The occasion of the visitation was the dedication of a new church. St. Gregory the Great, the local Western Rite Orthodox Mission, at long last acquired its own building last year. It had begun its existence meeting in the chapel at the old Church of Saints Peter and Paul. But when that parish moved to its current location in Potomac, St. Gregory's found new quarters at Eldbrooke United Methodist Church, near Tenleytown, meeting first in the basement and later in the upper room at Eldbrooke. When Bp. Thomas visited St. Gregory's last year he challenged them to find a building of their own, but he did not dream they would meet the challenge so promptly! With the help of a couple from St. Sophia's who knew the local real estate market, they found a row house in the Columbia Heights neighborhood that was already in use as a church.
It took some effort to convert the church, whose previous owners were the Seventh Day Pentecostal Church of the Living God. (The "before" pictures showed drums at the front of the church and orange walls in the basement.) The Orthodox congregation began worshiping in their new church in November. In January the basement flooded, requiring another round of repairs and improvements. Now, after six months in use, the church was finally ready to be blessed.
The festivities began with Solemn Vespers on Saturday evening. The church was full for this service, and those present included the other two local Antiochian priests, from Ss. Peter and Paul and St. George's, respectively, as well as the bishop. Also present were former members and long-time friends of the parish. The service started with the Solemn Reception of a Bishop and the proceeded with Vespers. Western Rite Vespers is virtually identical to Evensong in the Anglican tradition – the biggest difference I noticed was that they remained standing for the Psalms instead of sitting. Immediately following Vespers, the bishop formally elevated the pastor of St. Gregory's, Fr. Nicholas, to the rank of archpriest.
The service was followed by dinner, downstairs in the parish hall. I sat at the table with the couple who had helped parishioners to acquire the church. On this occasion, they also gave the parish a beautiful new icon as a gift – the image known in the East as Our Lady of the Passion and in the West as Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
I returned on Sunday. Morning Prayer followed the traditional Anglican form. Fr. Nicholas was flanked by deacon and subdeacon, as is customary for the solemn form of a service, but the bishop was not visible. Following Morning Prayer, we all filed outside, the clergy and acolytes assembling on the porch and everyone else in the front yard.
The bishop was vested with his dark red epitrachelion (stole) and omophorion (the short, wide bishop's stole, perhaps equivalent to the Western pallium) over his riassa (cassock). We sang the Asperges as an antiphon, and the clergy sang Psalm 51 as the bishop sprinkled the exterior of the church with holy water. Then we began singing the Litany of Saints and all processed into the church, where the blessing and sprinkling continued. As we took our seats, the clergy and acolytes processed around the nave three times, while the bishop sprinkled the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. We concluded the blessing with Psalms 120-122.
This was followed by the Liturgy of St. Gregory – the medieval form of the Western Mass. The opening hymn was "Hail Thee, Festival Day," and the ordinary was chanted to the setting Missa de Angelis. In his sermon, Bp. Thomas revealed that he had listened to us singing Morning Prayer from upstairs while watching people walk past the church. He noticed one lady who looked at the church as she walked by, apparently wondering who we were. While the neighbors are no doubt relieved that they are no longer awakened every Saturday morning by drums and loudspeakers, they don't know who we are. Since the parish had answered his last challenge, he issued a new one – to reach out to the neighborhood, invite people in, and make sure they know who worships here. The Mass concluded with the pontifical blessing, which was followed by the singing of the Marian antiphon Regina Coeli and the closing hymn, "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!"
Mass was followed by a festive coffee hour. Then everyone returned to the church for a group photo. I was appointed as photographer and was handed two cameras in addition to my own. As I was lining up the shot and waiting for everyone to hold still and smile, the bishop left his place in the line-up and walked toward me. He took the camera from me and told me to act like I was taking my place for the photo. No one seemed to notice until he asked if everyone was ready! He said he had never done that before but had always wanted to. Everyone was duly amused, but also a bit relieved when Bp. Thomas returned to his place for the group pictures.
(I know my pictures are blurry. The ones for part 2 will be even worse! As soon as they come out with those newfangled cameras that compensate for camera movement at a reasonable price, I need to get one.)
Update: More pictures are available on the diocesan website.