- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

MCKEES ROCKS, Pa. (AP) - It’s an ancient faith of icons, incense and a capella music, that nonetheless has its own Facebook pages, podcasts and streaming radio.

There are dozens of Orthodox churches in and around Pittsburgh, in varying states of health. But St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks - under the leadership of a priest with a background in corporate management training and a knack for social media - has seen its parish grow larger and younger even as the community around it declines in numbers. This weekend, the church has been celebrating its 100th anniversary.

On a Saturday night earlier this month in the McKees Rocks neighborhood known as the “Bottoms,” voices were raised in mesmerizing song as more than 100 members of St. Nicholas celebrated a service of thanksgiving, part. It was part of a weekend of events to mark the church’s 100th year.

The rector of St. Nicholas, the Rev. Thomas Soroka, joined the church in 2000. He succeeded his father, the Very Rev. Vladimir Soroka, who had been brought in to stabilize the parish, which was diminishing in numbers as the Bottoms neighborhood of McKees Rocks struggled. Now, after a low of 80 members, the parish has 150 adults and 50 children, many of them converts to the faith.

“This weekend we’re honoring the past while expressing our gratitude for the recent growth that we’ve experienced, and our hope for continued blessings in the future,” he said.

There are no organs or musical instruments in Orthodox services and, in this exquisite jewel box of a church, there was no need for any. The wall of sound from the choir in the balcony - answering the call from the altar - reverberated throughout the church as Father Soroka swung the censer of incense.

Archbishop Melchisedek (Pleska), of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, was also present, and will conduct services today.

Young children skipped in the aisles, chased by young mothers wearing headscarves, who would pick them up to kiss an icon - a central part of the theology adhered to by St. Nicholas, a member of the Orthodox Church in America. “Lord have mercy,” whispered a young father in a sports shirt and Dockers khakis to his 4-year-old son, who mouthed the words back to him.

Something is going on here.

“I am not exactly sure why young people are coming, but they are coming,” said Father Soroka, who has daily and weekly podcasts on the Web radio channel ancientfaith.com, which was launched five years ago.

It could be, he mused, because the Internet has made outreach easier, but the visual and sensory aspects of this faith, with its Eastern Rite, the Divine Liturgy - the Orthodox version of the Roman Catholic Mass - appeals to young people.

“Our services are longer” than the Mass, the surroundings are more ornate and, Father Soroka noted with a laugh, “we use more incense.”

“We have a great respect for holy things. Icons are as important to us as pictures of our children,” added Kristie Mertz, who converted to the Orthodox faith in 2003 and who serves as the church’s librarian and historian.

The 45-year-old Greentree resident did a lot of searching in her life before finding spiritual shelter here - with candles flaring, incense burning and dozens of hand painted icons glowing - actual witnesses to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, which is why parishioners kiss them so often.

It can get complicated when explaining the differences between Orthodox churches. Suffice to say this church shouldn’t be confused with St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland (which also has its own Facebook page). Or for that matter the three other churches in McKees Rocks, two of whom answer to the pope but use the Eastern Orthodox rites, and a third which is a member of a separate Ukrainian Orthodox church.

People like to make distinctions between Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Antiochian, Byzantine and so on “but they’re all the same in terms of faith,” said Ms. Mertz. “It’s just that one will eat pierogies, another will make baklava.”

The parish still has families descended from the original Russian Orthodox immigrants who came to Pittsburgh in a great wave at the beginning of the 20th century. It also has Russian families from a later wave of immigration, in the 1980s, when many fled the Soviet Union.

And it also has young people like Erik Wenger, 31, who comes here with his wife and two daughters, part of a new influx of converts to the Orthodox faith, drawn by its 2,000-year history and its sense of community.

“We’ve met a lot of other young couples like ourselves,” said Mr. Wenger.

Some of the younger members have even asked for services to be conducted in an old Russian tongue called Church Slavic, “but nobody here speaks Russian and we have a lot of converts, so we conduct services in English,” said Father Soroka.

The church itself, in a building dedicated in 1917, is a work in progress. Faded old icons depicting saints and holy people, “witnesses to heaven,” were painted in 1941, said Father Soroka.

On Wednesday, some were replaced in a project using a local artist, Cheryl Pituch from Johnstown, who spent the past year painting new ones - easily detected because of their bright gold. Another internationally known iconographer and Orthodox priest from Erie, Father Theodore Jurewicz, will paint the walls and ceiling of the church with new icons over the next year.

Ms. Mertz is partial to one icon on the left side of the floor-to-ceiling carved wooden screen - the iconostasis - which separates the altar from the worshipers and contains 26 icons. Her favorite the Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow, a very traditional Russian icon that was installed two years ago.

There are five more behind the altar, which is only occasionally glimpsed through the wooden screen during the service when doors are opened and closed by the priests. And another 30 are embedded in the side walls, which are painted a vivid shade of azure blue.

“The interior is exquisite,” said Louise Sturgess of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, noting that craftsman Yaroslav Tkach (1911-1979) made the large crystal chandelier hanging over the pews.

“Every inch of the interior is beautifully painted and the iconostasis is multitiered. For generations, St. Nicholas has served as the spiritual heart of the Russian community.”

Growing up, Stanley Konoval, 26, of Point Breeze, didn’t have much religion in his life. But at Colgate University he majored in philosophy and religion, and the Orthodox Church in America’s underlying theology intrigued him because of its “visual and experiential connection with God. You go in for services and it’s all around you, affecting all of your senses - the icons on the walls, the incense, the chanting. You’re really part not just of God but of a community.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1o7zUKS

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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