Abbot Damascene Visits Montana Mission Communities

36From December 11 to 19, 2017, Abbot Damascene of the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, in the capacity of Episcopal Assistant of Missions, visited the mission communities of the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montana. He was accompanied on his trip by Alexey Selishchev, a postulant at the St. Herman Monastery.

Fr. Damascene and Alexey flew into Butte, Montana, where they were greeted by Fr. Russell Radoicich, rector of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Butte. Fr. Russell also ministers to mission communities in Anaconda and Dillon. 

On the first leg of the the trip, Fr. Damascene and Alexey were hosted by the mission community in Anaconda, which lies a half-hour west of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Butte. They stayed at the home of Gary and Sarah Otteson, who were received into the Church at Holy Trinity by His Grace Bishop Maxim on its Slava last year. They are enthusiastic converts, who, being retired, are able to devote much time to both the church and their local community. Since they have a great desire to learn more about Orthodoxy and share it with others, Fr. Damascene had several interesting and fruitful discussions with them.

On Tuesday, December 12, Fr. Damascene met Fr. Russell at the Holy Trinity Church, where together they gave a talk on Orthodoxy--especially its iconography--to an art class from a local Roman Catholic high school. The icons covering the walls of the church served as the illustrations. Painted by master iconographer Ugljesa Mileta and a team of iconographers from Serbia, these wall-paintings have made Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church one of the most beautiful sites to see in Montana. The church therefore receives a good number of visitors seeking guided tours, which gives Fr. Russell or one of his appointed parishioners an opportunity to witness the Orthodox Faith.

The next day, Fr. Russell, Fr. Damascene, and Alexey drove to St. Peter's Monastery near Harrison, Montana, about an hour's drive southeast of Butte. Located on a beautiful, thousand-acre ranch in "Big Sky country," the site of the monastery complex overlooks a lake, amidst clear streams and rolling hills, with mountains in the distance. The monastery is part of the Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the West, with the Monastery of St. John in Manton, California, overseeing the construction of the monastic buildings. However, the effort to build the monastery has been multi-jurisdictional. Brothers from the St. Herman Monastery have accompanied brothers from St. John's on trips to construct the monastery buildings, and clergy and parishioners from various jurisdictions have helped out as well. The owners of the ranch have pledged their land in a church trust as soon as the monastery is established. So far, the walls of the main monastery building are over half completed.

It was snowing when Fr. Russell, Fr. Damascene, and Alexey arrived. They were greeted by the caretaker of the property, Brad Buescher, who is living in the boathouse. Brad is a convert to the Orthodox Faith who is connected with the mission community in Anaconda and attends Liturgy at Holy Trinity in Butte. He gave the visitors a tour around the property, showing them the monastery building, the cemetery, etc. Since the snow was continuing to fall heavily, Brad then had to drive his three guests to their next destination in his 4-wheel drive truck.

The travelers arrived that evening at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, where Fr. Damascene was scheduled to give a lecture for the mission community there. Besides the converts, catechumens, and inquirers who are already part of the Dillon community, some people had come from the mission community in Anaconda. John Xanthopoulis, a founding member of the Dillon community, had introduced many other members to the Orthodox Faith. Ever the missionary, he had brought four new people to the lecture that night, including a student of the University of Montana Western and her husband. 

At the prior request of the Dillon community, Fr. Damascene gave his talk on the subject of Sin, focusing on the difference between Western view of Original Sin and the Orthodox view of Ancestral Sin. The group was quite responsive and eager to learn, even when this meant going deeper and not accepting over-simplified formulations. Accordingly, Fr. Damascene was able to explain subtle differences between East and West. The talk generated much discussion.

Dillon is located about an hour south of Butte. Members of both the Dillon and Anaconda communities travel to Butte for Liturgies on Sundays and feast-days. On a typical Sunday, the faithful from these outlying communities make up a large portion of the congregation. Fr. Russell gives weekly classes in Dillon and Anaconda, which is a tremendous source of encouragement and inspiration for the believers there.

Fr. Damascene and Alexey spent much of the next day, Thursday, talking with Gary, Sarah, and Brad, and later with Tristan, another member of the Anaconda community. Tristan is a medical doctor who works as a general practitioner at the local prison.

In the evening, Fr. Damascene gave a talk to the Anaconda mission community. Everyone, including Fr. Russell, met at the home of Todd and Tracy, a couple who are catechumens and live in Anaconda. Again, it was thecommunity that chose the title of the talk in advance. This time the theme was Confession and Repentance. The group went at an unhurried pace, with spiritual conversation interspersed in the talk. This seemed well suited to small, close-knit group, as well as to the topic at hand, which was of a very personal nature. Everyone contributed something valuable to the discussion, while a sense of Christian unity and fellowship prevailed throughout.

The next day Fr. Russell drove Fr. Damascene and Alexey to Missoula, where we met for coffee with Fr. Daniel Kirk (priest of St. Herman's Serbian Orthodox Mission Parish in Kalispell, Montana), Fr. Rob (Haralambos) Spliatsos (priest of the Holy Annunciation Greek Orthododox Church in Missoula, Montana), and Vesna, Fr. Russell's oldest daughter, who is now attending the University of Montana in Missoula. Fr. Daniel then drove us to Kalispell, about four hours northwest of Butte, where we had dinner.

The following day, Saturday, Fr. Daniel showed us St. Herman's Church, located in downtown Kalispell. It's a nicely renovated former Protestant church, with graceful woodwork -- all done by parishioners. A sizeable church hall is located downstairs. Still, the parish community is outgrowing the location. A few acres of land have been donated for a new church: larger, built as an Orthodox church, with Orthodox architecture. Fr. Daniel showed us the land, located in a rural area, close to downtown. A cemetery is planned near the site of the future church. A house for Fr. Daniel's family, situated next to the church land, is almost finished. A church building fund has been been established, and architectural plans for the church are underway.

Fr. Damascene and Fr. Daniel met with a catechumen in the parish who is to be received into the Church on Theophany. They then went to St. Herman's Church for a "meet and greet" with the parish before Vespers. 

Many people, as is usual, had come from the outlying towns of Eureka and Polson, about an hour north and south of Kalispell, respectively. Some years earlier, Fr. Russell had made missionary journeys to these towns, as well as to Kalispell. When Fr. Daniel, a former parishioner of Fr. Russell, was ordained a priest, he decided, together with the faithful from the three communities, that they would establish a church in Kalispell, which is centrally located. 

At the "meet and greet," Fr. Damascene had a question-and-answer session with the parishioners. He began by talking about St. Herman of Alaska, since he's the common patron saint of the church in Kalispell and the monastery in Platina. He then went on to answer questions on a variety of topics, with Fr. Daniel participating. Vespers was then celebrated, after which there was another opportunity to visit with the faithful. On both this evening and the day following, Alexey had opportunities to converse in Russian with several Russian speakers, which was a consolation for them.

On Sunday morning, Fr. Damascene served the Divine Liturgy and gave the sermon, with Fr. Daniel concelebrating. Since it was Fr. Damascene's nameday (along with St. Barbara's day), Fr. Daniel led everyone in singing "Many Years!"

After the Agape meal, Fr. Damascene gave a talk entitled "Creation, Redemption, Deification." In it, he spoke of man and the world before the fall, the fall and its consequences, our redemption by Christ, and the state beyond the general resurrection. The talk was in two parts, with a break. As in Dillon and Anaconda, the parishioners in Kalispell were fervent in the longing to go deeper into their Faith. With all the thoughtful questions and discussion that the two-part lecture generated, it lasted over four hours. 

The following day Fr. Damascene and Alexey attended Vespers and spent more time with the parishioners and Fr. Daniel.

Fr. Damascene returned home very pleased and impressed with the state of our Montana mission communities. As noted above, there is much enthusiasm in each place, including the towns like Polson and Eureka that he wasn't able to visit. Clearly, there is much potential for growth. Everywhere Fr. Damascene went in Montana, this is what he heard: if the Orthodox Faith becomes more known, many will embrace it. The time especially becomes ripe as Roman Catholicism reaches a crisis, and the deficiencies of Protestantism become more apparent.

Fr. Russell and Fr. Daniel are doing exemplary work in bringing Orthodoxy to the people of Montana. In addition, something must be said for the people of Montana themselves: they are good solid ground on which to plant the seeds of the Orthodox Faith. Behold, I say unto you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, for they are white already to harvest (John 4:35).