The Rev. Ivan Dornic was introduced to the architectural glories of old Eastern European churches when he was a seminary student in his native Czechoslovakia.
"I was taking a course that touched on the wooden churches of the 14th and 15th centuries," says Dornic, 56. "The professor instilled in me a desire to preserve historic structures like those. But it's unfortunate. So many of them were destroyed before people woke up and decided to save them."
If Dornic gets his way, a number of old churches with ties to Eastern European faith groups will be preserved and displayed in a sort of religious theme park to be based in Joppa, in Harford County, and called Historic Church Village.
The idea behind the village is to maintain the old churches as museums of religious history. They also would be used for occasional services in little-known Catholic rites, such as the Alexandrian and the Antiochene, as well as the Roman and Eastern (or Byzantine) rites common in the United States.
Dornic and his 200-member parish of Saints Cyril and Methodius Eastern Rite Catholic Church in Joppa have surveyed the region for old religious structures and set their sights on three Russian Orthodox churches and one Ukrainian Catholic church, all in Pennsylvania. The four churches, each about a century old, have been abandoned or converted for secular use. For example, two are social clubs, one is a warehouse.
The parish hopes to buy the buildings from their current owners, truck them to the village site and then make the necessary TTC renovations. The pastor says the cost of all this work "will get into millions" of dollars. According to Dornic, who says he has no time-frame for the work's completion, money would be raised through fund-raising events, foundation grants and the donations of parishioners.
About half the church members are descended from Slavic groups, including Poles, Serbians, Croatians, Russians and Ukrainians.
Already the parish has refurbished one church, the former St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church, at the site of the village. Baltimore's Roman Catholic archdiocese had planned to demolish the building. Eventually, though, the archdiocese donated the building and the $8,000 set aside for its demolition to Dornic's parish.
At a cost of about $150,000 -- much of it coming from church members' "dimes and pennies," says Dornic -- the parish removed almost all the old wooden boards from St. Mark's and replaced them with new boards. It has been renamed St. Mary's Assumption Eastern Rite Catholic Church and, after the electrical wiring is finished, will be opened this spring as the first museum-church in the village.
Dornic admits that the refurbished St. Mary's church, with its plain Colonial American design, will look out of place alongside the domed Orthodox and Byzantine churches that he plans to bring from Pennsylvania.
"That's OK," the pastor says. "We want to have a diversity of architectural styles. My concern is preservation. It's just in me to preserve these old churches."