How a Monastery in Michigan Remained Open for Pascha With No Restrictions

In the following article, Archimandrite Pachomy (Belkoff) of St. Sabbas Monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Harper Woods, Michigan, explains how the monastery was able to remain open throughout all of Great Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha, and what joy and grace was experienced by the hundreds who worshiped the Risen Lord there. This is post is not meant as a reproach to those who followed the blessing of their bishops and stayed at home, or those who closed their churches under threat of fines or arrest. But glory be to God that there was such a place where the faithful were able to partake of the Sacraments in spite of the surrounding atmosphere of fear.

    

When the coronavirus first started to be mentioned in the public news and the public hype began, I was very saddened and spiritually grieved that the bishops of all the multiple jurisdictions in America immediately decided to shut down the churches. I was startled at this because I thought it was a sell out without putting up a fight to defend the Sacraments of the Church. I resisted not because I wanted to go down as being a rebel but because it’s against everything that the Church has always taught.

The very first Sunday I preached a sermon with historical facts on all the epidemics that happened through the history of the Byzantine Empire: the plague of Justinian and so forth, when there is even a record of how many bodies were stacked in the church. This tells us that the churches were not closed and that even in the worst hour, with millions of people dying from plague, the Church was accessible for services and for prayers. The Sacraments are medicine for our souls.

As monastics we live for the Kingdom of Heaven and not for this earthly life or even for the health of this physical body. During the course of Lent, we were open for every service and the monastic daily rule, and we had hundreds of people coming. We were the only church in five states that was actually open without a person limit.

I can’t even believe that word was being spread that it was too dangerous to anoint people for Unction with a single brush because they could get sick. The whole point of Holy Unction is to heal people with sacred oil. As things started to become a panic and people started to get paranoid and worried, I decided to consult five prominent Orthodox doctors who regularly attend the monastery. They informed me from a proper medical stance what procedures to follow to ensure everyone’s health—not jeopardizing anyone’s health or salvation. We proceeded to order masks and latex gloves and sanitary wipes and insisted that everyone who comes use them for the sake of the elderly, the young, and the infirm.

As word started to spread, local Orthodox clergy became very upset, thinking that we were shaming them in remaining open. Some even said that I was defying the Patriarch and the Metropolitan by so doing, but I was not. In the state in which I live, Michigan, and many states in the United States, contrary to what the people were being told, it was not mandatory to shut down any religious institution because there is a separation of Church and state. In the state of Michigan, churches were never closed, and there was never a person distancing rule or a limit on the number of people ordered for churches. When I posted this on the monastery’s website and invited all Orthodox Christians to come to receive the Lenten and Pascha Sacraments, I was unfortunately labeled an instigator and a liar, even though I showed proof of the law right from the governor’s office. One bishop even informed his priests that the people were forbidden to come to the monastery—it was better off for them to watch the services livestreamed at home. But this is not an issue of state—this is an issue of the soul and the Sacraments and the Church’s uncompromised responsibility to minister under any circumstance.

St. Sabbas Monastery St. Sabbas Monastery     

Knowing that Pascha was soon approaching, I contacted the local police department in my city and arranged a conference. They have been great supporters of the monastery for many years and know us personally. I was assured by the police department and the city’s attorney that, in fact, I had not broken any laws. I would also like to add that on Holy Saturday afternoon, as we were frantically trying to set up for outdoor Liturgy, the police department showed up. At first, I thought there was a change of order, but the police said, “Stay calm, Father, we’re here to show our 100% support and discuss details of how we are to direct traffic and be of help.”

The state has never shut down any religious institutions. The religious authorities closed the churches in most states, not the government. This is very sad. The front page of the newspaper said that the Catholic Archbishop told the priests to empty their holy water buckets so that people would not be contaminated. I was mortified when I read this—on the front page of the paper. Then the Orthodox did basically the same thing by allowing the priest to serve with only a choir director and nearly no one in the church—maybe five people.

After I had confirmation from the mayor and the police department and the city attorney, I contacted His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion with the facts, and he sent a personal ukaz stating that the monastery is stavropegial under him and that we were blessed to stay open! He was overjoyed that I could continue to serve all the services for as many people as I could, to bring them the Sacraments.

One of the main problems was that each state had different laws and it was very difficult for the Synod of Bishops to deal individually with each priest and monastery in each state in a quick manner, with such vast complexity. According to the constitution of the United States, it is forbidden to forbid religious assemblies of any sort, so ultimately no state had the right to shut down a religious institution.

His Eminence wished me a very blessed Pascha, stating that we would be celebrating for everyone this year!

I wish to add that while Michigan and the Detroit area were hit bad—among the worst with this virus—no one from the monastery community ever got sick or died or showed any symptoms.

Here it is still early spring and the weather is all confused. One day it’s warm and sunny, and the next freezing and snow... almost apocalyptic. The monastery church holds about 230 people, but with so many people coming because all the other churches were closed, it was packed during Holy Week, so I decided to celebrate Pascha outside.

The cloister where the outdoor Liturgy was celebrated The cloister where the outdoor Liturgy was celebrated     

Last year, one of our dear benefactors passed away and left a donation to build a memorial at the monastery in his honor. His name was Steven Stolaruk. I very much wanted to build a cloister for outdoor services to be used at some point. All the subdeacons and adult altar servers and the deacon and myself began to build this large edifice. I kept pushing to get the roof erected before the end of last year because it kept coming up in a dream. Then this pandemic hit and everything came full circle, and we used it, not quite finished, to celebrate the Paschal Liturgy outside for hundreds of people.

We had Palestinian Christians that came and brought their chanters and sang in Arabic; we had Romanians who came and sang in Romanian; we had Russians and Ukrainians and Macedonians and Serbians and Greeks all celebrating Pascha together like in Jerusalem.

It was one of the most memorable and emotional Paschas any of us have ever experienced, including, for myself, in over thirty years of priesthood. During the nine weeks of Lent, not one person got sick, everyone prepared and was fervent to receive the holy Sacraments. We were blessed to see such faith, and willingness to support the Church to the very end.

I spoke with Metropolitan Jonah on the telephone yesterday and he had pretty much the same story to tell, as did all those of us who stayed the course and followed what we were taught in seminary—to never deny the people the Sacraments under any circumstance, and we were blessed with great grace this Pascha.

The church at St. Sabbas decorated for Holy Pascha The church at St. Sabbas decorated for Holy Pascha     

When the pandemic began, the Sunday Gospel was the paralytic who is lowered through the roof of the hut to be healed by Jesus because there were so many people. He was not cast away because other people were afraid of getting sick—neither the leper nor any other story in Holy Scripture of people coming to Christ for healing. The Lord says, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. He doesn’t say, “Get away from me and stay far from the church because you will contaminate everyone.”

We have the example of the Three Holy Youths who defied the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, and for their faith in the Holy Trinity, a great antiphon is sung every Holy Saturday morning. We have the blessing of wheat for St. Theodore, recalling when the food in the marketplace was poisoned and the Christians were notified by word of the angel through the Patriarch to eat boiled wheat.

I am proud of all the Orthodox people of all ethnic backgrounds that processed from their homes to the monastery with their baskets and candles and with their masks and their gloves to greet the Lord in His holy house, open to all, filled with light and life.

It was an exhausting week because I was the only priest to give Communion to all those people. On Pascha afternoon, after the Vespers, I went to my room to lay down and I slept until midday the next day. when I woke up there was a message on my telephone which brought a huge smile to my face and an extra grace. It was a personal Paschal greeting from His Beatitude the Patriarch of Jerusalem, sending his blessing of the Holy Fire to my monastery—spiritually—and to carry on saving the people’s souls. My monastery has very close ties with the Jerusalem Patriarchate and the monasteries in the Holy Land.

May we all learn from this that there is no medicine higher than the Sacraments; that it is more important to be able to go to church then to the local grocery store; that God does not distance Himself from us, and we should not distance ourselves from Him and each other; that prayer and the Gospel message are more important than the hype presented by news and social media.

This is the day of Resurrection; this is the saving Passover of the Lord; this is the beginning wrought by the right hand of God. Christ is Risen!

Comments
Tatiana Kallaur5/21/2020 10:16 pm
It is wonderful to hear that Father Pachomy was able to serve our Church in these difficult times! May God Bless him and keep him safe to continue his wonderful mission of Orthodoxy in America. It would be wonderful to see a translation of this article for the Russian readers, as it would definitely lift many spirits in Russia! Dear Editors, if you need help translating, you can contact me through my email and I would be glad to help out.
nickels5/21/2020 9:58 pm
A church that doesn't assemble does not exist.
sherlock_holmes5/5/2020 3:24 am
What a beautiful and bright monastery!
Nicole5/3/2020 7:31 am
Glory to God for this Orthodox thinking and action! St. Athanasius the Great himself was in the minority among bishops at times and yet he was proven to be both courageous and correct. Axios!!!
Popsy5/3/2020 3:33 am
@Chris: Although it might sound a bit harsh, some of them are exactly this: "lukewarm clowns". While most bishops alowed on-line services to be performed during church closures (although I, personally, don't agree with this) and some allowed services to be performed in closed-door churches with only 4 people present, there were some bishops that, by their own initiative, closed down churches and did not allow priests to perform Holy Liturgy in their own homes, with only their own family in attendance. I would call these "lukewarm clowns". And don't get me wrong, I'm one of them, as- to my knowledge- every church was closed for service in Ontario and I stayed home for weeks in a row. In a few days, contemporary goverments managed to do what the communist governments tried for tens of years and failed: to shut down churches and stop the Holy Liturgy. That's the reason they are neo-communists. And they did this hand-in-hand with our Hyerarchy (or the other way around). As Athanasius said, St. Mary of Egypt is an extreme comparison. As for obedience, it only goes as far as preventing you from communing with God. Beyond that point, you only obey God, even against earthly powers. I totaly regard Fr. Pachomy as a man of courage, who does everything in his power to serve God and his people. Christ is Risen!
Chris5/2/2020 4:50 am
In most countries, this wasn't an option at all. His Holiness clearly told to stay at home. On this site, there appeared today an article how brain-free zealots pressurized clerics and put everyone to danger. In Germany, it was also clearly commanded to stay at home, but orthodox super-heroes celebrated in apartments, including trapeza for 30 people. That's tempting God. And disobedience to the bishop, a huge sin The Eucharist is holy and pure, but coughing sinners before the door are not. -- If that was blessed in that peculiar State, than it be like this. Yet, don't tell everybody else that he is a non-believing jerk.
Athanasius5/1/2020 7:00 pm
St. Mary of Egypt is an extreme comparison, and as far as “testing God” what exactly do you think the Eucharist is? Father Pachomy had all the canonical and civil permission required to hold services, the express blessing of Metropolitan Hilarion, and the courage to do the right thing. It will be interesting to see how many roll over when the Antichrist appears. We have sent a clear signal that all it takes is for just a little bit of fear to overcome faith.
georgia Smyrniou5/1/2020 7:43 am
YOU ARE AN EXAMPLE!! PLEASE TEACH OUR POLITICIANS IN GREECE WHO ARREST US BECAUSE WE OPEN THE CHURCHES
Chris5/1/2020 5:00 am
Very unpleasant in my eyes. The article says in the beginning how it is not meant to be and yet it does exactly this all the way. How should we perceive the Patriarch, the Metropolitan, thousands of other priests and millions of believers worldwide? As lukewarm clowns? Saint Mary of Egypt taught us in the fasting period that one can abstain for some time from visiting temples, the Holy Virgin taught us that obedience is a key virtue in Orthodoxy and the Lord Himself clearly admonished us that we shouldn't tempt God. On top, the excessive praise of another Patriarchat. I see much more self-celebration than love.
Natalya S4/30/2020 11:33 pm
Thank you for this article. Thank you for the truth. Because it's alsolutely irresistible to read about staying at home and praying with your mobile...
Olga4/30/2020 11:09 pm
We want to thank Fr Mark from St Elizabeth Columbia , SC for similar courage and care for the orthodox flock. Similar miracle and podvig happened in his parish . If not for that parish , we would have Pascha at home . Christ is Risen !
Joseph Bell4/30/2020 9:09 pm
Fr. Pachomy's monastery remaining open to the general public is exemplary and marked by great perseverance. One must take into account though, that a national emergency has been declared as well as an emergency and distaster in virtually every state. While his actions have been appropriate, they are perhaps less courageous when one notices that he sought permission of doctors, the state, the governor's office, the city attorney, the local police department and his Bishop. The statement that most states have not banned large religious gatherings is simply untrue and the exemption given to several states has been nationally publicized. Nonetheless I commend the persistance and agility of Fr. Pachomy without questioning the discretion of any Bishop during this confusing and difficult time. I know as well that it is no coincidence that God would allow this monastery to be fully open as an example to us all during Lent and Pascha. Glory to God for all things!
Fr Patrick 4/30/2020 5:38 pm
Well, God bless them all in the monastery. How wonderful to hear such a good news story.
Antiochene Son4/30/2020 12:32 pm
I pray this testimony inspires our bishops as they consider reopening parishes.
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