to Kalispell in 2010.
According to Hanlon, it all began with two families. The Cook family in Eureka had been in touch with Father Russell in Butte. Hanlon said he also got in touch with Russell, asking if there were any Orthodox parishes in the area.
There were not, and so a group of five people began gathering weekly for reader services. In Eastern Orthodox tradition, a reader service is conducted when no priest is available. It is an abbreviated version of Sunday service that consists of liturgical reading, reading of the Psalms, and choir and worship songs.
In the summer of 2011, Father Russell traveled to Kalispell to lead four nights of introduction to Orthodoxy classes in the basement of Colter Coffee. Attendance varied, but following the class the number of faithful gathering weekly grew to 7 or 8, and it has continued to grow slowly but steadily since. The parish currently has 60-65 regular members.
“We didn’t have the Eucharist, the part of a Christian ceremony commemorating the Last Supper; we really didn’t know what we were doing,” Hanlon said.
The process of becoming an officially recognized Eastern Orthodox parish is complex. The founding members didn’t select a name until they reached the first stage in the life of a church, which is to become an officially recognized satellite church, in this case, a satellite of Butte’s Holy Trinity.
“When a parish is founded in the Orthodox Church it requires the effort of everyone; the entire diocese is involved,” Kirk said. “One diocese is considered a ‘local church.’ So when we say this has involved the whole local church, that means the Bishop, the clergy, and all the faithful praying and contributing. It takes a whole diocese for one new parish to begin.”
A satellite parish isn’t on the books of the diocese. Rather it is acknowledged as dependent on another church. When the Kalispell group reached this stage, it took on the name Saint Herman Orthodox Church.
According to Hanlon, the founders here always had an affinity for St. Herman of Alaska. He is called one of the “Enlighteners of America.” St. Herman came from Russia in the early 19th century. He and a group of Russian Orthodox monks traveled from Finland across Russia and the Bering Strait to Alaska, which was at the time a colony of imperial Russia. St. Herman is seen as an apostle to the American people. As a result of his missionary work, there are even today a large number of Native Americans in Alaska who practice Orthodoxy.
“In this parish we are primarily converts and we feel his vision and intercession for us,” Kirk said.
Kirk’s connection to the St. Herman community began in the summer of 2011. He was attending seminary at Saint Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania and returning to serve in Montana during the summers. As he progressed through training, he became connected with St. Herman through Holy Trinity.
In 2014, Bishop Maxim traveled to Butte to celebrate the Pentecost feast in May. A group of delegates from St. Herman’s traveled to Butte at the same time to present a letter of petition to formally establish St. Herman as a mission parish within the diocese.
A mission parish is the intermediate stage in the life of a church, when the diocese recognizes the church as a fledgling parish. The group is given time and support to procure a building and begin full services. St. Herman was approved that day.
A mission parish gets seven years to procure a building, gather finances to afford the salary for a priest, and then secure a full-time priest. St. Herman accomplished all these steps in one year.
“It’s so surprising,” Hanlon said. “From the beginning it’s all been a surprise that people come to our home, would show up on a regular basis, that we would grow the way we have. I always believed it would take a decade to get a parish and a priest here in Kalispell.”
“That’s common,” Kirk agreed. “It can take a lot of time to get used to the name and concept, to have a group of believers grow into a parish in a place as diverse as this. The way things have progressed so quickly here is rare.”
In 2014, Kirk was ordained as a deacon and assigned to Holy Trinity. As an assistant to Father Russell he was able to come to Kalispell and get to know the parish from its start as a satellite parish.
“I felt drawn here,” Kirk said. “I grew to love and appreciate the dedicated people here.”
During Lent of this year, St. Herman saw its biggest growth spurt. A representative of Bishop Maxim visited St. Herman’s. Father Predrag, a diocesan dean, came just before “Pascha,” the feast of the resurrection of the Lord, celebrated on April 12 according to the Orthodox calendar. Father Predrag reported back that St. Herman was ready to take the next step and have a priest of its own. At the same time, he informed the bishop of the special relationship that had developed between the Kirk family and the people of St. Herman.
“We had been hoping it would work out exactly like this,” Tikhon said. “You don’t want to presume. You don’t want to invest too much into what you are hoping will happen because you don’t want to be disappointed.”
Yet all admit that while they were hoping and praying for God to move and work his plan according to His will, it seemed impossible that Kirk’s path to becoming a priest and St. Herman’s path to becoming a parish could ever be brought into perfect alignment.
“That is part of the unique blessing of all this,” Kirk said. “We couldn’t do this. We couldn’t make this happen. Only God could have brought things together in such a way. There are so many ways things can go wrong. We felt God’s providence and St. Herman’s intercession for countless details that needed to fall precisely into place.”
Within days of receiving Father Predrag’s report, Bishop Maxim approved his recommendation. St. Herman’s congregation was ecstatic. And then the reality of the time crunch set in; Bishop Maxim gave them until mid-July to have everything in order for Kirk’s ordination and for the blessing of the new temple.
Work began in May. The church owned a building that was being rented by another church, but the Orthodox style is so specific that the entire building had to be gutted, renovated and redone. Stadium-style seating that was bolted to the floor and a baptismal fount had to be completely removed. New floors, carpets, paint, and a ceiling were all needed. The main feature is a new iconostasis.
St. Herman’s iconostasis dominates the interior of the temple. The iconostasis is a wooden screen featuring multiple icons, separating where the congregation stands from the alter. Only priests and deacons or those who have been given a special blessing may pass through the screen.
Joshua Hicks, of Polson, built the iconostasis at St. Herman. Hicks converted to the Orthodox Christian faith last year. He also built the iconostasis for St. Anthony Orthodox Church in Bozeman.
Having Hicks build this for St. Herman is yet another of the unique blessings Father Daniel sees in the story of this church.
“An iconostasis is so unfamiliar in this country. Often churches will have no choice but to order them from overseas,” Kirk said.
Having a local craftsman do the work gave the parish the opportunity to incorporate some American elements into their screen, like a carved pineapple, a symbol of hospitality and welcome.
This American touch is particularly significant to Kirk.
“As Orthodoxy expanded and evangelized it became part of the local communities and cultures,” Kirk said. “The parish works to engage the local community, to reach out and transform. Yet as it reaches out, it is also transformed by the specific people who convert.”
The center of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church is still located in Istanbul, but there are 14 independent Orthodox churches — including Serbian, like St. Herman — Russian, Greek and others, in the United States.
“Istanbul is considered the first among equals,” Kirk said. “What we hope to see, as the church in America grows, is the same kind of transformation in these American parishes that was seen in the past. What we hope to have someday is an American Orthodox.”
“Today it is not uncommon for an Orthodox priest in the United States to be asked if he is Muslim. Often when a priest speaks of being Orthodox, the first question is to inquire if he is an Orthodox Jew,” Kirk said. “Our hope is that Orthodox Christianity will become a serious contributor to the shape of American culture, and to be recognizable as fundamentally connected to America in terms of its symbols, customs and appearance.”
Renovations to St. Herman were complete on July 17. Bishop Maxim arrived on July 18 and Father Daniel Kirk was ordained in a Sunday morning service on July 19.
On July 18, Bishop Maxim presided over a vespers service, followed by a meet and greet with the congregation over local craft beers from the Flathead Lake Brewing Company. Bishop Maxim also gifted St. Herman with an 800-year-old relic. A relic can be the earthly remains of a saint, such as bones, or even the clothing or vestments. Bishop Maxim gave St. Herman a relic of a great Serbian monastic saint, St. Peter of Korisha.
“In the church, both time and space are mingled together in the body of Christ to become united,” Kirk explained. “This gift is a manifestation of the conviction that Christ is in the 800-year-old relic, and Christ is in the modern church in America. We are one.”
On July 19, St. Herman Orthodox Church celebrated its first divine liturgy, which is another name for a regular service requiring a priest.
“The service was beautiful — stunning,” Hanlon said. “Having that many clergy is always an incredible sight because of their vestments and the way they move and interact with one another.”
“Overwhelming is the best word for it. It felt unreal to have the Bishop visiting, to have that many people attending in our new beautiful space. It was invigorating. I felt like we were a thriving church.”
That day, in addition to the service, worship, blessing and consecration of the temple, the clergy and parishioners gathered for the ordination of Father Daniel.
“Our little community has stuck together really nicely all this way, and that has been difficult without a priest,” Hanlon said. “We needed this. We were moving forward, growing, but being without a priest was becoming harder and harder. So it was deeply satisfying to see our ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ pay off so magnificently.”
“It isn’t very often you get everything that you almost didn’t dare to hope for.”
For Father Daniel, the beauty of the day came with both a deep sense of blessing and satisfaction, but also with the weight of responsibility.
“The flow of events could not have worked better in so many ways. When the bishop comes there is always a heightened level of intensity. And with so many visiting clergy members, that added to the day as well. We had visiting Greek, Ukranian, Serbian Orthodox with us and yet there was so much grace present that we really did kind of breathe together. What I mean is there was no stumbling over the individual traditions, we all came together in such unity.”
“When I looked out over the service, seeing the faithful gathered together, I felt fear and overwhelming love,” Kirk added. “The enormity of my responsibility all came rushing in. These people have waited so long, worked so hard to build this parish, to reach this point. And now I am here to serve them.”
He pauses for a moment looking for the words. “I was also filled with such joy at the sight of each one of these faces that I have come to know and love. It felt like a little piece of Heaven.”
What lies ahead
Officially the next step will come when St. Herman is able to give funding and support back to the diocese. At that point they will be elevated to full parish status. But that is the far distant aspiration.
“Our biggest goal is to become a member of this community in Kalispell,” Kirk said. “To open the doors to anyone who is hungry and seeking after Christ. It’s a big responsibility for all of us. It means taking our faith seriously in every aspect of our lives.”
All services at St. Herman are open to the public. There are Great Vespers at 6 p.m. on Saturday evenings, which include a time of prayer and worship music. Sunday morning service begins at 10 a.m. and is generally about two hours long. The church is also holding Wednesday evening vespers at 6:30 p.m., followed by a weekly class on Orthodoxy.
For more information, visit www.sainthermanoc.org.