By Roy Hoffman, Press-Register
In Alabama, St. Athanasios Greek Orthodox parish joins four others: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Mobile; Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Montgomery; Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Birmingham; and Saints Constantinople and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Huntsville.
In Mississsippi, there are two parishes: Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Chapel in Biloxi and Holy Trinity and Saint John the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church in Jackson.
Within the entire Metropolis of Atlanta, an eight-state Southeastern region, there are approximately 22,000 Greek Orthodox parishioners, still a small percentage of the approximately 1 million across the nation.
— Source: The Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta
GULF SHORES, ALABAMA — With its white walls and blue dome, St. Athanasios Greek Orthodox Chapel in Gulf Shores looks as though it has been lifted from a Greek island and set down a mile from the Gulf of Mexico.
While Mobile’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church opened its doors nearly a century ago, and Presentation Theotokos was built by the Malbis family in Spanish Fort in the 1940s, St. Athanasios is only a decade old.
Inspired by the vision and support of a Mobile businessman, Nick Catranis, St. Athanasios has become a destination for Orthodox Christians who reside or vacation in nearby beach communities.
Those numbers are growing, with ever more Orthodox moving to the coast, according to the Very Reverend Father Frank Mayernick, pastor of St. Athanasios.
This month, St. Athanasios’ status becomes elevated from that of chapel to a mission church. That status is the result not only of a growing population, but also of the determination, on the part of church hierarchy, that St. Athanasios will play an enduring role in the spiritual life of the community.
On Jan. 20, the church’s high-ranking Southeastern official, His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, will travel to Gulf Shores to consecrate St. Athanasios.
The celebration makes the building sacred — “it becomes a place of God forever,” says one church official — and formalizes it as the heart of a parish.
The ceremony, explains Mayernick, involves a service in which the relics of three saints are embedded in the altar table.
The items are sealed in; the table is washed; oil is used to anoint the church.
Alexios, says Mayernick, makes the decision to consecrate the church, and only the Metropolitan can preside over such a ceremony.
“He is our shepherd,” says Mayernick, “we are his flock.”
As Alexios wrote to Mayernick this week: “On this glorious day that we have set aside for the consecration of your Church, I pray that all of us may be spiritually uplifted, as we celebrate this wonderful event, so that we ‘also may be consecrated in truth.’ (John 17:19) . . . Just as we are set aside by our Baptism and Chrismation, so the Consecration Service is the Baptism and Chrismation of the Church, setting aside this place for us to worship and serve the Lord.”
In addition to Greek Orthodox parishioners, says the Very Reverend Father Grigorio Tatsis, Orthodox Christians of other national and cultural backgrounds — among them Serbs, Albanians, and Russians — attend Greek Orthodox churches.
Their religion, says Tatsis, dean of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in New Orleans, is the same despite differences in language and culture.
Tatsis also acts as head of the vicarship of the Metropolis of Atlanta’s Western Conference, a smaller area that includes the Gulf Coast.
The growth of all those communities locally — from new settlers from Eastern Europe, or snowbirds who decide to relocate — has helped to swell the pews of St. Athanasios, he says.
There are factors other than sheer numbers involved in the decision to consecrate a church, he says.
“You see the history of the parish,” he says, “how they have been faithful. Are they a stable parish?”
He calls consecration “a big deal.”
“A church has to prepare spiritually, and financially.”
The consecration of St. Athanasios represents, he says, “a maturing level of their spirituality, and of their physical abilities. It’s a pinnacle.”
Tatsis believes that one reason St. Athanasios is growing is an attraction that other Christians feel to what he describes as an unchanging faith.
“We’re experiencing a great influx of people who are not from an Orthodox background,” he says.
The Orthodox Church, he says, “is the church of the Book of Acts. Almost nothing has changed in 2,000 years.”
Greek immigrants who arrived on American shores in the late 1800s, he says, felt a deep sense of cultural affiliation as part of their faith. But times change.
As each generation passed, he says, some may not even feel “connected” to Greece.
“You have some Greek Orthodox who’ve never been to Greece.,” he says. “But the faith does not change.”