Sunday, October 21, 2007

Russian Orthodox community battles for future in New Jersey


Adelaida Nekludoff worships during the church service at Sviato Pokrovskiy Russian Orthodox Church in Buena, N.J.


BUENA, N.J. - The Cold War lives on in this wooded corner of New Jersey under golden onion-shaped domes of a Russian Orthodox church.

small group of worshippers gathered Sunday at the Sviato-Pokrovskiy Russian Orthodox Church for what may have been their last service. The tiny congregation is facing eviction because they disagree with their parent church’s decision to reconcile with the Moscow Patriarchate in Russia.

Their fate could be determined this week, when a judge is expected to rule on a lawsuit brought by the diocese seeking control of the roughly five-acre church property located halfway between Atlantic City and Philadelphia in an area that was settled by Russian immigrants.

The diocese’s decision to reconcile was abhorrent to worshippers like those in Buena, who revile the Moscow Patriarchate for its cooperation with the Soviets years ago and for its close ties with the Russian government today.

‘‘This was seen as just a Soviet church, a man-made arm of the government,’’ said Maria Nekludoff, 56, one of the Buena church’s three trustees along with her husband and mother.
‘‘I just don’t understand how suddenly this became ’the mother church,’ and we need to unite with it. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.’’

The church has been without a full-time priest since Maria Nekludoff’s father, Nikolai, died in 2004, so a full service is held only when a priest can travel to the church every month or so. A typical service attracts about 20 people.

Adelaida Nekludoff, Maria Nekludoff’s 83-year-old mother from Ukraine, dismissed the legitimacy of the Moscow church with a shake of her scarfed head: ‘‘It’s not a church.’’

The Sviato-Pokrovskiy church was established in 1957 as part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, an extensive network of churches created after the Bolshevik Revolution by people who’d fled the Soviet Union.

The Soviets tried to destroy religious belief in a country that had been mostly Orthodox for hundreds of years, slaughtering thousands of priests and destroying churches. Many believers who survived the purges made their way to the United States.

But the fear of persecution was never far away. For example, in Buena, the church’s elaborate iconostasis, a central part of any Russian Orthodox church that holds paintings of saints, was built so it could be taken down in an hour if members had to flee.

Even with the fall of the Soviet Union, it was not until recently that the Church Abroad decided to reconcile with the Moscow Patriarchate.

But for worshippers like those in Buena, the Moscow Patriarchate is still thought to be riddled with people who collaborated with the Soviet government.

There’s also a worry that the Patriarchate is too closely aligned with the current Russian government, which they feel is sugarcoating Communism in order to revive Russians’ pride in Soviet-era history.

A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington D.C., Alexey Timofeev, said the unification was something desired by all Russians, in and out of the country.

Although there’s no official count of how many parishes or parishioners have left the Church Abroad, priests and worshippers say it has driven apart churches, priests - even families.

‘‘Husband and wives, mothers and sons, everybody has been divided. It is a very big tragedy,’’ said Bishop Vladimir Tselichtchev, 41, who led what may be the last service at the Buena church.

Many Russian Orthodox churches and worshippers are following the Buena lawsuit closely, to see what effect it may have on their own situation.

‘‘Maybe the Cold War is not the same but it’s not over,’’ said the Rev. Stefan Sabelnik, who has led the Trenton-based Assumption of Holy Virgin Church, which also broke away over the reconciliation with Moscow.

Nicholas Ohotin, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, said people are allowed to leave the church but they can’t take church property with them. Ohotin said the agreement with the Moscow Patriarchate allows for a ‘‘very broad independence,’’ and Orthodox believers shouldn’t fear they’ll be subject to Moscow’s rule.

‘‘The church hopes that all of its parishioners, any of its members that left the church do find their way back to the bosom of the church,’’ Ohotin said.

Maria Nekludoff grew up attending the Buena church and her father, uncle, brother and grandmother are buried in the well-tended cemetery. She said her parents and parishioners put their life into building up the church.

‘‘That would break my heart to see that basically their life’s work was taken away,’’ she said. ‘‘I feel blessed that I was able to defend these people who were defenseless . . . I felt it was my duty.’’

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