|In 1996, two Orthodox priests, one from the Orthodox Church in America and one from the Greek Diocese, and a handful of founding members undertook building an Orthodox Church in Tuolumne County, a rural area in California's gold country. It was a daunting task. There are few models for such a collaborative effort, and the founders, who had no meeting space and limited resources, had not undertaken mission work before. Yet the Orthodox Christian Mission of Sonora has itself become a model of a successful collaboration between Orthodox jurisdictions. The mission now owns its own building, celebrates liturgy, instructs catechumens, teaches inquiry classes and serves a congregation drawn from three counties, with members of varied ethnic Orthodox backgrounds as well as converts from Protestant churches. The mission's history is significant because of the remarkable individual stories of which it is made and the extent of the collaboration found at the heart of its practical achievements.
Dr. William Craig, a graduate of an Episcopal theological seminary and an expert on the life and writings of the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, served as an Episcopal minister for 54 years. He was dean of the New Orleans Episcopal cathedral, an honorary cannon of the Episcopal cathedral in Salina, Kansas and served six years on the national Executive Council before moving to Tuolumne County where he served as an interim pastor for years before converting to Orthodox Christianity. Dr. Craig explains his and his now late wife, Mary-Eliot's, conversion to Orthodoxy as "a return to something very close to the teachings of the Episcopal Church before that denomination declined from its old standards of faith and morals." The Annunciation (Greek Orthodox) Church in Modesto was the nearest Orthodox church. It exemplified what attracted the couple to Orthodoxy, as Mary-Eliot explained in a memo, "(with) its liturgy, full attendance of adults, large numbers of children, and what is felt as an attentive and devout atmosphere..." the Church feels to me to be the answer to a desire for a life of religious meaning."
Dr. Craig voiced their concern about Annunciation Church in his journal of the time, "the nearest Orthodox church is far from where we live; nobody can expect us to worship there every Sunday." The concern contrasted sharply with the couple's desire to attend each week and it coincided with his musing about how he could best serve his new Church. He had determined that he ought not seek Orthodox priestly ordination, "But as a layman?" he wondered if he could be instrumental in helping establish an Orthodox Church in Tuolumne County. In late 1996, Dr. Craig queried Annunciation's new long-range planning committee about an assistant-priest who would be able to devote some time to help develop a church in Tuolumne County. Father Jon Magoulias's response was positive as he envisioned a mission that would be "like a daughter to the Annunciation, supported and trained by her mother (the Parish), growing up using her own language, which would be English." By early 1996, the Parish Council had incorporated the idea into its long-range plans.
Alex and Natalie Teshin moved to Sonora in 1995. Their only misgiving about the move was how far they would be required to travel to worship in an Orthodox Church. Upon moving, they became affiliated with St. Mary Magdalene in Merced, an OCA mission. Though the Merced mission answered their immediate need for Orthodox worship in the region and they enjoyed their affiliation with it as they had known Fr. Jonah Paffhausen for many years, they found the drive a serious obstacle especially during the winter. In early 1996, Fr. Jonah learned of Dr. Craig and his interest in a church for Tuolumne County from Fr. Jon at Annunciation. At Fr. Jonah's urging, Natalie called Dr. Craig who recollects, the "conversation quickly turned into a long, pleasant visit."
The Teshins and Craigs foresaw that using English and having two priests of different Orthodox ethnicities would help to break the ice for prospective members of a new church. Asked if the group had a clear idea of how to proceed from the outset, Natalie laughs as she exclaims, "No! (Alex and I) had always gone to church where the choir sang and the priest celebrated liturgy. We undertook it with 'fear and trembling'!" In May of 1996 both priests and fifteen people met at the Teshins' home. After talking at length about the project, it was evident that the cooperation between the OCA and Greek priests was warm and genuine. It was also evident that the participation of both would play a critical role in establishing the mission. Looking back Natalie is certain that two key elements of the mission's success have been the model and structure provided by the OCA's Mission Deanery led by Fr. Ian McKinnon, and the Annunciation's encouragement and ability to direct the new group to needed resources.
Fr. Tom Renfree, the mission's current pastor, agrees collaboration has been the key. He identifies the strengths of the OCA's mission program, as sensitivity to the need for worship close to home, flexibility and its provision (even to groups in small communities) of both the authority to establish under the OCA's auspices and initial clergy support. He notes that the guidance of Fr. Ian, Dean of the OCA's Mission Deanery, has been important to the mission as well. In addition to being instrumental in securing permission for Fr. Tom to serve as the mission's pastor in the fall of 1997 when Fr. Jonah left Merced, Fr. Ian offered the fledgling group a realistic overview of what's involved in mission work and practical step-by-step plans for implementing the vision. Fr. Ian is able to "prepare [new mission groups] for the long haul and encourages them with a sure vision rather than sugar coating a picture of what lies ahead," says Fr. Tom. But Fr. Tom is also quick to point out that Annunciation Church has played a vital role in the mission's vision and development.
From the outset, the Craigs and the Teshins worked with Fr. Jon and Fr. Jonah to identify potential members in the communities of the region, breaking them into two groups: Orthodox who had ties to the Church, but who had dropped out due to distance or other reasons, along with those persons of ethnic Orthodox backgrounds who had expressed interest in an Orthodox church closer than the San Joaquin Valley; and those of non-Orthodox backgrounds/ethnicity who were interested in Orthodoxy, provided it was local enough to allow them to find their way into it. The group began with social activities to allow prospective members to meet and then progressed to a search for a space and plans for offering Orthodox liturgy.
The group sought permission from St. Michael's Episcopal Church to conduct Orthodox Liturgy or Vespers as St. Michael's schedule allowed. When the request was ultimately denied, Fr. Michael Kelly, pastor of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Sonora, came to the rescue and offered the group the use of Historic St. Anne's Church in Columbia State Park. Christian Orthodox worship began in Tuolumne County through the mission group at St. Anne's in August of 1996. The historic event was a blessing and an immediate challenge. St. Anne's lacked space for fellowship, air conditioning (summers in the gold country can simmer above 100!) and indoor plumbing. However, it had heat for winter and it was a beginning. Judy Wilder, one of St. Anne's committee members, helpfully pointed out the new outdoor privy and volunteered to open up the windows on nights before summer services.
Chief obstacles, now, included limitations imposed by St. Anne's itself and the lack of a second Priest or Deacon to allow for activities when Fr. Tom was unavailable. The stewards of St. Anne's allowed the mission group to store many of its decorative items and liturgical supplies on site, but each service required a lengthy set up and take down. It was virtually impossible to evoke a sense of homecoming in the space or to establish a dedicated, traditional Orthodox worship environment as everything had to be portable and removed.
Fellowship, crucial to encouraging relationships and new members, was hindered by not being held on the premises. Even committed worshipers had to overcome feeling transient in the space. For some first-time visitors fellowship requiring formal planning and the commitment of leaving the church and making one's way to meet the group at a restaurant was an intimidating obstacle. Scheduling posed a further challenge to evangelism. As mission members worked to raise community awareness and encourage attendance, they could not declare their location and invite the community to attend services. Invitations were burdened with reminders of the first-and-third-Sundays-schedule and further qualified in case of changes in St. Anne's calendar or Fr. Tom's assignments. This was a particular issue for community members who remembered an earlier group's attempt to found a local mission. Many equated "irregular" services with instability and were reluctant to become involved. The mission's members began to dream of a home of their own and the ability to offer consistent, weekly activities.
Meantime, Deacon Elias Union of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, his Matushka, Anna, and their daughter, Elizabeth, were looking for a community in which to re-locate their family and newly acquired business. Weary of the pace of engineering work and life in Sillicon Valley, the Unions had recently purchased San Jose Candle Company which has been manufacturing church candles and offering church supplies since 1947. The Unions' search for a new home which would nurture and afford opportunities for service, family and business led them to the gold country of the Sierra Foothills. In Tuolumne County God matched the chance to live and work in a rural community with the opportunity to assist and worship in a vital Orthodox mission. While commuting between the home they had rented temporarily in Tulloch Lake and St. Anne's, Anna noticed a site she felt was full of potential for the mission.
The space was ideal: a former retreat center featuring a large hall for worship, an adjacent kitchen/hall for fellowship, ample living quarters for a priest and his family, additional room for accommodating guests or classes or meetings, appropriate zoning, adequate parkingall just outside the town of Sonora. As the group began to consider the possibility of making an offer, the realtor informed them that the property was in escrow. Deacon Elias remembers Alex Teshin saying, "Well if the Lord wants us to have [the space] maybe we'll get it the next time it comes on the market." Four months later, the realtor called the Unions with the news that the sale had fallen through and the question, "Are you still interested?" Deacon Elias and his family acted as buyers, solving the mission's dilemma of how to go about structuring the purchase and simultaneously solving their own need for housing.
Late in 1999 the entire parish council of The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church of Modesto came to visit the Mission in its new location. The Annunciation's Council's subsequent generous donations and loans of liturgical supplies allowed the mission to begin turning a simple hall into a true house of Orthodox worship. A few months later, Deacon Elias received permission from the Antiochian Archdiocese to serve the Orthodox Christian Mission of Sonora. This permission enabled the mission to reach its long-held goal of offering services every Sunday by alternating Liturgy celebrated by Fr. Tom with readers' services led by Deacon Elias. As the mission prepared for its first Pascha, supplies and loaned items came from as far away as Las Vegas.
In July of 2005 St. Susanna Mission had been blessed with the arrival of our first full-time Rector, Fr. Andrew Jacobs. Fr. Andrew came to us after graduating from St. Tikhon's Seminary, along with his wife Matushka Elizabeth and his children Alexander and Allysa-Anna.
As a mission it is quite an adjustment to have a full time priest. After nine years of Liturgies every other week, we are now finally able to have a full complement of services. Not only do we celebrate Liturgy every Sunday, we now have weekly Vespers and are able to celebrate all major feasts.
Each week reveals yet more work to be undertaken "with fear and trembling" and, simultaneously, opportunities to marvel at what is possible, what has been accomplished through Divine will and the collaborative efforts of so many, and an affirmation of how much the work of this mission is needed.
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