Converts, immigrants flocking to Greek church Orthodox parish in Annapolis grows ANNAPOLIS/SOUTH COUNTY--Davidsonville * Edgewater * Shady Side * Deale

January 18, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

The scent of incense, of mystery and tradition, envelops the sanctuary of the county's only Greek Orthodox church.

In the small chapel of St. Constantine and Helen Church in Annapolis, the priest chants in Greek, the original language of the New Testament. Gilt-covered furniture adorns the altar. Lace drapes a sacred table. And enveloping it all is the incense, the pungent covering of faith.

Here on Constitution Avenue, the faithful include Russians, Serbs, Syrians, Cypriots, Greeks from Cyprus, and black Americans, as well as the Greek-Americans who founded the church 53 years ago. More than 300 families are active in the parish, including those who travel from the Eastern Shore and Prince George's County.

Lately, converts from other Christian traditions have made their way into the Greek Orthodox church in the United States. The Annapolis congregation is bursting with its own share of converts, along with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, says the Rev. Kosmas Karavellas. Converts, immigrants and longtime Annapolis families alike are drawn, he believes, by the tradition of the Orthodox church, which traces its history to the early Christian disciples in an unbroken line.

"I think people are drawn to the original precepts of the faith," the priest says. "We are still the original church from the apostolic succession. We haven't changed anything in our formal theology from the day of Pentecost."

Historically, the Orthodox church traces its roots to the early church and the Roman emperor Constantine. In 330 A.D., Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople. It has been the official center of Orthodoxy for more than 17 centuries.

Countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia were converted by Greek missionaries in the 9th and 10th centuries. Gradually, the Eastern and Western branches of the church grew apart in matters of faith, dogma, custom and politics, and eventually they officially divided over the authority of the pope.

The Annapolis church retains its Greek traditions with such ethnic events as a Greek folk dance and festival every year, says Father Karavellas, who wears a drooping black mustache and frequently lapses into Greek.

The priest credits the church's existence to the vision of a few Greek-American families.

"About 14 of Annapolis' original Greek families bought property and threw up the bricks [for the church on Constitution Avenue]. They had a great deal of love for the church and their ethnic heritage," he says.

With what Father Karavellas calls "great foresight," the church's founding families also purchased property on Riva Road, where next year they plan to start building a 500-seat Byzantine cathedral.

"It will be one of the most magnificent ecclesiastic structures in Anne Arundel County, a beautiful complex," the priest predicts.

The existing chapel is beautiful, too. Couples are often attracted by its atmosphere, says Father Karavellas. Icons, or religious paintings, decorate the walls. Gold-covered furniture adds formality.

This is a faith in which every object, every motion, has meaning, Father Karavellas emphasizes.

The focus of the service is Communion, called Divine Liturgy, with its ancient and elaborate system of small rituals. There are rituals and prayers for bringing in the Bible, for reading the gospel, for approaching various parts of the altar.

To prepare for the service, Father Karavellas performs three sets of rituals and prayers, which he calls services. First he venerates the icons, then he "vests," or puts on his religious clothing, with another set of prayers. He then prepares the gifts of Communion for the Divine Liturgy and begins the Eucharistic service.

The heart of the faith is the meaning behind the ritual, says the priest. "The sign of the cross indicates Christ in you," says Father Karavellas. "It's not a faith. It's a way of life, day in, day out."

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