Community Spirit and Insurance Money Rebuilding Pa. Church into Jewel

November 5, 2007

Surrounded by gold leaf, the brightly painted image of Christ on a donkey glowed through scaffolding under an artist’s lamp.

The almost complete religious icon is a victory for the 105-year-old All Saints Orthodox Church in Olyphant, Pa. Once, the church was filled with rich depictions of Christ’s life, his teachings and the Virgin Mary, but the items were destroyed or damaged in a March 2006 fire.

With insurance money, help from the Orthodox diocese and donations, the church is restoring — and reinventing — itself.

“It’s exciting, and it’s busy,” said the Rev. David Cowan, who arrived at the parish after the fire. The 200-member parish has been meeting in the basement during the extensive repairs, which included a new roof and fixes to some walls.

Sometimes called “windows into heaven,” the painted icons are central to the Orthodox church and are a way to help focus prayers, the Rev. Cowan said. Because the fire began in the front of the church, where most of the religious items were located, few were salvageable. Luckily, only one of the beautiful stained-glass windows was blown out in the fire.

Parish members decided not only to replace the icons, but to switch from the more realistic-looking Western icons to Byzantine icons known for their colors and glow. Because painting the icons is considered a religious calling requiring years of training, few are qualified to do the work.

As a result, All Saints hired two Russian iconographers to return the splendor to the church. While Andrey Mikhaylou has been there for 10 months, Ivan Rumiantsev just arrived two weeks ago with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

Rumiantsev will work on the iconostasis, a screen covered in icons that is at the front of the church. When he finishes, he will help Mikhaylou with remaining icons on the walls and ceiling.

“My work is for people,” said Rumiantsev, adding that most icongraphers do not sign their work.

“How can you sign what is from God?” he asked.

Scaffolding, for painting the high ceiling, fills the main church and contractors are busy repairing piping and walls.

“It’ll really be a jewel when it’s done,” Rev. Cowan said. “I can’t wait and my parishioners can’t wait.”

The hope is that the work is completed by Pascha, Orthodox Easter, which will fall on April 27.

Many members were raised in the church and have years of memories built into it, Rev. Cowan said

“We’ve been very blessed with that the sense of community has really persevered,” he said. “It’s a challenging process, but life is a challenging process.”

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