Mystery Worshipper: The Aussie Worshipper
Church: Holy Trinity Sobor
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 July 2006, 10:00am
This is the oldest Orthodox church in Winnipeg and was the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Canada for many years. Its architecture is typical of the Russian and Ukranian style of churches, with several onion-like domes and the Eastern Orthodox style cross on all the domes. Not too big, but not too small either.
The Russian Orthodox Church gained a foothold in America in 1794 when missionaries from Russia arrived in Alaska. The church thrived primary in the western regions of Canada and the United States. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Patriarch of Moscow encouraged dioceses outside of Russia to become autonomous. In the early 1960s, the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America (as it called itself) began a dialog with the mother church, and in 1970 entered into communion once again with the Moscow Patriarchate, which promptly granted it administrative self-governance. Today, the Orthodox Church in America numbers some 700 parishes, missions, communities, monasteries, and institutions throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. At Holy Trinity Sobor, the congregation seemed to be primarily in their 60s and 70s, with only three or four children and a handful of people under 30. They do, however, sponsor a church school, choir, and a women's group known as Sisterhood of the Holy Myrrh-Bearers. Services are conducted in Church Slavonic and in English.
Winnipeg is the capital of Manitoba province and has the dubious honor of being one of the coldest large cities in the world, infamous for its long, snowy winters. Holy Trinity Sobor is in a typical working-class suburban area of the city's north end. This where the first Russian, Ukranian and Polish settlers made their homes, as did many other Eastern Europeans. There are several Polish butchers around, a Polish Catholic church and parish centre, and a Hungarian social hall and religious association.
The Very Rev. Anatoliy Melnyk, rector, and Protodeacon Raphael Cole.
What was the name of the service?Divine Liturgy
How full was the building?
There were about 50 chairs, and all were taken. The building was full, with some people standing at the back and upstairs in the choir gallery.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
My initial reception was a bit stiff. A gentleman selling candles asked me in Russian if I was Russian, and I replied in English that no, I am Greek. He then said "Welcome" and smiled as I paid him for a candle. But after the service he seemed friendlier (see below). There was also one older woman seated on the other side of where I was, and she seemed to be smiling and nodding at almost everyone in the church, including me.
Was your pew comfortable?
Instead of pews, there were rows of chairs that were oversized versions of typical wooden school chairs. They were comfortable enough. I was surprised to find any kind of seating, as this is an older Orthodox church. Not that we sat all that much, as we stood for most of the service.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A cantor was chanting something in Church Slavonic and English in front of an icon, but no one was paying much attention. In general, the few people that were already there seemed pretty chatty. People who were arriving were generally buying candles and lighting them and kissing the icons.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
People were still chatting as the service began, and there was no microphone, so I couldn't make out the opening words. But then I heard "O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouths shall show forth thy praise," and for a moment I was whisked back in time to our high school Anglican services.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None at all. Very few people said or sang anything, and what lips I did see moving, moved without the aid of any book or service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
None at all. The choir sang a capella from the gallery, in typical Orthodox fashion. The Orthodox believe that musical instruments are a distraction from worship with one's whole being.
Did anything distract you?
In an unpleasant sense, I found it hard to hear properly without any microphone, and the fact that the service alternated between Church Slavonic and English made my mind wander every now and then. This was not at all helped by a woman who kept translating the Church Slavonic parts into English for a companion of hers, which I fould really annoying especially during the sermon. Also, although I am Orthodox, I am not Russian Orthodox, and so I wasn't sure if I would be welcome at Holy Communion. But in a pleasant sense, the beautiful icons all over the place and the paintings on the roof, some of which were still in progress, made me constantly look up and try to read the inscriptions of saints' names.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I would have to stay stiff-upper-lip but in a good way. The Orthodox divine liturgy could be compared to the high mass of the Catholic and Anglican churches, yet it is much different. And at the end of the service, everyone lined up to receive a piece of blessed bread, first kissing the crucifix that the priest held, and then his hand.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – It was all in Russian, but we were handed an English translation after the service on our way out.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The saints put matters of the spirit first, whereas modern society does just the opposite. If we follow the gospel, then we challenge all the crudity and barbarianism of the modern world. Spiritual values prove that the only true revelation is that which occurs in individual human lives and societies as a whole, when human hearts and souls put the spiritual first.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Pretty much all of it. I would have to say that this was one of the most beautiful and godly services I have ever been to. The choir sang in perfect harmony. If I were to picture angels singing, it would be as I heard the choir today. It was amazing!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I ended up not taking Holy Communion. And the translation lady annoyed me to the point where I began giving her dirty looks. I couldn't stand it!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The candle seller made some small talk, and when I told him I was new to Canada he welcomed me again and said it would be nice if I returned to church, where I would be more than welcome.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee was being served in the church hall, but unfortunately I couldn't stay as I had another commitment.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – It's such a beautiful church. The fact that English is used in most of the service would be a plus. And the choir sounds so wonderful that to hear them every Sunday would be divine.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, definitely did. There are times where I stray and don't want to be anywhere near an Orthodox church, yet this one seems to be pulling me there. The liturgy was wonderful and made me appreciate Christianity.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
It was a tough one between the two here, but I couldn't decide on one. So I'll have to say the beautiful icons throughout the church and on the roof inside, and the heavenly and angelic voices of the choir.