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A Milestone to Eternity

In Little-Changing Greek Orthodox Church, a Celebration of a Cathedral's Centennial

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page B07

2004 is but a blip on the timeline of Orthodox Christianity, which traces its beginnings to the apostles, its unification to the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century and its liturgy to St. John Chrysostom 200 years later.

As it happens, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Washington area's oldest Orthodox congregation, St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Northwest Washington.


St. Sophia's Cathedral has been at 36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW since 1955 but looks like a 9th-century Byzantine church. (Photos Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

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What's important is not how old a congregation is but its connection to a tradition whose beliefs and practices have remained virtually unchanged for nearly 2,000 years, said Archbishop Demetrios, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

"There is a direct substantive and organic connection" between every congregation in the past, present and future, the bishop said Sunday after a special Divine Liturgy at St. Sophia's, located at 36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. "The spiritual tradition is like a tree that produces new branches but [with all] feeding from the same source."

All Christian churches and denominations share a common origin. But not all can say that a Christian time traveler from the 1st millennium would feel at home in a 21st-century worship service. That's exactly the assertion of Orthodox Christians, said Demetrios, 76, who was born in Thessalonika, Greece, and celebrates Divine Liturgy the way he experienced it as a child and the way it was celebrated 1,500 years ago.

At St. Sophia's, the ancient Greek words spoken and sung through most of the liturgy are translated into English in a printed version available to worshipers. Scripture readings are chanted in English, and the sermon typically is given in Greek and English -- a bilingual practice that may not be followed by other Greek Orthodox congregations or by Orthodox Christians of different ethnic backgrounds, such as Russian, Armenian or Copt.

And the surnames of those in the pews no longer are just Greek names, such as Stephanopolous, Economides, Koutsandreas and Koines. They also include Siegel, Walsh, Rafferty, Smith, Goodrich and Kardona -- a range of Christian and non-Christian names resulting from interfaith marriages that represent 95 percent of the weddings at St. Sophia's.

"If I do a Greek-to-Greek wedding, it's only one or two times a year," said the Rev. John T. Tavlarides, dean of St. Sophia's for 48 years. To be married in the Greek church, non-Orthodox brides or grooms must have been baptized in the name of the Trinity, either at another church or through conversion to the Orthodox faith, he said.

But the structure and form of the liturgy is the same as it has been for centuries, with most of the blessings and prayers -- and Communion preparation -- performed by priests behind a partition called the iconostasis. And the architecture and design of St. Sophia's is reminiscent of a 9th-century Byzantine church, with a floor plan resembling a Greek cross and a large central dome with an image of Jesus surrounded by seraphim. The ceilings and walls are covered with mosaics and icons of saints, prophets and evangelists.

Founded in 1904 by 30 families of Greek immigrants, St. Sophia's today has 1,500 families and serves 4,000 to 6,000 Orthodox Christians, Tavlarides said. Last month, the cathedral dedicated a $8.5 million educational wing for its growing ranks of children and young adults -- the largest addition to St. Sophia's since the congregation moved in 1955 from its previous location at Eighth and L streets NW.

On Sunday, Demetrios, wearing a large cross and a medallion with an icon of the Virgin Mary, descended from the altar area to speak to more than 150 children seated at the front of the sanctuary. He called them "the blessed-by-God children" and the occasion a "day of thanksgiving before Thanksgiving day."

It was a time to honor their parents, priests and teachers, as well as all the members and clergy who over the past 100 years "walked millions of steps into and around this place" -- and to recognize their place in the timeline of Orthodoxy, he told them.

"Twenty years from now, you will be 25, 28, 30 years old," the archbishop said. "And you will tell your children, who will be sitting where you are now, 'We were in church for the celebration of it first hundred years of thanking God.' "

Later, in his sermon to several hundred other worshipers crowded into St. Sophia's, Demetrios praised the congregation for its first centennial and added, "I say 'first' because there will be many centennial occasions -- three, four, five, 10. Why not?"

The archbishop's view of the continuity of tradition and the relative nature of time takes on added meaning today, when he will attend another historic occasion in the Orthodox church.

In a ceremony at the Vatican, representatives of Pope John Paul II are scheduled to return the relics of two fathers of the church -- Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian -- to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.

The relics were taken from St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople by crusaders in 1204 and have been kept at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Demetrios will accompany Bartholomew and the relics back to Istanbul, where they will be enshrined in the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George.


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