NC’s Orthodox congregation keeps ancient traditions alive
Don’t trust a GPS to find Hagia Sophia Court – it probably won’t work.
Tucked in the thick woods off North Bloomfield Road several miles above Nevada City is the tiny road and what looks more like a shed than a sanctuary.
But inside is a regal chapel lined with iconic portraits of saints. Underfoot is a crimson rug, and elaborate, gold-filigree candelabras are perched atop an altar – all curiosities to a Western eye.
This is Holy Wisdom Orthodox Church, where a small group of worshippers keeps alive a tradition that is scarce in the United States. They say Orthodoxy is the pure, “one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” (using “catholic” to mean universal).
The chapel was constructed five years ago, after parishioners tired of toting religious trappings to and from a room inside the Episcopal church where they were meeting. “Holy Wisdom” is the English translation of the Greek phrase “Hagia Sophia,” and it’s conveniently located across from the home the priest shares with his wife and children.
Sometimes, Father Paul Schmidt is the only one at Sunday services. Other times, 20 people show up for worship. He’s not about to give up his day job as the chief deputy coroner of Nevada County.
“It’s a calling that we do for God, not because it pays anything,” he said.
Schmidt was raised an Episcopalian, but became disillusioned by the church splits and infighting he saw among Protestants.
Then there was the multiplicity of denominations.
“There can’t be 35,000 right answers,” Schmidt said.
Challenged by an Orthodox bishop, he started investigating the history of the church. What he found at the end of the pursuit was Orthodoxy.
“It’s the tradition passed down from the apostles,” he said. He converted about 10 years ago.
If the liturgies and communion in the Orthodox Church look vaguely Catholic, it’s probably because the traditions are the two branches that emerged from the Great Schism in 1054. Western traditions became Roman Catholicism, and the Eastern traditions became Orthodoxy.
Today, the Orthodox Church comprises a number of autonomous traditions, including Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox, which are named for their ethnic affiliation but adhere to virtually the same theology.
With 225 million adherents, Orthodoxy is the second-largest Christian group behind Catholicism, which claims 1.5 billion adherents worldwide.
Here, the closest Orthodox church is in Roseville, and most people Schmidt runs into have no knowledge of the group. If they ask, he tells them to think of the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
For the next few weeks, Holy Wisdom is celebrating Great Lent. The celebration is even more ascetic than the Catholic Church’s. Instead of giving up meat on Fridays, they give up meat, fish and oil entirely – except for Sundays, when oil and wine are allowed “for the fortification of the soul,” he said.
“Beans and tofu become your friend,” Schmidt said. “It’s a time of spiritual reflection and self-cleansing. It’s a time to look at your life and remember the sacrifices of Jesus and how we should live.”
Dressed from head to toe in a black robe and sitting in the ornate chapel, it’s hard to imagine Schmidt in the eminently practical, sometimes gruesome work as a coroner.
While he keeps the two professions separate to respect separation of church and state, his priestly role informs his work as a coroner, he said.
“I deal with a lot of families in the midst of crisis. It’s about dealing with people in a way that’s compassionate,” he said.
It also gives him a daily brush with the brevity of life.
“In Western society, people fear death. In Orthodoxy, we don’t fear death but realize it’s inevitable,” Schmidt said. “I know it’s going to happen to me. I’m mortal. I know I’m going to be judged, and I hope it’s in a good way.”
His decision to convert to Orthodoxy and assume the priesthood has not always been an easy one. There’s the challenge of balancing two jobs, the difficulty of getting people to attend the church, and of course, the fasting.
But he keeps on.
“It’s the feeling that I’m doing the right thing,” he said.
To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail email@example.com or call (530) 477-4247.
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