Unfortunately, we cannot be present for today’s celebration. We are in Minneapolis for the ordination to the priesthood of our son Gregory. Gregory grew up in St. Stephen. He was our first baptism in the Fern Park church in 1976.
I will never forget the house we bought in December of 1975 that was to become our first church. The house was not in a declining area but the house looked as if it were in a slum area. It was filthy and stank. The front porch was covered with chicken wire. Barbara cleaned the building. Fortunately, we had a carpenter as one of those early members. He removed the wall between the living room and bed room to be used as our first church. He could not remove the studs because it was a bearing wall. It was later replaced with a bean to support the roof. This carpenter also built our altar table. It was built with no nails, but with wooden pegs. It is a perfect cube, one meter on all sides. It is the same altar table we still use today.
The county inspector determined the electrical wiring was not up to code for the house to be used as a church. Watson Ealy, my father, saved us thousands of dollars by rewiring the house and putting in all new electrical outlets at his own expense. The first Liturgy was served on a kitchen table in the altar area, entrances were made at the Liturgy through studs that remained from the wall. The icons of Christ and the Theotokos were placed on chairs to act as our iconostasis. All liturgical items were borrowed because we had nothing only a building, a priest and people. The choir consisted of Three people, Barbara, Mary Milanovich and Mary King. There were eleven people at Vespers the evening before, the only absentee of our small group was Mary King who traveled about 90 miles to come to church. It is she who donated our first chalice. All twelve were present for the Sunday Liturgy. The oldest person in this small group was Nancy Evanich, probably in her 70’s. The youngest were the only two children, Nicholas Ealy 3 and Taisia Ealy 1½. The rest of the parishioner’s age was 40 and above
Our beginning was not without a serious problem. Probably the most serious problem I had a priest at St Stephen. Before I agreed to come to Orlando, Fr. George and I met with a small group of people at the home of Fr. Peter Milanovich. There was another family present who was not with us when we moved into our Church in January. The father of that family, Steve, was the treasurer of the small remaining OCA group and was the only signature to the small checking account of the St. George OCA. He was present at that meeting when I set my conditions to come to Orlando. The conditions I set forth were: We set aside any plans St. George OCA had of suing the Syrian Orthodox Church to return two parcels of land and other items that belong to St. George OCA. The second condition was we must have our own building to serve as our first church. The third condition was that I must find employment because the present church was not able to pay a salary. Everyone agreed. When we found the building to be used for our first church Steve decided that he was going to use the little funds we had to initiate a suit against the Syrian group. He would not allow any money from the $1300 in our treasury to be used for the purchase of the new building on South Street in Fern Park. That was remedied when our small group in a meeting relieved him as treasurer and got change of signature cards for the checking account from the bank. Three men signed and took his authority away to sign checks. Steve knew the chancellor of the New York – New Jersey Diocese of which we were part of at that time. He contacted the chancellor who sided with him and came to Florida speaking only to him. The chancellor froze our funds. We could not buy the house for our church. Fr. George came to the rescue. He had Christ the Saviour purchase the house in its name. The down payment of $300 for the house, $100.00 each, was made by Fr. George, Fr. Peter Milanovich, and Fr. John Ealy. I was finally officially assigned in January 1976.
Our early growth was slow, but after one year our growth increased our numbers. The increase was good with converts and other Orthodox Christians in the area. Nearly 100% of our members helped with all the work that needed to be done around the church. The ladies cleaned the church every Monday. Children and men mowed the lawn. By the late 70’s we had to increase the size of the interior. The porch was removed, and a vestibule was added and the kitchen and bathroom next to the altar were removed. The men and children helped in this work. At that time our coffee hour after Liturgy was held on a leaky carport attached to the building. Another parishioner, Angelo Kovacs, tore down the carport and added a social hall with a new kitchen. Again, all the work done by the people. Everyone pitched in to help. We had a lot of debris from all this construction. There was no trash collection and we could not afford a dumpster. Our parking lot was all grass and sand. The men dug huge holes around the edge of the parking lot and all the debris from the construction was buried on the property.
In these early years, out of necessity, we had bake sales at local malls and Fiesta in the Park and dinners cooked by the women and men in the parish. Barbara and I baked 80 to 100 loaves of bread every Thursday. When I came home at 3:00 p.m. from teaching on Friday, all the bread was sold. All this was necessary in the beginning because we had bills we had to pay and our Sunday collections were not that good. Our people needed education about tithing. Our income that first year was about $7000.00, half of that income came from fund raisers and bread sales.
God has always blessed St. Stephen from the very beginning. Everything seemed to be working against us. But God blessed us with people who took ownership in the church and people who came to the Liturgical services and did all the work around the church. Nearly everyone came to all the Liturgical Services. After years of education people began to tithe or at least increase their money offerings. We encouraged but never put pressure on anyone to tithe 10%. The Lord has always blessed St. Stephen with converts. From 1977 until 2000 forty-seven converts were received into the Orthodox Church by Chrismation or by Baptism and Chrismation.
One of the most remarkable events showing how God works through the sacramental life in the Church was the temporary healing of Nina. Nina was an alcoholic. She was a heavy drinker and the alcohol was destroying her liver and damaging the lining on her digestive system. Her sister-in-law, who attended St. Stephen, informed me she was in the hospital. I went to see her and talked to her doctor who told me there was no possibility of her surviving the night. I could not believe what I saw when I entered the room. I thought I was too late and she was already dead. I did the Sacrament of Holy Unction. I left awaiting the word that she had died. No word came so I went to the hospital the next afternoon after teaching. To my great surprise she was sitting up, all tubes removed, and she was talking. The doctor could not understand why the transformation. I did. Nina came back to church and went to confession and back to the Eucharist. She was there for Holy Week and Pascha. She fell asleep in the Lord before Pentecost.
The absolute and most perfect days of my being at St. Stephen were serving the Liturgy for and with the people. And many people came to all the Liturgical services. We had at least 50+ people for Saturday Vigils at our old church in Fern Park when our numbers were about 75. We always had a lot of children present at Vigil. At the end of vigil, the children gathered around Father and we had discussions about the Church. Our attendance was equally as good our new church in Longwood. The celebration of these liturgies were excellent days for the parish. In addition to Vigils and Divine Liturgy for major and minor Feast Days, Holy Week was fully served, Prefeast of Nativity and Theophany was served. After I stopped teaching school daily matins as served on Monday and Thursday, during Lent daily Matins on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, a surprisingly good number of people came for these Matins at 7:00 a.m. Other great spiritually uplifting days for the parish were the retreats conducted by Frs. Thomas Hopko and Paul Lazor, and the one conducted by Fr. Michael Oleska. These retreats began in 1979 or 80 and continued yearly until 1994. Our teen retreats conducted by the teens with Fr. John Matusiak, as their advisor in the late 80’s and early 90’s, were extremely spiritually uplifting and a learning experience about their life in the Church. The teens from those retreats, now in their 40’s, influenced them to remain faithful to the Church.
I am now in my 85th year of life and a priest for forty-seven years, twenty-seven of them serving St. Stephen and still at St. Stephen after retiring in 2002.
By the grace of God, I was fortunate to be at St. Vladimir’s Seminary when three great Orthodox theologians were teaching there, Father Alexander Schmemann, Fr. John Meyendorf, and Father Thomas Hopko. My liturgical formation is due to my having Father Alexander Schmamann as my teacher. It is this wisdom that I pass on to St. Stephen.
The Church is the Kingdom of God in this world and we are the Church when we gather liturgically. The first and main purpose of the Church is not raising money, having various social gatherings, having meetings, various ministries etc. These things may not be bad in themselves, but when they become the focus of our church life, they are bad because they are not what the church is about. The purpose of the Church is to gather liturgically to pray, to praise God in Trinity, to worship and to hear His word and to take this liturgical experience, God’s love and wisdom out into our daily lives. We are called, priest and people, to Celebrate the Liturgy prayerfully and reverently, not simply rattle it off to get it over with. All liturgical services are the work of God’s people, not only the priest. The people are concelebrants. The priest cannot do the liturgy privately without the people. Always pray the prayers so they are heard and understood. Only then can the people say Amen to that prayer. Say, sing, and chant the Liturgy prayerfully and reverently. Remember time is not important when we are in the Kingdom of God because we are beyond time in the Kingdom. Remember Liturgy is always “Heaven on Earth.” “Christ is in our midst” and where He is present, so is His Kingdom. For us as Orthodox Christians, there is no better place to be on this earth.
Let me tell you a story about one of the “shortest” Liturgy that I ever attended. It was served by Bishop Nicholas of Miami. It was the Sunday of the Cross during Lent. The Bishop ordained a deacon and a priest at that Liturgy. In addition, it was St. Basil’s Liturgy with the procession of the Cross, the way only the Antiochians do it. The bishop prayerfully and reverently, not rushing, read and chanted all the prayers out loud. Matins began at 9:00 a.m. The Divine Liturgy followed. My experience that morning was that I was in the Kingdom of God. When I looked at my watch when we went in the hall for lunch. It was 1:15 p.m. This was one of the shortest liturgies I ever attended. Why? Because it was a prayerful reverent celebration, not rattled off to get it over with as quickly as possible. At this Liturgy you experienced where you are, in the Kingdom. My prayer for St. Stephen is that this experience grows every time we gather for the church’s liturgy and that it is a prayerful reverent celebration.
Priest and people need grow liturgically together. How? According to Fr. Schmemann it requires good liturgical teaching. This is the duty of the priest.
There are two great articles by Fr. Schmemann that appeared in the St. Vladimir’s Quarterly in the 1960’s, “The Liturgical Problems of Orthodoxy,” and “The Spiritual Problems of Orthodoxy.” They are worth reading and studying. They apply today to our church problems as they did in the 1960s and maybe even more so today. The people at St. Stephen who have the desire to grow liturgically and spiritually, would benefit greatly from a study of these two documents.
-Reverend Father John Ealy