Ornate ceremony marks consecration of an altar Eastern Orthodox priests create 'a holy temple'


Dressed in ornate gold and purple robes, four Eastern Orthodox priests consecrated an altar yesterday, making a former Methodist church in Linthicum a place fit for worship by the Holy Cross Orthodox Mission Church congregation.

In the 3 1/2 -hour ceremony, which some compared to a baptism, the priests washed the church's altar -- a 42-square-inch mahogany table -- with warm water and soap.

They wiped it with rose water.

They anointed it with oil.

They covered it in a white linen cloth.

They laid a gold-colored cloth, known as the antiminsion and signed by the bishop, on top, making the building an official Eastern Orthodox church.

"This is the most important milestone in an Orthodox church," said the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, the church's pastor. "Now the church is given exclusively to the worship of God and to people to come and pray."

Bishop Basil Esse of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in America, who led the ceremony, added: "Now, this place is not for parish meetings. It is not for Sunday school or choir rehearsal. If you walk in here with a cup of coffee, walk out. This is now a holy temple."

Holy Cross started from scratch. Unlike the eight Eastern Orthodox churches in the Baltimore area, the congregation at Holy Cross is almost entirely converts.

Its services, which are in English, include -- as do other Orthodox churches -- a liturgy that is rich in ritual and solemnity and is celebrated with ornate accouterments. As the smell of incense filled the room, about 150 parishioners paraded behind the high priests singing hymns and reciting prayers.

Almost six years ago, Green, an eighth-generation Episcopalian, started Holy Cross. He left the Episcopal church and its priesthood because he felt it had compromised on religious doctrine. He brought a handful a parishioners with him from St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City.

With barely 20 members, the congregation met in an old Catonsville schoolroom on Frederick Road. Each week church members set up a makeshift altar -- a piece of plywood, stacked on four-by-fours with icons stuck in its cubby holes -- with seasonal decorations of pumpkins, witches and Christmas trees.

In July, Holy Cross paid $165,000 for the 87-year-old stone Methodist church on Fort Meade Road. The church stripped the building of almost all of its Protestant and modern amenities.

Members took out wooden pews because the congregation stands during the entire Eastern Orthodox service. They replaced the speaker system with the a cappella harmony of their choir. The only thing they kept were the stained glass windows depicting saints and apostles.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, wife of the Holy Cross pastor, wrote a chronicle of a year of the nascent mission: "Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy."

"Now we're upscale," she said, as she greeted parishioners at a dinner after the service. "It's a wonderful vindication to see it today, knowing all the uncertainties we came [into the religion] with."

Ross Gatmeier, a 32-year-old parishioner, made the mahogany altar and the church's iconostasis, a 16-foot-long partition decorated with pictures of religious figures that separates the altar from worshipers. "Before, it felt like we were playing church," said Gatmeier, who has been a member of the church for 1 1/2 years. "Before, we just had the icons mounted on two four-by-fours. Now this is a real church. It feels like it has power and depth."

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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