The Orthodox Cathedral of St. George in Worcester, Massachusetts was one of the earliest parishes established in America. The Cathedral was formed and raised in the shadow of the men who make up the Mount Rushmore of Orthodoxy. However, before we get to the first great man on the mountain and before we get to St. George Cathedral in Worcester it is important that we look at the very first traces of Orthodoxy in America. It was Saint Elias day (July 20th) 1973 and the captain and crew of the Saint Peter had just sited the mainland of Alaska for the first time (Mount Elias). In celebration, they celebrated the first Orthodox liturgy in America on the ship in Sitka Bay and then headed towards the mainland.
The St. Peter was one of two ships that were commissioned by the Empress Catherine I of Russia to explore the area off the coast of Siberia. The Empress wanted to continue the exploration and colonization efforts of her predecessor Peter the Great. A man named Vitus Bering (captain of the St. Peter) was the one in charge of the operation and his expedition to Alaska resulted in the eventual establishment of Russian trading companies and a colony on Kodiak Island. It is on Kodiak Island that we first come into contact with the first man in the mountain.
After traveling for 293 days (about one third of the circumference of the world), monks from the Valaam Monastery (click to see Valaam and listen to their chant) arrived on Kodiak Island with instructions to serve the needs of the Russian colonists and to spread the Orthodox faith to the natives. After a couple of years, the monks baptized over 12,000 natives. St. Herman was one of the monks who served the natives on Kodiak Island. He not only served the natives in a liturgical and spiritual way; he protected them from the abusive Russian merchants, cared for the orphans, and built a chapel and school on Spruce Island. ———————–Miracle of St. Herman.—————————
St. Innocent (in 1824) continued missionary work in Alaska where he constructed a church and school. He then translated the liturgy and the Gospels into the Aleutian language and even wrote a small catechism called Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven. He was eventually transferred to Sitka in 1834 and in 1840 he was elected as Bishop of the Aleutian Islands (see at Sitka). As bishop, he started a seminary and traveled extensively in freezing weather and rough seas to tend and missionize to the natives.
In 1872, the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia made the decision to move the see of the bishop from Sitka to San Francisco. The bishop’s diocese now included all of North America, which only consisted of three other Orthodox parishes not in the Alaskan territory. However, this number increased dramatically during the next 50 years (over 250 parishes) and again, in 1905, the administrative center of the Russian bishop was relocated to New York City. This was very much due to Fr. Alexis Toth who worked tirelessly in the northeast to convert Eastern-Rite Catholic parishes (20) to the Orthodox faith.
The early parishes in America were made up of many different immigrants from all over the globe (Greeks, Carpatho-Russians, Middle Easterners, and other Eastern Europeans). Most of them were under the care and responsibility of St. Tikhon (with the exception of the Greek parishes- technically under the Patriarch of Constantinople or the Church of Greece.). St. Tikhon did much for the Orthodox parishes in America. He founded a seminary, St. Tikhon Monastery, and authorized the publication of an English service book. His goal was to have a unified church in America with smaller diocesan bishops to help him. This began to become a reality in 1904 when he consecrated Father Raphael Hawaweeny as Bishop of Brooklyn.
Bishop Raphael was made bishop in order to minister to the Arab Orthodox and he delivered. During his time in America he traveled across the continent multiple times and created a magazine (The Word) to minister to the entire country and keep unity. When he traveled around the country he served liturgies, performed baptisms, heard confessions, performed marriages, and established parishes (30). One of these parishes was St. George Cathedral in Worcester Massachusetts.
Worcester, Massachusetts became the home of many Lebanese and Syrian families in the 1800’s. Arab families gradually came to settle on Wall Street. It was a convenient location situated on a hill next to a train station. The people who lived on Wall Street shared a common religion and ethnicity, which provided them with a support system to help with all the struggles and trials that came with moving to a foreign land. At night they would get together to play cards, play backgammon, and tell
stories. By 1898 there were about 40 Orthodox Arabic families (152 people) on Wall Street and in 1902 they decided to rent a mission church on 100 Wall Street. It cost $5 a month rent until they eventually bought it in 1907. The parishioners of the church claim that it was the third parish formed in the United States and that St Raphael helped found it. The first priest of the cathedral was ordained by St. Tikhon. His name was Fr. Michael Husson (1908-1937) and he was the 1st Antiochian priest ordained in the United States. He was paid $10 a week and would walk everywhere he went catering to the needs of the Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox.
Societies formed under Fr. Michael Husson
When the “Antacky” and “Russy” schism happened the cathedral sided with the Antiochian side and to this day parishioners claim it was the first church to come under the
jurisdiction of Antioch and because of this it was called the city of independence. By this time (late 1920’s) the parish grew to 150 families and in order to meet the needs of the growing community, the parish decided to purchase a bigger church located on 34 Wall Street. It was the first time families sat together during liturgy (before it was men in front and women in back).
In 1938, Fr. Constantine Abou-Adal became the priest of the church. He incorporated more English into the services, started a choir, and started boy scout troop 72. The choir very soon became well known and in 1957 toured the country. Metropolitan Philip once said, “It’s perhaps the most beautiful choir in the archdiocese”.
In 1967, plans to build a new church were set in motion when the newly formed building committee bought a lot on 30 Anna St for only $15,000 (should have been $150,000).
The ground breaking began in 1968 and was led by George Hayeck who was a parishioner at the church. On May 24, 1970 the church was consecrated and proclaimed a cathedral by Metropolitan Philip. Fifteen years later, in 1985, the new pastor of the cathedral, Fr. Michael Abdelahad, burned the mortgage and the cathedral began to thrive and expand with a focus on the youth. The teen youth group was established (SOYO)
as well as a children’s choir and Junior SOYO (for those younger than 13). In the summer the cathedral would host its own camp as well as send over 50 children to the Antiochian Village. The height of the youth movement came in 2008 when Greg Abdalah was hired as the cathedral’s first youth director.
As the youth movement soared, the cathedral made sure that the elderly were not neglected. In 1994, The Council
of Eastern Orthodox Churches of Central Massachusetts (CEOC-a multi-jurisdictional organization of local Orthodox churches) began plans for constructing an Orthodox Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center. It is one (if not the only) Orthodox nursing home in North America. The CEOC was also responsible for establishing an Orthodox radio show, Orthodox food pantry, and an Orthodox section of the local cemetery. St. George Cathedral was making great strides but all success stories have adversity and for the cathedral these trials were looming ahead.
In 2010 St. George Cathedral lost both their priests and were left shepherd-less without a permanent pastor. The cathedral was divided between those who supported Fr. Michael and those who supported the assistant priest. Tempers raged in the boardroom meetings and many people left the church to follow the priest that they supported. Families were divided against families and the cathedral was heading down the path towards destruction. The reasons behind the loss of both priests are many (Fr Michael sued by parishioner for abuse) and still the evidence is not very clear. There have been many rumors and false accusations and it is pointless to begin to discuss them. The important thing to realize is that both clergy members served the church selflessly and built it up with love.
The cathedral in its present state is still in a process of recovery. Families that left the church are slowly beginning to make their way back. This is very much do to the pastoral care and love of Father Milad Selim. When St. George Cathedral lost both priests, the Metropolitan (of the self-ruled Antiochian Archdiocese of North America) summoned for Fr. Milad to leave Holy Cross Seminary (where he was beginning his third year) in order to temporarily fulfill the role of priest for the cathedral. He was only 27 years old at the time but did such a beautiful job that the parish council requested that he be their permanent priest. The clergy at the cathedral now consists of Fr. Milad Selim, Dn. Seraphim Solof, and Dn. Anthony Payne.
The cathedral would not be where it is today if it wasn’t also for the leadership of Greg Abdalah. He has been the stable leader that the cathedral needed in a time of change, skepticism, and anger. He was listed as the cathedral’s youth director but his talents and knowledge enabled him to do much more. He was the head chanter who re-instituted chanting workshops, instituted new music, and organized the chanters. He also led catechism classes and took on a variety liturgical duties. Most importantly he was there for the children who never thought that they would lose their two priests. The children of the parish were confused, sad, and some even questioned the faith because their church was in the middle of a scandal and a schism at the same time. Greg attended to these children and their families with love (the Greg way) and compassion. His father (Bishop John Abdalah) also played a vital role in the healing process.
during the more difficult times. By the prayers, work, and love of Bishop John, Fr. Milad, and Greg Abdalah (and of course the grace of God) the cathedral now officially serves 700 families. Of these 700 families about 490 are active and 292 contribute to stewardship. The parish continues to enroll many
children in the Sunday school program, teen SOYO, and the Antiochian Village. Adults can enroll in a catechism class during the week and an adult Sunday School Program on Sundays. The cathedral also maintains a Men’s Club, Women’s Club, and a young adult group. May the cathedral continue to grow through the prayers of St. George and all the saints.
Information taken from The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware and The Orthodox Church in America by Thomas Fitzgerald