400. How Saint Nicholas founded Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, USA

I know…  Some of you have heard these stories before. But some of you haven’t, and you really need to hear them.  Besides, the good old stories always deserve re-telling. That’s why the Church year repeats itself, year after year after year.

We’re doing two weeks on Saint Nicholas. Last week we covered the life of this wonderworking saint. This week… …

Here’s what I think:  I think that about the year 1985, earth time, our Lord Jesus said to Saint Nicholas, “We need an Orthodox Church on the north side of Milwaukee. Why don’t you go work on that Olnhausen fellow – he’s an easy target right now – and try to get one going?” That’s the only way I can explain what happened to me.

Did the Theotokos whisper it into His ear again? (courtesy of Saint Nicholas Center)

Much of this story will involve me. Forgive me, but that’s the only way it can be told. It’s the story of how Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker took hold of me and led me into the Orthodox Church and then founded Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church.

I began Methodist seminary in 1960. As I read and searched, I soon concluded that the Orthodox Church had it “right”, so I visited a few Orthodox churches. Everything was in Greek or Russian or Slavonic; there was no English language literature. I said to myself “You’ve got to be born into that”. So I joined the Episcopal Church, convincing myself that Anglicanism was (at least potentially) Western Orthodoxy.

In 1968 my wife Dianna and I settled into a little church in the far northern Milwaukee suburbs, where I tried as best I could to be an Orthodox Christian. There was much beautiful about Anglicanism, and still is. I learned the Faith in Anglicanism. But by 1985 I knew Anglicanism was not going to become Western Orthodoxy. It was headed the other way – fast.

So I visited Orthodox churches again. I remember a Holy Week service where the “weight” of the holiness, the Presence, just hung over the place. I had never experienced anything like it before. I read Orthodox books and journals, and decided that probably after I retired… but not now. I loved my people, and felt I couldn’t just run away. We had two kids to get through college. Certainly not now.

Saint Nicholas had something else in mind.

In the summer of 1985 my Parish Vestry (Church Council) gave me a summer sabbatical and money for travel. It was a summer which turned my life upside down. For a month Dianna and I and young Jennifer and David did England, Wales, France – only 36 hours in Paris: shame on us! -, Germany, Switzerland and finally Rome. From there the family flew home, and I took the train south to Brindisi, the ancient Roman port to the East. I had no intention of becoming Orthodox yet, but I had always wanted to see Greece:  Greece was just “in my bones”. From the moment I looked out the porthole and saw the western islands of Greece in the misty dawn, I loved Greece. Love at first sight – just as it had been with my wife.

A ten-day seminar on Greek culture and religion was being offered for Americans at the Orthodox Academy in northwest Crete. There, every time we talked about religion, I agreed with the Orthodox. It surprised me. It shouldn’t have.

One evening we visited the Bishop of Kastelli, who invited us to join him and some of his clergy and people for the evening meal on the patio outside his chapel. I remember they sang “Phos hilaron”. The joy, the good humor, the love he shared with his people: it shone on his face. He was what a bishop should be. Later that night I wrote in my trip journal “Remember that face!”

I had always wanted to bum around on a Greek island, and my wife (God bless that woman) said “Go ahead”. So I spent a week on the island of Paros. Far be it from me to play down the tavernas and great beaches. But far more important, I saw old country Orthodoxy as it is practiced: The big ancient (Fourth Century!) cathedral filled to overflowing for the feast of the Kimisis (Κοίμησις ) / Dormition, followed by the city festival with bands marching, guns booming in the harbor – I’d never imagined anything like it for a Church holiday. So many chapels, people going in and out to light candles and pray. A Baptism which seemed more like a village carnival than our staid Episcopalian Baptisms. I didn’t understand a word, but it was so alive. I was captivated.

And then: “remember that face”? I saw it again in one of the many church supply shops near the cathedral in Athens. It was an icon of Saint Nicholas. I had to have that icon, “that face”. I bought it.

My last Sunday in Greece, I went to the Anglican Church in Athens. I felt like I had left “The Church” and gone back to Anglicanism. It shocked me.

When I got home, Dianna could tell something had happened to me. I was no longer demoralized. As I tried to explain, she asked, “Do you want to become Orthodox?” I said “No”. I was lying.

I began reading Orthodox books almost frantically, and about six months later, in the middle of a book by Alexander Schmemann, my paradigm “flipped”. I was no longer thinking like a Western Christian, but rather in the Eastern Orthodox way – and I knew I not only wanted but also needed to be Orthodox.

But how? My dear wife, who was as burnt out on Anglicanism as I was, had not had my “Greek Orthodox experience”. She didn’t understand. So I vowed I would not become Orthodox until she actually wanted Orthodoxy for herself: I would try not to drag her into it. Then began a period of quiet desperation. I felt like a Ford salesman who was in love with Hondas. At the altar I felt like I wasn’t in Communion with myself. I thought: “I can’t handle this for another twenty years.” I had no idea what to do.

But Saint Nicholas did.

I had hung his icon on the wall in my Episcopal church with a candle beside it but otherwise I forgot about it… until one evening after Evensong (like our Vespers) a woman asked “Have you noticed how his face changes?” I said “No…. ” but I began to look.

Look for yourself. What can you see?

Sure enough. It was not that the paint moved. I can’t explain it, but sometimes he would be cheerful, sometimes sad, sometimes almost angry.

I told this to one other person, whom I trusted would not think I had gone “over the edge”, who suggested “Maybe his expression just matches your mood.” Sometimes it did; sometimes it definitely did not. Sometimes I could be feeling ok, and he would be almost glaring at me. I had no idea what was going on. Now I know: I was discovering how icons can “work”, how our Lord and His saints can reach out to us through icons. Saint Nicholas was calling me into relationship with himself.

One afternoon I had been at an Episcopalian clergy meeting… and I knew I just didn’t belong there any more. I went to the icon of Saint Nicholas feeling so depressed. I looked up, and for the first and only time he looked smug, so proud of himself. And I said to him (this was the first time I had talked to him): “How can you hang there looking so pleased with yourself, when I’m so miserable?”

And then, something else happened, which was like no other experience I’ve ever had. It wasn’t that I heard a voice. I didn’t. But somehow he put this directly, clearly into my mind: “Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church is coming.” I didn’t tell anyone about this for a long time. I was afraid they’d “put me away”.

Well! Did this fill me with joy and confidence? Yes! For reasons I can’t explain, I never had a doubt about what he said. I was sure Saint Nicholas Church would come to be. * But No! How would this come to pass? what should I be doing? or not doing? what would it mean for me? I had no idea.

  • I know we should be very cautious about “private revelations” like this – but somehow I just could not doubt this.

Now began the waiting – which at the time seemed like forever, but really it was only about two years. I visited local Orthodox churches again, and found they were slowly going into English – some were entirely so – and now there was a vast amount of excellent English-language Orthodox literature. (How had this come about so fast?) I got acquainted with local Orthodox clergy and found most to be nice normal guys, not the forbidding figures they had seemed to be, hidden behind their iconostases.

I was invited to visit a weeping icon of the Theotokos (at Saint Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church in Chicago) – which somehow inspired me to go back to my Episcopal parish and start talking about Orthodoxy. Could I get my church or my parishioners to become Orthodox? The result? An Episcopal priest friend asked me, “Why are you tearing up one of the best parishes in the diocese?” I couldn’t explain.

Then things began to move:

May his memory be eternal.”

In June 1988 I wanted to attend an Orthodox Missions and Evangelism Conference in Santa Barbara, but thought I couldn’t afford it. After an early morning Mass, a woman (who later became Orthodox) handed me an envelope, saying “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’ve been praying, and I have to do it.” Inside the envelope was exactly the amount of money I needed for the Conference, including air fare. There I met Father Peter Gillquist, then chairman of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Archdiocese, and I knew where I belonged. I told Father Peter I wouldn’t make the jump till I had a “sign” from on high.

2 Later that summer, some traditionalist-Anglican friends told us they would never give up on the Episcopal Church (but later they did). To my astonishment, Dianna poured the truth of Orthodoxy all over them! She was ready.

That fall, my Episcopalian bishop sent one of his men out to find out what was going on with me. I told him honestly.

4 Just after Easter 1989 my bishop told me I had a choice of resignation or an ecclesiastical trial. Episcopalians didn’t “do” ecclesiastical trials! so I asked “On what grounds?” He said “apostacy” – this in a church that tolerated bishops who denied Jesus! and, though I had become a troublemaker, I had violated no canon laws. I called Father Peter and said “I think I’ve got my sign!” I renounced Anglican Holy Orders and resigned.

Thank God! I don’t think I’d have had the nerve (ok, “the guts”) to quit on my own. So I can claim to be one of the only people ever to have been kicked out of the Episcopal Church!

“May his memory be eternal.”

That summer, under Father Peter’s direction *, with His Eminence Metropolitan Philip’s blessing, we gathered a group of people intending to form a new Orthodox mission here in the north suburbs of Milwaukee. In September 1989, His Grace Bishop Antoun came, and we founded our Orthodox mission church.

  • Several years later I thanked him for his clear guidance, every step of the way. He answered: “I had no idea what I was doing. You were my first trial case!”

Where had Saint Nicholas been all this time? Obviously working behind the scenes, testing my faith. For now he re-emerged:

Father Thomas Hopko, who had been of enormous help to me but knew nothing of my Saint Nicholas connection, sent us an icon with a relic of Saint Nicholas – which is now embedded in our altar at Saint Nicholas Church.

When we had grown sufficiently to take a name, Metropolitan Philip named us Saint Nicholas Church.

In 1994 we bought a former Lutheran church building. After we made it fit for Orthodox worship, we decided to begin services on the next major feast day – which turned out to be Saint Nicholas Day.

I learned to call on Saint Nicholas for help. When we needed young families, I asked Saint Nicholas. Within about two weeks, they began to arrive.

One time suddenly something almost threatened the existence of the parish. I immediately went to church, lit a candle before Saint Nicholas and bribed him with $50 – or was it $100? Within a few hours the problem cleared up.

When we’ve needed money it has always shown up, sometimes in the most unexpected ways, so that one early treasurer named it “the Saint Nicholas factor”, and so we have called it ever since.

Most surprising to me personally was this: Khouria Dianna and I went to Milwaukee Irish-Fest (said to be the world’s largest Irish festival) and in one tent I found a chart showing the origin of family names. My mother was a “Collins”, a diminutive of Ni-COL-as!

For almost 34 years, we at Saint Nicholas Church, Cedarburg, have put a lot of work and love, our heart and soul, into the place. But from the beginning, I have never had a doubt that this is “Saint Nicholas’ Church”, not ours, that he has put it here for a purpose. And that is why I have never been able to worry about the future of this church. On a human level there has sometimes been cause to worry, but I just have not been able to do it – because I know he is running the show here. Not us.

His icon – which to me, at least, is a wonderworking icon – always sits in honor at the entrance to his church, Saint Nicholas’ Church. Because he was being kissed out of existence, we finally (after this picture was taken) had to enclose him in glass.

His expression doesn’t change any more. To me he always looks just… satisfied.

Next Week: Blessed Musa of Rome, and Saint Brendan the Navigator

Week after next: Up?

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