[Ft Worth, TX - St Barbara Orthodox Church]
On Saturday and Sunday, August 23 and 24, parishioners and friends of St. Barbara Orthodox Church in Ft. Worth, Texas hosted His Eminence Archbishop Nikon for his first pastoral visit to the parish. The following are highlights of his visit to Cowtown which proved to be a most memorable experience for the local community.
Although His Eminence was tired on Saturday, getting up at 2 am CST to catch a flight out of Connecticut, he appeared most eager to visit with Ft. Worth parishioners that afternoon and evening. A private meeting with the Archbishop was scheduled at 3:30 pm at the Church with the Parish Council. As he was driven up to the front of the building just prior to the meeting, the Council members' greeting of His Eminence was quite touching as they lined up in the vestibule (entry way) to receive his blessing. Also awaiting the Archbishop in the vestibule of St. Barbara's hall was a large 4 foot chalk board on an ornate metal easel with a decorative greeting: "A Hearty Texas Welcome to Archbishop Nikon, 2014." In front of the easel was a lovely bouquet of bluebonnets, and next to the easel a 3 foot stand on which sat an adult saddle. To the right of the saddle was a table with a beautifully framed painting of a long horn steer -- later presented to His Eminence along with a set of spurs -- as well as additional Texas theme decorations, the St. Barbara guest book and introductory brochures. The bulk of the Texas ornaments and thematic dishware were brought out of love by parishioners from their homes, to be used during this special event.
The meeting with the Council was informal with various questions asked of the Archbishop ranging from matters related to the Assembly of American Orthodox Bishops, to activities at St. Barbara's and Council members' conversions to Orthodoxy. Each person had a personal story of discovery to relate to His Eminence. Each story ended in a similar fashion; a heartfelt decision to "come home" spiritually, having found the Orthodox Christian Faith.
The meeting ended just after 4:30 pm, at which time preparations were made for 5 pm Great Vespers. The service went smoothly, the choir sounded very nice. Vespers was followed by a lovely Texas buffet reception, complete with BBQ, King Ranch Casserole and all the fixin's: Tex Mex Beans, potato salad, cole slaw, apple pie, peach cobbler, chips and salsa, homemade cookies, sweet tea, sodas and coffee. The tables were decorated with Western theme red, white and blue table cloths and bouquets of bluebonnets, as well as vases and cowboy boots with Texas floral arrangements, along with metal "lone stars" and a small decorative chalk board on which was printed the evening's menu.
Near the end of the meal His Eminence presented a brief historical and anecdotal talk concerning Archbishop Dmitri (Royster), the founding Hierarch of the Diocese of the South, Orthodox Church in America. One particular recollection focused on Archbishop Dmitri's pastoral sensitivity. His Eminence related how in May of 1975, (then) Bishop Dmitri of Hartford and New England for the OCA was appointed locum tenens of the Albanian Archdiocese. Archbishop Nikon stressed that, "Bishop Dmitri was sensitive to the fact that he would be overseeing temporarily a diocese whose practices were often closer to the Byzantine, Greek and other Mediterranean Orthodox traditions, and different from what His Grace had been used to. During his five year tenure, however, Bishop Dmitri never once sought to impose his own preferences on the Albanian flock. On the contrary he sought to intensify some traditions, new to him, that he thought to be valuable."
After providing several additional anecdotal reminiscences, Archbishop Nikon then entertained questions on various topics from the approximately 50 people gathered. The evening ended officially at about 8:45 pm, with clean up afterwards. Although people were tired, and anticipating the Liturgy and celebration that was to begin in less than fourteen hours, everyone worked into the evening to prepare for those activities, joining in lively conversations as well. The cleaning and preparation crews extended themselves throughout the week working hard to see that the building was as clean as possible for the visit of our father in Christ. Greeters as well offered their customary and friendly welcome to visitors, marking the importance of this event for the parish, as did the kitchen and food staffs.
Sunday morning the Archbishop arrived at the door of St. Barbara's at 9:30 am and was greeted with a bouquet of flowers, as well as bread and salt, traditional signs of hospitality and welcome. The Cross too was offered to him for veneration, with all three presenters delivering personal greetings to His Eminence on behalf of the parish.
As the Deacon intoned, "Wisdom," the choir began to sing, "It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos..." while the Archbishop and servers processed to the front of the Church, the Deacon chanting the customary Entrance prayers. After blessing the people His Eminence entered the Sanctuary (Altar area) through the Royal Doors, and there he vested for the start of the Liturgy, while the 3rd and 6th Hours were chanted.
The Archbishop began the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at 10 am from the center of the Church. Over 120 people participated in the service, lending their voices to those of the choir. The Archbishop preached on the Gospel concerning the Unforgiving Servant: Matthew 18: 23-35. He ended his homily with a striking image from the prophet and Psalm 66, of God as a Silversmith, Who purifies us in the fires of life, and Who knows when the process has reached its desired goal when He is able to see His Own image in us.
Additionally, the "army of Altar servers," as described by the Archbishop, did a remarkable job. Most of them had never served with an Orthodox Hierarch prior to this weekend. Again, the choir did a fantastic job as well, especially considering that some members were under the weather Sunday morning. The Readers for the day chanted exceptionally well. The extra rehearsals during the week for both the choir and servers paid off greatly as the service went smoothly, with minor mistakes by the clergy being corrected and "covered up" by the quick responses of both servers and singers.
Following the Divine Liturgy another delicious Texas theme reception was held in honor of His Eminence. The copious amounts of food offered Saturday night was topped by even more food offered on Sunday afternoon, much of which was prepared and donated by parishioners. With the wide and colorful assortment of meats, salads, desserts and side dishes, the tables were reminiscent of a Paschal (Easter) Agape Meal in the Orthodox Church. Food and kitchen staffs for both Saturday and Sunday wore dark blue aprons embroidered with bluebonnets and Texas theme designs, the work and material donated by a member of St. Barbara's.
Near the end of the Sunday reception the Archbishop blessed the students in the parish for the start of the new School year. He then met with the younger children privately in the Church library. Three teachers and several parents were present also to take pictures and to help if necessary as the children came up with all kinds of questions to ask His Eminence. Archbishop Nikon appeared as a loving grandfather to the kids, who showed no hesitation at all when it came to asking tough questions such as, "What's the bestest thing about being a bishop?" "What's the worst thing about being a bishop?" "Why do you wear a black hat when the Church is dark, but a sparkly hat when the Church is lit up?" "Do you own a horse?" "Why do stand on a rug with an eagle on it?" "Do you wear boots?" "Who made you a bishop? Were you elected?" Initially it was thought that the children would be intimated by the Archbishop's presence, but such was not the case. Their gathering lasted about 45 minutes, was quite enjoyable, and is an activity the parish must repeat the next time His Eminence is able to be with us.
After his meeting with the children, the Archbishop finished packing his suitcases with one of the Readers and was ready for his drive back to DFW Airport. The community was also blessed to have His Eminence's niece with us on Sunday, who offered to take Archbishop Nikon back to the airport in time for his late afternoon flight.
We received final blessings from His Eminence and returned to the Church for final clean up anticipating this week's activities and services.
A large and heartfelt "thank you," is extended to everyone and anyone who helped to prepare for, and who worked throughout the weekend during the visit of Archbishop Nikon. He greatly enjoyed himself and was thrilled to meet parishioners and friends of St. Barbara's.
To an adult on Saturday night who asked, "As a bishop, what would be the one thing that you would want people to know," he answered, "that I love you all." He told the children as well that the best thing about being a bishop are the opportunities he has to visit his various churches and to see members of his flock. In conclusion we might add that one of the most enjoyable things about parish life is the opportunity that we have to host such a father in Christ.
Eis Polla Eti Despota! Many Years Vladika Nikon.