For the parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church on River Road there were many feelings last week.
There was solemnity, as the highest leaders of the Orthodox Church consecrated their new place of worship in a rare and sacred ceremony. There was joy, as they ate, drank and danced to Middle Eastern music at a “hafli” Oct. 7: the Arabic word translates loosely to “party.”
BUT MORE than anything else, there was a feeling of relief. The consecration of the church marked the end of a 25-year struggle for the parish, a quarter century of wandering together, of worshipping and celebrating together but never being anywhere that they could truly call home.
“I actually polled the parishioners about what the past 25 years have meant for them. And for them it means home. This is home. And now it’s recognizing this is indeed their spiritual home,” said Reema Jweied-Guegel, the parish council president. “That’s the sentiment. So it’s somber and solemn, but it’s also very joyous.”
The Rev. George Rados and 60 parishioners of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., founded the church in May 1979. They worshipped first in St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church on Bradley Boulevard and then in a converted firehouse further east on Bradley, before buying the River Road property from the French International School in 1995.
While the current church was in construction, they held services in another firehouse, at St. George’s and at Potomac Elementary. The parishioners moved into the social hall on the current site in 2001 and finally into the completed church in 2002.
But even when the edifice was completed, it was an ad hoc church, without a proper altar or iconostasis (a partition in the sanctuary with holy icons), without holy relics set inside the altar, and without a consecration blessing from the Church’s bishops.
In a four-day celebration Oct. 6-10, the parish ended its journey for a home and began a new one.
It began the festivities Thursday with an open house in which community members toured the church and learned about the history of Orthodoxy, followed by an evening concert of sacred music that included a renowned boys choir from Russia and other singers of the Eastern tradition.
Friday the community celebrated with music and dance at the hafli. Saturday, Metropolitan Philip Saliba, the leader of the Orthodox Church in North America, spoke to parishioners and dignitaries at a gala dinner.
AND SUNDAY the church became a new home. Saliba and the other bishops of the church joined Rados in the consecration ceremony.
“I’ve reached the epitome of my life,” Rados said in an interview Friday. “It wasn’t so much to build a building. It was to build a community of people who love family life. Everybody here knows everybody. We cry when somebody dies, we laugh with them when somebody gets married or maybe baptized. … Now they have a place to meet, a place to pray.”
The majority of the church’s founding members remain in the community, which has grown to include more than 350 families.
Jweied-Guegel was 11 when the parish was founded. She’s now 36.
And many of the teenagers and children at the weekend events are, if not founding members, life members, and the ones who Rados kept in mind during the years of moving and fund-raising and building.
“We had a great leader,” said Eugene Slyman, a founding member who joked, “Once we get the church consecrated, we’re getting rid of him.”
Turning serious, Slyman said, “It’s been a very, very hard struggle, but we’re very, very happy.”