Old party pad at U. of I. is now focused on faith
By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter
August 20, 2004
CHAMPAIGN — Waving a silver cross dipped in holy water and entwined with basil branches and a horsehair brush, a Greek Orthodox priest on Friday will convert a fraternity’s former party house into the nation’s first residence hall for Orthodox Christian college students.
The blessing of the home, formerly known as “The Palace” among the University of Illinois’ sororities and fraternities, will allow Orthodox students raised in different ethnic traditions to live and worship as one, a symbol of the unity that some Orthodox churches in North America have been trying to achieve for years.
Students who have signed up to live in the house–eight so far–include Greek, Indian and Egyptian Orthodox.
“It’s a model of what’s to come,” said Rev. George Pyle, the Greek Orthodox priest who oversees the university’s Orthodox Christian Fellowship. “The hymns might sound different, but the message is the same.”
Although many denominations, including Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist, have opened housing for students at the U. of I. and elsewhere, the Orthodox Christian Living Center will be the first in the country for Orthodox students, church officials said. The $800,000 center was funded by donors and alumni.
In the home, icons already adorn freshly painted walls. A chapel in the basement that used to boast a 21-person hot tub will now contain an iconostasis, or screen of icons, as a focal point for worship.
In the kitchen, a fast-friendly menu will make it easier to abstain to various degrees from meat, dairy and fish at different times throughout the year, including every Wednesday and Friday.
“There are thousands of Orthodox students on our campuses. We finally woke up that they’re there and need to remain in contact with the church,” said Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, general secretary of the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, a multiethnic group of nine churches working toward unification.
As Orthodox Christianity spread, autonomous churches were established in different countries with their own patriarchs. When parishioners emigrated from those countries to the United States, they brought their churches with them. The Standing Conference envisions a multiethnic American church one day.
“In most places there is one church,” said Bishop Dimitrios. “It’s only in the Western World where our ethnic people went separately and established their churches separately that this situation exists. It’s not the proper way for the Orthodox church to function. … I think that would be a great spiritual benefit to our people to know that we’re back in proper order.”
Many Orthodox Christians who support the unification effort say they may not see the day arrive during their lifetimes. Delayed by politics and squabbles, discussions have already lasted almost 40 years.
Nicholas Poteres, 19, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, said the multiethnic Orthodox residence sends an important message about Orthodoxy to people of other faiths and the larger church.
“Having a unified Orthodoxy will show a strong church,” Poteres said. “To me, that’s important to say, `I’m a member of this church. This is what we’re doing and this is where we’re going.'”
Indeed, Joe Samra, program coordinator for the national Orthodox Christian Fellowship based in Boston, said the college students do not only represent the church’s next generation. They also model the church’s future.
“This model of bringing students together, looking past the ethnicity–whether it be Greek, Russian, Antiochian or any other–is the way Orthodoxy will be in the future,” Samra said. “When college kids come together they’re not going to judge. … They found someone else Orthodox on campus and found a commonality with them.”
Evangelia Kotsikorou, 29, a graduate student who will be the facility’s resident director, said the opportunity to interact with people of different nationalities and traditions on campus has fueled her faith.
“Here, if you really care, you’re a little more active in your relationship with God,” she said, comparing it with the village in Greece where she was raised. “Over here, I have a better idea of why I believe than back home.”
Earlier this week, Pyle let each student sift through a stack of icons, pick one and hang it in one of 14 bedrooms.
Saju Varghese, 20, a religious studies major who aspires to be an Indian Orthodox priest, selected an icon of St. Basil, namesake of the patriarch of the Indian Orthodox Church in which he was raised. After balancing the icon on a nail, he made the sign of the cross and kissed the right hand of the icon, just as he would kiss the right hand of a priest.
Varghese said he discovered the Orthodox fellowship when he spotted a giant icon of Christ, smelled incense and heard a liturgical chant floating from a booth on the campus quad.
“I fell into an instant comfort right there,” he said, even though the chant was not in the Malayalam language he was accustomed to. It was his first taste of a different flavor of Orthodox worship.
He began worshiping at Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church in Champaign, where as a testament to the worldwide church the Lord’s Prayer is recited in up to 14 native languages.
“It’s been a blessing to me so far,” he said. “You can have an intellectual understanding, but when you actively worship with the community of God in all the languages and the backgrounds, it emphasizes faith above all is most important. … The world lights up to you.”
Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune