I passed by it every day enroute to work. The small sign at the entrance to the business park on Highway 305 – St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church. There it was along with signage about a hot yoga business, a Crossfit facility and an auto repair shop. Then it moved but was still on my daily driving route. Now the sign was was posted at the Breidablick Hall, the old rural community building that was most recently used for square dancing and an occasional wedding. Also burials since a cemetery established in 1904 was on the property. St Elizabeth Orthodox Church. What would an Orthodox church be doing an a community largely settled by Scandinavian Lutherans?
I’ve traveled a lot in countries where the Orthodox religion was a significant part of the country’s history and culture. Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Greece, Albania and Macedonia all have ancient, ornate churches steeped in tradition. The Orthodox religion claims to be the oldest Christian church, its roots going back to 33 AD. For its first thousand years the church was run from five centers called Patriarchs located in Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), Alexandria in Egypt and the ancient city of Antioch in Greece. The Roman Patriarch broke away in 1054 AD to form what is now the Catholic Church. In 988 AD, Orthodox missionaries made their way to Russia and then in 1794 the first Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived on Kodiak Island, Alaska to introduce the religion to the North American continent. Today the church is a single body with self-governing entities: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox and Orthodox Church in America. St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church is part of the Orthodox Church of America, but it’s roots come from those Russian Orthodox missionaries.
It’s patron saint, St. Elizabeth was a German princess who married into the Russian royal family and converted to the Orthodox religion. As Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (1864-1918) she saw her husband assassinated, gave away all of her possessions and became an Abbess in an Orthodox convent. In 1918 she was executed by Russia’s new Communist government.
St Elizabeth Church was having a a Christmas Eve service open to the public (as are all of its services). In advance of Christmas Eve I convinced my not particularly religious dinner guests that we should attend. We asked Google if there was any protocol we needed to know. It advised modest dress for men and women (no tank tops, short skirts, cleavage or tight pants). St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church maintains a very informative website with links that explain their Christmas Eve service called Christmas Vigil. Earlier in the day was the celebration of the Eve of Nativity which includes the tradition of Vale, a twelve course dinner served just before the Vigil service begins. Though we opted out of the church’s Vale, it was still in progress when we arrived. From the moment we set foot in the door we were graciously greeted, invited to join the holy supper and to participate in the choir’s practice of familiar Christmas carols for the next day.
After the meal, the lights were darkened and everyone entered the nave (the part of the church where the congregation assembles) which was lit with candles that were reflected in the many Orthodox icons displayed all over the room.
Though not made of ancient stone and minus the domes, rotundas and murals found in older Orthodox churches, the wooden, square, former square dance hall in Breidablick has been magically transformed into an Orthodox setting. St. Elizabeth’s has a fundraising plan to eventually build a more traditional church on the site which they purchased five years ago.
There is an iconstasis, the carved and painted partition that separates the sanctuary from the nave. There are large icons, particularly of the patron, St Elizabeth. The clergy wore traditional vestments that changed throughout the service and the tiny choir had glorious voices for coming from such a small congregation.
What we didn’t read in our research was that we needed to stand for the two full hours of the service. Or what we could and couldn’t do about the icons and the communion. However, we were each given a very informative pamphlet as everyone extended their goodbyes to us, First Visit to an Orthodox Church: 12 Things I Wish I’d Known. It explains:
- You stand up for the whole service. As the pamphlet emphasizes, “Really.” Many Orthodox churches have no pews and only a few chairs scattered about for those who can’t stand. St. Elizabeth had pews arranged in a U shape around the iconstasis and I ultimately sat for half of the service – who knew two hours of standing was so hard?
- It is appropriate to kiss the icons though only on the feet and hands of the image.
- Everyone has communion. A portion of the loaf of bread is soaked in wine which is reserved for attendees who have been baptized into the church. The remainder of the loaf is blessed by the priest and distributed to everyone attending.
Perhaps the most impressive thing I learned was how this Russian Orthodox influenced church is part of the greater Poulsbo and Kitsap community. Founded in 2001, it’s the first and only Orthodox church in the county. Beyond its informative and up-to-date website (source of all my photos) St Elizabeth Orthodox Church maintains an active Facebook page. It also has a booth at the Kitsap County Fair and during Poulsbo’s May Viking Fest celebration.
Did I ever find out how a Russian Orthodox church ended up in a community pioneered by Scandinavian Lutherans? No. I never asked. I’m sure there’s an answer, but frankly I don’t need to know. I’m celebrating our growing diversity and inclusivity here on the western shores of Puget Sound and its enough to know the welcoming St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church is emblematic of that.