Lizzy Bigelow, 15, watches as her father, Jason Bigelow, left, and Nikolay Dimitrov of Ackerman review architectural plans in the sanctuary of their new church building on May 12. The Bigelows and several other local Orthodox Christian families recently established the Golden Triangle's only Orthodox mission and are renovating the building themselves. Lizzy's mother is Kelsey Bigelow of Columbus. Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
William Rosenblatt of Columbus does yard work outside the new Orthodox Church on Fourth Avenue North on May 12. Rosenblatt and local architect Jason Bigelow bought the building, formerly a Christian Science Church building, earlier this month and are renovating it into a traditional Orthodox Christian Church.
Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
Lula Bigelow, 12, preps the floor of the sanctuary of the Columbus Orthodox mission on Fourth Avenue North on May 12. Lula's parents, Jason and Kelsey Bigelow of Columbus, along with several other families, are renovating the building, which used to be a Christian Science Church building, so area Orthodox Christians have a place nearby to attend church.
Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
May 19, 2018 10:03:21 PM
For Jason and Kelsey Bigelow, going to church on Sundays has traditionally meant making a trek of more than an hour to and from Tupelo.
The couple and their two daughters, ages 12 and 15, are Orthodox Christians -- a relatively small denomination in the South where members in smaller communities often drive miles for a regular service. It frequently means skipping Sundays, having to leave early on days they do make it and missing out on Wednesday night activities.
So when the Bigelows and other local Orthodox Christians realized there were enough of them to form a Columbus mission -- and that they could purchase the old Christian Science Church building on Fourth Avenue North to hold regular services -- they jumped at the chance.
"It's a small world of Orthodox Christians in Mississippi," said Columbus physician William Rosenblatt who bought the building along with Jason earlier this month. "Everyone kind of knows everyone. (When we) moved here, we knew ... the Bigelows were in town. (We) put our heads together and said, 'Look, we've got to do something. We can't keep driving an hour and 45 minutes to church every Sunday.' They had been looking at area buildings, just kind of thinking into the future, and we found this one, started getting the ball rolling."
The congregants of the new mission, established in February as the Columbus Mission of the Orthodox Church in America, have been at the building every Saturday since Rosenblatt and Jason bought it, cleaning the interior and exterior and drawing up architectural plans to transform the formerly Protestant building into a traditional Orthodox place worship.
Small but growing
Jason and Kelsey are converts to Orthodox Christianity from shortly before they were married. The two began attending an Orthodox church in Clinton, at the urging of Jason's roommate, whose father was an Orthodox clergyman.
"The first time you walk into an Orthodox Church that's all set up, not like this," Kelsey said, gesturing to the construction around her, "(but) with the candles and iconography and the singing, it's overwhelming. If you have studied art and history, even if you don't know anything about the Orthodox Church firsthand when you come in, you instantly see the beauty of the worship."
Part of the Holy Catholic Church since the early days of Christianity, the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church split in 1054. The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) is now closely affiliated with Greek, Russian and other Orthodox churches.
In the South, it's a rare but growing denomination, said Father Marcus Burch, a pastor in Greenville, South Carolina and the chancellor of the OCA's Diocese of the South, which formed in 1978.
"In those years, we've grown from a handful of communities to I think about 90 parishes spread throughout the Southeast," Burch said. "So, it's becoming more and more common."
Still, he said, it's rare enough that in smaller communities, Orthodox Christians find themselves starting their own missions -- distinct from a church because churches can support full-time priests.
Burch knows both the Bigelows and Rosenblatt -- Rosenblatt attended Burch's church when he was in college and the Bigelows helped establish a separate mission in North Carolina before they moved to Columbus -- and he said it doesn't surprise him that they're renovating the new building themselves.
"We are a hierarchical church in the sense that we have a bishop, that we have priests, but the church is the people of God, ultimately," Burch said. "... Everyone's got to roll up their sleeves to pitch in and be involved. But I think you'll find that in all of our churches, that the level of commitment is relatively high on average."
When Orthodox Christians buy buildings, extensive renovations are often necessary, Rosenblatt said, simply because architecturally, Orthodox places of worship are so different from those of Protestants.
Traditionally, there are no pews -- it's considered more reverent to stand during the service -- and the congregants are separated from the altar by a large screen called an iconastasis, which is covered with pictures and iconography depicting the lives of Jesus, Mary and the saints. For the Columbus mission, the most prominent of those saints will be their patron saint, Catherine of Alexandria.
Just outside the sanctuary, Jason said, there is often a smaller room depicting more icons. And the buildings themselves are traditionally in the shape of the Latin cross.
It was one of the reasons they liked the building on Fourth Avenue so much.
"The building is sort of in the classic church configuration, a Latin cross plan," Jason said. "So that's what we would have built if we had built this from scratch."
Rosenblatt said the building "fell into their laps," since the mission was just established in February.
"Most people aren't as fortunate," he said. "They're in a store front for a long time or something much less formal."
Jason said renovations will continue for the next month, with the goal of starting Sunday morning services in July -- though Kelsey pointed out the schedule is subject to change. Congregants will hold regular reader services, with a priest coming to conduct services every two or three weeks until the mission is big enough to support a full-time priest. Rosenblatt said that may not happen for a couple of years.
Kelsey said having a church in her area is invaluable.
"When you drive your kids an hour every other Sunday to go to church, and you can't stay late for coffee hour because you've got to get back and do stuff or you can't be there on Wednesday night and you can't fully raise them in the church -- to have a church that I can walk to is absolutely a miracle to me," she said.
"It's like having your grandma next door," she added. "That's the only thing I can liken it to. It's like having your community, the things that matter to you (and are) close to you, within reach."
The group expects to start with a congregation of about 30, though they hope it will grow as more local Orthodox Christians and potential converts learn about it.
"Everybody's welcome," Jason said. "It's not just Orthodox -- which we think there's other area Orthodox. But this church is for everybody. ... Everybody's welcome that wants to learn about Jesus."
The Columbus mission's website is http://www.stcatherineorthodox.com.
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