On the fifth Sunday of Great Lent (April 2-3, 2017), HTOS students of Russian Church History went on their annual field trip to the Church of the Nativity, an Old Rite parish in Erie, PA. An interesting and vibrant blend of old and new, this parish is unique in its almost exclusive use of English while simultaneously preserving the precise rituals of the Russian Church prior to Patriarch Nikon’s reforms in the 17th century. In 1983 under the direction of Archpriest Pimen Simon, this group of Old Believers, a movement usually considered radically isolationist,opened itself to the full life of the Church when it was received into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. The community also recognized a pastoral need to make use of the English language in its services. This parish has received American converts also.
After a six-hour van ride, the seminary group reached the parish and was immediately impressed by its location overlooking Lake Erie. On time for the Saturday all-night vigil, the seminarians were able to fully immerse themselves in the various peculiarities of the Old Ritualists’ liturgical style- an experience facilitated by the fact that this evening service is 4 hours long! Following the service, the rector opened his home to the group, offering dinner and answering students’ questions. On the following morning, Deacon Andrei Psarev concelebrated with Fr. Pimen and local clergy, and the seminarians served in the sanctuary.
Among the differences between the Old Ritualists and the contemporary Russian Church Outside of Russia, some were primarily cultural, as illustrated by the traditional Russian clothing worn by the men in the choir and by the prayer rugs (podruchnik) used when the faithful prostrate themselves (there are prostrations on Sunday in the Old Rite). Some were important remembrances of the pre-Nikonian practices, such as the two-fingered crossing, the Eucharist received with a spoon given three times, and the two Alleluias sung with the psalmody. Other differences included use of monophonic Znamenny Chant, a commentary accompanying the gospel reading during the matins service, and the 900 prostrations during the Canon of St. Andrew, which had been read on the Wednesday prior to our visit.
After a very edifying time at this Old Rite parish, the seminary group drove home to Holy Trinity Seminary, passing through Niagara Falls to give the students a glimpse at the glory of God’s creation. Archpriest Viatcheslav and Matushka Elizabeth Davidenko from ROCOR Holy Trinity Cathedral in Toronto joined the group for several hours on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Their son Seth, a third year seminarian, was part of the group, and his parents enhanced our discussions by sharing their wisdom and insights on various topical issues of church life.
Overall the seminarians were enjoyed this trip and through it learned more about the Church and Church traditions. The visit to Niagara Falls inevitably left those who saw it in awe, giving glory to God for His ineffable wisdom. The Seminary intends to continue this annual visit for future seminarians to experience this unique parish of ROCOR and its rich traditions of the Old Rite as a part of HTOS’ robust history curriculum, for the Glory of God.