The doors aren’t closing at 103-year-old Holy Dormition Cathedral -- they’re opening to new possibilities, says the church’s pastor, the Rev. Paul Waters. Mindful of Holy Dormition’s rich history, but acknowledging a declining membership and church rules that say an unused building must be torn down, Russian Orthodox officials have decided to convert the Macoupin County church and surrounding structures into a monastery.
The doors aren’t closing at 103-year-old Holy Dormition Cathedral -- they’re opening to new possibilities, says the church’s pastor, the Rev. Paul Waters.
Mindful of Holy Dormition’s rich history, but acknowledging a declining membership and church rules that say an unused building must be torn down, Russian Orthodox officials have decided to convert the Macoupin County church and surrounding structures into a monastery.
“Services will still be held at the church, but the property will be a monastery operated by the community of nuns,” Waters said. The monastery also could serve as a site for retreats, community outreach programs and other activities.
Retired engineer Harry Arden, the son of a coal miner, said he and his wife, Millie, are longtime members of Holy Dormition.
“I was baptized and married there. It is a beautiful church. I am glad they are finding other uses for it,” he said.
“Attendance has dwindled,” he said. “The choir loft used to be full. Now there are only two, (myself) and a soprano. I sing tenor. I’ll be 82 in April.”
Only 20 families left
Built by Russian and other Eastern European immigrants attracted to Benld-area mining jobs in the early 1900s, Holy Dormition is a Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
“Thirty-three parishes in the United States are under the Moscow Patriarchate, with our bishop in New York City,” said Waters, the church’s pastor since 1982.
He is being transferred to a church in Michigan, he said, but he will help with the transition.
Russian, formerly spoken during Holy Dormition services, isn’t typically a part of services today. But members’ ties to their Russian ancestors and love of their faith is reflected in the church’s architecture and genealogy.
Residents and tourists to the Benld area, about 45 miles south of Springfield, have long admired the church, which is on old Route 66. Organized in 1907, the church served generations of Benld-area families and weathered the ups and downs of rural life.
But as local coal mines closed and job opportunities disappeared, church membership began to drop, too. At one point, the parish had more than 200 families; today, it has about 20.
The number of funerals being held at Holy Dormition these days easily outnumbers the weddings.
“We only have about one wedding a year. I have conducted 165 funerals over the last 27 years,” Waters said.
Many of the first- and second-generation miners the church served were determined to see their children college-educated, Waters said. Some couldn’t read or write English, but they wanted their children to be educated, so “they scrimped and scraped to make that happen,” he said.
As the youth of the parish became educated and professionally trained, however, many moved from Benld to larger, growing communities.
Historic Macoupin treasure
As Macoupin County officials look to increase tourism and economic development, they hope to generate a new awareness of local historic treasures such as Holy Dormition, according to Shari Albrecht, executive director of the Macoupin County Economic Development Partnership.
In 2007, Holy Dormition received an Illinois Centennial Parish award from the Illinois State Historical Society. The award, which included a dinner at the Executive Mansion in Springfield, nationwide publicity and presentation of a plaque, recognizes 100-year-old churches.
“I am pleased to know that the church will continue to serve the same faith community. It is always sad when a church no longer has an indigenous population,” said William Furry, executive director of the Illinois Historic Society. “The history of these churches is really remarkable.”
The original parishioners are said to have raised $950 to build the first Holy Dormition building, a frame structure that included relics and icons from Russia. A 1915 fire destroyed that church, but members persevered and built the brick structure that stands today.
“Holy Dormition was formed within a few years after the first immigrants started arriving,” Waters said. “It dawned on them that their children did not have the faith and traditions of their Russian Orthodox culture. There was concern about that.”
Exactly when the monastery will open is uncertain. Some, perhaps all, of the nuns could come from Russia, Israel or other countries. With the site being open for retreats and public activities, the monastery could be a boost to economic development, Waters said.
Arden said he and Millie will watch with interest the transformation of the church and grounds.
“We only live two miles away,” he said of the church he’s called home for more than 80 years.
Debra Landis can be reached through the State Journal-Register metro desk at (217) 788-1517.
Orthodox belief holds that the Orthodox Church is Christianity’s true, holy and apostolic church, tracing its origin directly to the institution established by Jesus Christ.
Orthodox beliefs are based on the Bible and on tradition as defined by seven ecumenical councils held by church authorities between A.D. 325 and 787. Orthodox teachings include the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the inseparable but distinguishable union of the two natures of Jesus Christ — one divine, the other human. Among saints, Mary has a special place as the Mother of God.
Russian Orthodox services, noted for their pageantry, involve the congregation directly by using only the vernacular form of the liturgy. The liturgy itself includes elaborate symbols meant to convey the content of the faith to believers. Many liturgical forms remain from the earliest days of Orthodoxy. Icons, sacred images often illuminated by candles, adorn the churches as well as the homes of most Orthodox faithful.
The church also places a heavy emphasis on monasticism. Many of the numerous monasteries that dotted the forests and remote regions of tsarist Russia are in the process of restoration.
The Russian Orthodox Church, like other churches that make up Eastern Orthodoxy, is self-governing. The highest church official is the patriarch. Matters relating to faith are decided by ecumenical councils in which all member churches of Eastern Orthodoxy participate. Followers of the church regard the councils’ decisions as infallible.
Source: http://countrystudies.us/russia/38.htm and the Library of Congress.