The following article appeared in the February 11, 2006 edition of the Attleboro Sun Chronicle



Greek revival


MANSFIELD- For the past nine years, the church building housing St. Gregory the Theologian Greek Orthodox parish has been undergoing a kind of conversion.

Since purchasing the property on West Street in late 1996, members have been renovating the former Protestant church into one that suits Orthodox faith and worship. More recently, a 17-foot cross was erected on the exterior front of the building, and a new sign posted at the driveway entrance on West Street.

Both mark this church as Orthodox, especially the Byzantine-style cross that also reflects the involvement of both the faithful and the community. Manufactured by Diaute Bros. of Quincy, the cross was purchased with contributions, given a finishing coat by Pro's Car Care of Mansfield which donated the work, and installed with the help of W. Walsh Co. of Attleboro.

The Rev. Michael Bird of St. Gregory said previously, the building's features were not reflective of an Orthodox church. Now when people drive up, the cross is prominent, he said, and symbolic of the faith practiced within. Simple in design, the cross is devoid of the figure of Christ to focus attention not on the death but on the resurrection that followed.

`` We are a church of the resurrection,'' Bird said.

It is also a church of tradition, yet a very youthful one.

It actually had its roots in 1991 when four Orthodox Christians approached their bishop about starting a church for the many new families settling in the Interstate 95/495 area. Soon others joined, and the following year they rented a small church building in Norwood, then moved to a warehouse in Sharon in 1992 that was later converted to a church.

Bird became the parish's first full-time priest in 1995, and a search was launched for a permanent home. A parishioner learned that the former Assembly of God congregation on West Street had disbanded and put its property up for sale. The parish paid $200,000, began renovating, and moved in on Oct. 1, 1997.

The work continued as the parish worshipped in its new home.

The sanctuary in fact was totally remodeled. Pews were kept, even though they are not traditional in Orthodox worship spaces. But a stairway was removed, ceilings were lowered, an interior dome was installed, balconies were turned into enclosed classrooms, and numerous icons were added.

So were a number of Orthodox features, such as a baptismal font, bishop's throne and chanter's stand, altar table, pulpit, icons and stained glass windows.

Beyond the sanctuary and off the lobby, small additions were built for a new stairway and an elevator, and the parking lot was expanded.

Even with all that work, Bird said, `` it's still not totally the way a church ought to be,'' and more projects are planned.

One aspect will likely never be altered. In the Orthodox tradition, the altar area is located in the eastern end of the church to recall the rising sun and the church's focus on the resurrection. But because of the way this church was designed architecturally, flipping the layout would not be possible, said Bird, who is a licensed architect besides being a priest.

That training came in handy during conversion of a contemporary church full of angles and heights into a more traditional one with curving walls and ornate features.

Many Orthodox priests come from other professions, Bird said, and many are also married because celibacy is a choice they make before ordination. In July, Bird will officiate at the marriage of his son.

It's one of the many traditions that date back to the start of the Orthodox churches in 1054. Before that, all of Christianity was one church, but doctrinal and political conflicts led to a schism, and the Roman Catholic Church formed in the West while Orthodox churches formed in the East.

More than 350 million Christians now belong to Orthodox churches worldwide that are based on the languages and customs of their native countries.

About 220 families belong to St. Gregory's, but the parish mailing list has up to 300. While many of the members are of Greek descent, some are Russian or Albanian or Bulgarian. Greek is spoken minimally, and liturgy is mostly in English, but the church does offer a Greek language school.

Regardless of ethnicity, Bird said, `` anyone can enter and become an Orthodox Christian. You don't have to be Greek to be Greek Orthodox.''

Although the church has much in common theologically with Roman Catholics, it has never taken absolute stands on social issues such as birth control, abortion, divorce and homosexuality as the Vatican has done, and its patriarch does not make pronouncements as the pope does.

`` We never come out across the board and say this is wrong,'' Bird said. `` We always look at every individual as being unique in the eyes of God. We look at every situation, and deal with the hurt and the pain.''

For instance, while the church discourages divorce, it also allows remarriage.

`` The Orthodox Church tries to be a living example of Christ in the world,'' Bird said, and the approach is a pastoral one.

Divine Liturgy is as it was in the early church, he said, and is celebrated only on Sunday, not Saturday, and on major feast days.

Only Orthodox Christians can receive Communion, but unlike Roman Catholics, children can receive Communion from the moment of their baptism.

Women cannot be priests, and girls cannot serve on the altar, but they can be involved in the church in other roles, and some attend the seminary to train for such posts as directors of religious education.

Orthodox churches follow their own calendar that is based on ancient, Gregorian and Jewish calculations, so feasts such as Easter often fall on different dates than in the Catholic Church. But Holy Week is filled with elaborate worship all leading to the resurrection, a focus in the Orthodox faith.

The church also values icons as a way of depicting major events in the life of Christ and of the church, and more of them are planned for the sanctuary at St. Gregory that is already striking in its artistry. Mary and the Christ Child dominate the altar area, and from within the interior dome, Christ looks down on his people.

That image, Bird said, engages children as well as adults, and the dome itself reflects the circle that in Orthodoxy represents the perfection of God.

It's one of the key aspects of the conversion that transformed this church.

`` We've done a lot for being here only a few years,'' Bird said.