In city's churches, preparing for Easter

Holiday: Parishes observe the Passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus with age-old traditions.

April 09, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

As Easter approaches, three East Baltimore churches -- Russian, Ukrainian and Polish -- are among thousands throughout the world preparing for the most momentous dates on the Christian calendar.

Beginning today, Good Friday, and continuing through Easter Sunday, the faithful at these churches will observe the Passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in rituals that have age-old roots and crossed the ocean a century ago when Eastern European immigrants came to the city and settled in tight enclaves.

Among those rituals are coloring Easter eggs bright red to symbolize Christ's blood, baking bread to represent resurrection and taking part in outdoor processions.

"It's our journey from darkness into light," the Very Rev. Theodore Boback of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Butchers Hill said yesterday. "A time to reflect and repent."

Some Easter traditions have an appeal that extends beyond the spiritual. Many have to do with food.

Fred Turkin, a parishioner at the Russian Orthodox church, held a domed loaf of kulich -- a bread with fruit and nuts -- that he and his wife, Pat, baked for fellow members at St. Andrew. "There's no more better eating, with butter and a cup of coffee," he said.

The sweet loaves and the red eggs will go into traditional Easter food baskets to St. Andrew that Boback is to bless soon.

The seasonal bread and eggs are just some of the elaborate rituals in this and other Eastern European churches as they mark Christianity's most somber and celebratory holy days.

For example, the ethnic congregations march three times around the church or the block -- symbolizing the Holy Trinity -- with a wooden cross and a shroud that represents the body of Christ.

At the Holy Rosary Church, a 1927 Polish church near the Fells Point waterfront, marchers have to pass a small strip club, Chubbies, on Eastern Avenue, but it doesn't deter worshipers, said parish secretary Cassie Cieslak.

"Gray-haired ladies and young kids, we all go by it," she said.

Cieslak said the congregation is also contending with the recent death of its longtime pastor, the Rev. Ronald Pytel, who grew up in the neighborhood. She said his loss will make the march -- which pauses more than a dozen times to honor the biblical Stations of the Cross, scenes from Christ's Passion -- more melancholy for her.

However, the freshly decorated church brings its own sense of renewal, she said.

"We'll have hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and a sea of lilies," said Cieslak, 64. "As you get older, [Easter] has a deeper meaning."

The St. Andrew congregation will parade by candlelight after the midnight service leading to Easter Sunday around the large stone 19th-century church on East Lombard Street.

"That is a funeral procession," Boback said. "Then we set up a tomb in the church sanctuary and take the journey with our Lord." Orthodox services are mostly conducted in English in an a cappella style -- a change from when only the Slavic language was used, he said.

Tamara Petronka, who makes pysanky -- ornately painted eggs -- for the St. Andrew church, said Easter is the religious holiday she finds most moving, especially singing "Christ is Risen" upon entering church after the Stations of the Cross procession.

At St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church, where golden Byzantine domes sparkle in the Canton sunlight, Monsignor Martin Canavan will preside at his first major holiday, conducting services in Ukrainian.

After the parish procession, an all-day vigil will be held tomorrow at the Ukrainian church, where a bright red and gold shroud and a wooden cross will be placed at an altar surrounded by flowers and lights.

"Eastern Christianity is visual, with the smell of incense and flowers," Canavan said. "God speaks to our eyes, and your body, mind and soul can participate. You can kneel, kiss and touch the shroud."

As a final communal ritual at St. Michael, baskets of food for each family are lighted with a candle and blessed by the priest before they are taken home. Each food signifies something related to Easter.

Nancy McNelly, 9 -- accompanying her grandparents, the Turkins -- at St. Andrew, said that reliving the passion ritual by ritual at the Russian Orthodox church helps keep sacred events alive. "Because it was long ago," she said, "and otherwise you might not understand what happened back then."

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