If you go
What: St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church
Where: 2425 Rivers Road, Naples
Services: 9:30 a.m. Sundays
This baptism — a sacred rite in all Christian denominations — was for a building.
Hundreds of people filled St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Naples on Feb. 19 as church dignitaries from around the nation came to consecrate its building in a solemn and moving ceremony. The one-time event pronounces the three-domed, peach-and-white church at Immokalee and Rivers roads as a permanent place of high worship for its denomination. It is Southwest Florida’s first such church.
The consecration also signifies a people’s reverent commitment to the values of their deep faith.
“This is like a baptism for the church,” said the church pastor, the Rev. Joseph Shaheen, before the ceremony. “It’s just like when we baptize a child. This event reflects the permanent presence of Christ within the church, and the altar table as the burial place and resurrection.”
The event brought the church’s chief North American official, the Most Reverend Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) to lead the highly organized and ornate ceremony. Metropolitan Philip is the Archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of New York and all of North America. Other Antiochian Orthodox dignitaries participated as well:
the Right Reverends Bishop Antoun Khouri (bishop of Miami and the southeast), Bishop John Abdalah (Diocese of Worcester and New England), and Bishop Anthony Michaels (Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest). Eleven priests and four deacons assisted.
Three architectural domes influence the building for the St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church. The ceremony took place under the multilevel high ceiling and arches that seem to be carved out with the choir’s music in mind, and inside a sacred altar room, reserved for its clergy, with beautiful red Chinese rugs. Hand-painted life size murals of holy figures adorn the walls, and mosaics of color splashed through the stained glass windows as the ceremony began.
None of this came easy for this congregation, making the consecration all the more celebrated.
The Antiochian Church traces its roots in unbroken apostolic succession to Antioch, the city in which the disciples of Jesus Christ first acquired the title “Christians.” It is not a large denomination in North America. where there are only 200 churches currently. In Florida, there are 15 Antiochian Orthodox churches, including, now, a mission in Fort Myers as well as St. Paul in Naples.
The Antiochian Orthodox and other Orthodox churches declare the same faith, with a conservative theology based on the Nicene Creed. There are more limited roles for women, who cannot be ordained or enter the altar room, and worship beginning at several different points, as well as a belief in standing rather than kneeling for its services. The branches of orthodoxy differ largely in the language used and some minor orders of hymns in the service. The language of the branch’s native country may be used in the service as well.
The Naples church began as a vision in the late ‘90s, when a small group of people from Marco Island, Fort Myers and Naples gathered with the desire to have an Antiochian parish in Southwest Florida. Founding members worshipped in various locations; a hotel room, a cemetery chapel, at a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, even a room in a senior citizens residence before they gathered the money to build their own church.
It wasn’t enough to have a building, however.
“In order for the consecration to go forth, we had to be completely unencumbered, debt-free. We have achieved that status,” explained Father Joe, as Rev. Shaheen is known.
He smiled broadly on this momentous morning and recalled of those years: “The word spread and the Mission grew.”
With the congregation looking on, Metropolitan Philip carefully placed recorded names of the faithful in a center cavity of the altar table. The clergy then placed the “savano,” (white robe), two linen towels and a sash over top of his elaborate sapphire blue-and-gold lamé floor-length robe. Other officials were similarly elaborate in emerald green or turquoise full-length robes, and some wore crowns.
In time, Metropolitan Philip carefully washed the sacred altar with fragrant rose water, followed by the pastor and a number of the other high officials also washed the altar. People close enough could hear the Metropolitan, bishops, priests and deacons praying or speaking in low voices.
A vessel of Holy Chrism, or oil, was used in a procession to bless the altar and the walls of the church, and earthy incense marked the blessing of the congregation. The special chrism oil is only prepared once yearly by patriarchs of the church, and is a traveled and shared oil, according to Father Joe. It represents the unity of the faith, reflected in the Pope.
The ceremony was punctuated with prayer and choir music that at times seemed to envelope the sanctuary in its passion and joy. In the end, Metropolitan Philip’s “savano” was removed during the ceremony and carried to a back room, where it was cut into small squares and distributed to each person attending, a tradition in this church.
Dr. David and Mrs. Thomas of Naples are members of the church and attended the ceremony.
“I had goose bumps the entire time,” declared Elaine Thomas.
“It was spectacular,” Dr. Thomas said. “We are in total communion with God now. I’d like the children to understand how important faith in God is.”
When asked what this all means to him and the congregation, Father Joe leveled his dark brown eyes, and answered thoughtfully.
“The message is God’s love. The subsidiary message is we have consecrated a place to celebrate this and each other. You can’t love God, who you don’t see, unless you love your fellow man, who you do see.”