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Featured Parish: St. Nicholas + Urbana, Illinois

Pascha 2007 at St. Nicholasby Fr. James Ellison

St. Nicholas Church in Urbana, Illinois began in 1995 with the chrismation of two families who wanted to be Orthodox Christians, share the faith with others, worship in English, and not have to uproot their families to do it. We began meeting in a living room with priests visiting us, initially for catechism and later for Sunday evening liturgies. We moved first to a rented chapel on the University of Illinois campus, and three years later to our present location, a remodeled existing church building.

An astute observer of church growth once noted that planting a church is a lot like life as a pioneer in the American West. First the explorers come, the individuals who are venturing out into areas where no one has been before. Then the pioneers who move into unsettled territory and have to establish the initial structures that support those who will hopefully follow. And then the settlers come, the ones who turn a wide place in the road into a place to live and work for generations to come. Our experience was not unlike this. Two families who wanted to be Orthodox because they believed it to be the fullness of the faith but really didn’t know what they were getting into came first. Then a few others joined them who could see the outline of liturgical life because of the priests that traveled through and who could tolerate the conditions of inconsistent pastoral care, no choir music, no one to teach church school, or bake the bread except them. They did the work of setting up and tearing down while we met in temporary space. They dealt with dance music blaring in the next room while we sat in the dark, hoping the secular party would end, so we could start the Paschal Nocturnes. And now those who are more like settlers, with the gift of a place to meet, teach, and worship are being added to our number. There are those who are drawn by the ancient worship and centuries-old doctrine, who are working to establish a more complete witness to the kingdom of God. There are those who come from traditionally Orthodox lands, yet because of conditions there have had little opportunity to know why they believe and worship the way they do. God-willing these will become our teachers and singers and servants as God entrusts with even more good work which He has prepared for us.

St. Nicholas these days is made up of a real mixture of people. We have a hard working core of committed local people from a variety of backgrounds, both Orthodox and former Protestant and Roman Catholic. We have a wider circle of regular members who are learning to devote their lives to the Orthodox faith and life of our community. And we have a yet wider circle of Orthodox people to which we minister who for a variety of reasons, time, distance, or lack of zeal, we see irregularly. We have had people from across the world regularly worshipping with us: people from Azerbaijan, Albania, Australia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Canada, China, and Congo, Cyprus, Egypt, England, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Guatemala, Indonesia, India, Eritrea, Korea, Lebanon, Japan, Palestine, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Syria, and Ukraine. In addition we have an active contingent of undergrad and graduate students from the local University. Indeed, one of the most fruitful areas of ministry for us is our ministry to students, faculty, and staff. The upside of this is the new people we meet every fall and many wonderful relationships we have built over the years, and the downside is seeing some folks move away from us every spring, hopefully stronger in their faith as a result of their time with us. One of the ministries our parish chooses to offer is a coffee hour that almost always turns out to be lunch. This allows the students to stay around after church and build relationships with the rest of the parish.

One highlight each year is our opportunity to host a history of worship class from a nearby Evangelical seminary. We welcome them during Orthros, feed them lunch after the dismissal of the liturgy and then afterwards return to the nave of the church for Q & A that usually extends until late in the afternoon.

Another highlight of this past year: in 2008, for the first time in our history, our pastor was able to leave full time secular employment and spend more than 60% of his work week serving us. Part of the resources for this have come from those the parish has sent away to live and serve elsewhere after their time at the University. Thus, as we were able to supply their need, so now they in turn help with ours.

Since our beginning, we have attempted to send a tithe to the Archdiocese and give away another 10% of our parish income to missionary and benevolent needs outside our parish. Our experience is that in some mystery of God’s grace, perhaps through the prayers of our patron St. Nicholas, it always gets multiplied. In 2008, we were able to send a mission team to the orphanage in Guatemala, help out with the Archdiocese Food for Hungry People, and extend some financial support and time to some local and extra local needs. We helped a homeless woman and her children get into their own house and fill it with furniture, linens, and kitchen supplies; we sent hundreds of pounds of clothing to a monastery in Russia for distribution to the poor; we hosted a garage sale to raise money for the Hogar Raphael Ayau Orphanage in Guatemala and introduce people we would not meet otherwise to our church. In all, over $20,000 in benevolent and missionary aid left our parish, but the real benefit is the fruit this bore in the life of our community. We are growing slowly and steadily as it says of the child Christ, “in favor with God and man.” Thanks be to God who does all things well. Please pray for us that we might find the way to repentance and greater joy in the coming years.

At Hogar Raphael Ayau Orphanage in Guatemala. In Guatemala. Preparing clothes to send to Russia.

For more information, service schedules, directions or to contact St. Nicholas, please visit the St. Nicholas Church web site.