Serving a Diverse Community

Cultures come together at an Orthodox church in Wisconsin

by Marilyn Raschka

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On a quiet Sunday morning, Dori Panagis is racing down the aisle of a grocery store, gathering as much fresh basil as she can find.

She is not preparing a sauce for an early morning brunch, but rather taking the herb to her church, St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, in the small Wisconsin town of Cedarburg, north of Milwaukee.

The basil will scent the church’s holy water. Ms. Panagis’s mission is especially urgent this day as her church is celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, an important celebration in which flowering basil plays a crucial role.

The feast marks the fourth-century discovery of the true cross of Jesus Christ by the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Empress Helen, who was traveling in the Holy Land to uncover sites associated with the life of Christ.

According to tradition, after weeks of searching for the true cross, St. Helen wandered onto a barren piece of land where she found a tiny flower. She believed this was a sign and ordered her soldiers to dig deep below the spot where the flower bloomed. There they found the three crosses that had borne the bodies of Christ and the two thieves who had died alongside him.

A sick person was brought by St. Helen to the site and laid on the crosses one by one. When the afflicted man was placed on the third cross, he was miraculously healed.

The flower that St. Helen had found was sweet basil, or vasiliko in Greek, the object of Ms. Panagis’s supermarket sweep.

The story of the Wisconsin church – the building, the pastor and the parish – is one of transformation and diversity.

The church was previously owned by Lutherans who had outgrown the building. But the size was just right for St. Nicholas’s congregation, a small community founded in 1989. The congregation moved into the former Lutheran church in 1994.

A simple neo-Gothic hall church, the building lacks architectural elements considered essential to the Orthodox: a central dome and a half dome over the altar. Nevertheless, the interior of the church now has an Orthodox look and feel. The Lutheran communion rail was transformed into an iconostasis, a screen of icons separating the sanctuary from the main area of an Orthodox church.

The church bells come from Greece and were donated in memory of John Philosophos, a member of St. Nicholas.

A circular icon, which depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ, hangs above the altar. Other icons adorn the walls, candles flicker and the smell of incense wafts through the church. The pews remain, but are used much less by the Orthodox, who traditionally stand during services.

Like the physical structure of the church, the pastor is the product of a series of transformations involving diverse spiritual traditions and backgrounds. Father Bill Olnhausen was born a Methodist. He attended a Methodist seminary but left in search of a pre-Reformation form of Christian worship.

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Tags: Unity Orthodox Church Multiculturalism