The Rev. Joseph Allen, right, leads worshipers during a morning service at St. Anthony's Eastern Orthodox Church in Bergenfield, New Jersey, June 15, 2008. (Peter Monsees/The Record/MCT)
HACKENSACK, N.J. --Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and '40s, Ed Deeb attended a Syrian Orthodox church where members worshiped entirely in Arabic. But by the time Deeb moved to North Jersey in the 1950s, he was ready for a new direction.
He and several other Syrian Orthodox Christians from Brooklyn founded St. Anthony Antiochian Orthodox Church, a congregation that maintained Eastern Orthodox traditions but held its services in English and recruited people of different nationalities.
The approach seemed natural at the time, Deeb said.
"When we were growing up in Brooklyn, our parents were very strong on us becoming Americans," said Deeb, 85, of Mahwah, N.J.
"We felt that as the children of immigrants, we were on the cusp. We were part of that movement to become part of this country. We wanted to blend in."
Yet more than 50 years later, the Bergenfield church remains something of a rarity in the region, where Orthodox churches are typically founded on distinct national identities and conduct their worship in the language of the old country.
St. Anthony's, known as pan-Orthodox, is now nearly evenly split between members of Greek, Arab and Slavic ancestry.
On a typical Sunday, the church resounds with hymns and chants that have their musical roots in Serbian, Greek, Russian and Georgian liturgy. On the Feast of St. Anthony Day, when the priest blesses five loaves of bread, some 20 to 30 loaves representing the different cultures in the church are presented.
Recently, the church even blessed Irish soda bread brought by parishioners who had converted from Roman Catholicism.
"There's a beautiful balance here that would not be possible in other places," said Stratos Mandalakis of Harrington Park, St. Anthony's choir director.
Although membership in other Orthodox churches is increasingly diverse due to intermarriage and immigration, St. Anthony's was the first in the nation to seek out a diverse congregation, said the Rev. Joseph Allen, the congregation's priest for 41 years.
"We started with the intent of developing what we feel Orthodox is going to have to be in America," Allen said. "It has to be open to everybody of the faith."
Eastern Orthodox Christianity traces its roots to the early days of Christianity and is practiced in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and other regions of the world. It split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.
Its establishment in the United States as a network of ethnic churches with strong connections to the old country is viewed as a mixed blessing.
Some say the ethnic churches preserve language, culture and traditions in a fast-changing world.
But others say the Orthodox Church has lost opportunities for growth by forming churches based on one nationality, or what one critic called "ethnic ghettos."
"We have done a miserable job of introducing this faith to America," said Dean Calvert of the Center for Orthodox Christian Studies-St. Andrew House in Detroit. "We have been on this continent for 200 years, yet when someone mentions Orthodox, people think you're talking about Orthodox Jews."
At St. Anthony, the accepting atmosphere has kept membership stable at about 200 families and has helped attract interfaith couples, Allen said.
Jim Bach, who was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, began attending St. Anthony several decades ago after he married a woman who grew up attending a Greek Orthodox Church.
"I really didn't understand Greek," Bach said. "At St. Anthony's I understood everything that was going on, and it was very comfortable."
Bach, of Leonia, eventually converted to the Orthodox faith.
His wife, meanwhile, said her faith was renewed by attending St. Anthony rather than a going to services at a Greek-language church.
"I learned a lot more about my religion being in this church," Nike Bach said. "The ethnic tradition doesn't get mixed up with the theology."
Allen, the priest at St. Anthony, said the church's approach is the future for the Eastern Orthodoxy.
"What we've shown is that Orthodox can be American and that an American can be Orthodox," he said.