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How St. Nicholas Church, Cedarburg, Came to Be

The following is an excerpt from Fr. William Olnhausen's new book, A Modern, American Orthodox Pastor

December 6, 2006

I am convinced that in the year 1985 earth time, the Lord Jesus must have said to Saint Nicholas, "We need an Orthodox church on the north side of Milwaukee. Go work on that Olnhausen fellow."

Sometimes we remember things wrong, so yesterday I went back to the original source, my travel journal. I remembered it right. Here is the entry for Saturday, August 3, 1985, written at the Orthodox Academy on Crete where I was attending a conference. I was not Orthodox then and had no intention of becoming Orthodox. That evening we had visited the local Bishop Irenaeus and had supper with him and some of his people in the courtyard outside his chapel. It says we arrived during a Baptism, though I don’t remember that. I do remember him and his priests sweetly singing Phos Hilaron at sunset on that lovely summer evening. Here is what I wrote that night: “Wonderful! Such joy! Bishop Irenaeus is a holy man. This is the way the Church should be... don’t forget the Bishop’s face: serene, holy, happy.” I did not forget his face. Two weeks later in Athens I saw his face again in an icon store near the cathedral. On Saturday August 17 I wrote that the "St. Nicholas icon has the happy holy look of the Cretan bishop.” Only later did I come to see that it was Irenaeus who looked like Nicholas. (Many Orthodox bishops eventually come to look more or less like Saint Nicholas, for he is the prototype Orthodox pastor.) I had to have that icon, that face of Bishop Irenaeus, so I spent considerably more than I intended and bought the Saint Nicholas icon. Though I didn’t yet know it, Saint Nicholas already had me on my way to Orthodoxy. The last words in my journal written just before we landed in Milwaukee were, "The Greek Church has a remarkable integration with everyday life - icons in buses, stores, cabs, houses. Church concerned with social needs of people. Seems to go far deeper than the Christian veneer of Western Europe. Why?” I felt I had to know. I had to find out why, and you can see what it led to.

Actually I think Saint Nicholas had been working on me before that. My first experience of “forever” came when I was a little boy, and I asked my mother, "How long has Santa Claus been alive?" She answered, "Always, I guess" - and suddenly for the first time my mind opened up to eternity. I always was attached to Saint Nicholas. At my old Episcopal Church in Mequon we celebrated Saint Nicholas Day. We had someone dressed as Bishop Nicholas come and collect toys for needy children - as we did here last Sunday. So it felt natural when I came home from Greece to hang my new icon of Saint Nicholas on the wall of my church and light a candle before him. Now I was about to learn how icons work. One day a woman said to me, “Have you noticed how his expression changes?” I said “...No...”, and I started watching. Sure enough. Not that the paint moved; it didn't; I can’t explain it - but sometimes he was happy, sometimes sad, sometimes stern, sometimes pleased. Someone said, “It’s just reflecting your feelings at the moment.” So I began to check that. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes I would be in a good mood and he would be looking very displeased - or it could be the reverse.

The truth was that I was not often in a good mood. I was discovering that I needed to be Orthodox, that Orthodoxy was what I had always believed, that I had been trying to be Orthodox outside the Orthodox Church. I knew I needed to go home. And while this was a wonderful discovery, I couldn’t imagine how to do it, for we had a family - one child in college, one nearing college age. How could we afford to make the change? And as a pastor, I felt I couldn’t just abandon my people. Was there a way to make my Episcopal church into an Orthodox church? Again I couldn’t imagine. One evening I was in a particularly glum mood, depressed, frustrated. I walked over and looked at Saint Nicholas. You can see how he had already drawn me into relationship with him. And for the first and only time (I’ve never been able to see this again in the icon), he looked smug, like the proverbial cat who had swallowed the canary. I lost my cool. I said to him, "How can you hang there on that wall looking so pleased with yourself, when I’m so miserable?" And then - and I don’t mean I heard words; it wasn’t like that; again I can’t explain it - he told me that he had Saint Nicholas Church well under way, and if I didn’t get in his way it was all going to be just fine.

After that things began to move. Not that I was relaxed about it; often I was a nervous wreck. But Saint Nicholas kept at it. I was invited to visit a weeping icon at Saint Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church in Chicago, where I was given the courage to go back to my church and start talking about Orthodoxy. About this time a couple of quite amazing things happened to move me towards Orthodoxy and into the Antiochian Archdiocese - but that also is another story. Finally my Episcopalian bishop fired me for promoting Orthodoxy. I said I wasn’t leaving without that icon. That was no problem! So with Father Peter Gillquist's guidance and the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP, His Grace Bishop ANTOUN came and he founded our Orthodox mission. Father Tom Hopko from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, who knew nothing of our Saint Nicholas connection, sent us a relic of Saint Nicholas which is now embedded in our altar. We submitted three names for our new church to Metropolitan PHILIP, who named us Saint Nicholas Church. When we bought this building, we had our first services on the next major feast day which was Saint Nicholas Day, of course - just twelve years ago today. The money we need has always just arrived, often in very unexpected ways (that’s also another story), for which one of our early treasurers, Lou Chambers, coined the term “the Saint Nicholas factor." It still kicks in regularly. When there have been problems, I have gone to Saint Nicholas, and sometimes results have come within hours. When I mentioned to him in passing that we needed more children, more young families around here, it took a couple of weeks for the surge to begin, and now look! That wonderful icon I bought in 1985 now presides at the entrance to our church to make the point that this truly is Saint Nicholas’ Church. This is not really our church. It's his. This is his work.

One last thing: Maybe ten years ago, after all this had happened, Khouria Dianna and I were at Milwaukee Irish Fest, where they had a genealogy table, and a sign which said, "Trace your family roots." My mother was a Collins, her father was Irish, and I’d always felt especially close to that side of my family. So I looked at the chart, and my mouth dropped. It said: “Collins: derivative of Nicholas." Did Saint Nicholas have all this in mind even before I was born?

Holy Father Bishop Nicholas, continue to intercede with Christ our God to save our souls.