Saint Andrew Russian Greek Catholic Church

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Russian Greek-Catholic Church

by Gabriel Meyer

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A first-time visitor to St. Andrew's may be forgiven for wondering: a) precisely what a Russian Greek Catholic church is; and b) what it's doing in quiet, secluded El Segundo.  Answering the first question is relatively easy.  St. Andrew's is a parish rooted in the Orthodox traditions of Russia and the rest of the Byzantine East that is, at the same time, in union with the Apostolic See in Rome.  It is one of only three such congregations in the U.S.  The others are in San Francisco and New York.  The parish is also home to St. Paul's Mission, a community belonging to the Melkite, or Greek Catholic Eparchy (diocese) of Newton, MA - likewise, an Eastern Orthodox Church historically united to Rome.  Like all Eastern Catholic churches, St. Andrew's exists as a bridge between Christian East and West, anticipating the day when Christ's prayer will be fulfilled:  "That all may be one"  (Jn 17:21).

The second question takes us on a long journey - from Stalin's Soviet Union to Shanghai to the Russian College in Rome to a cemetery chapel in East Los Angeles.  It's quite a story.

The original St. Andrew's, named after Russia's patron saint, was known as St. Andrew Russian Catholic Mission of the Graeco-Slav Rite.  The little congregation, founded in 1936, by a secular preist from the Russian College in Rome, Father M.Nedtotchin, originated in an effort to convert members of a Russian Protestant sect called the Molokans.  About 20,000 members of this persecuted group had emigrated to California from the Soviet Union by the early 1930's - fact which aroused the interest of Los Angeles' Roman Catholic Archbishop Cantwell, who solemnly dedicated the first church on Sept. 27, 1937.

Within a few years, however, the mission to the Molokans had faltered.  In 1939, the parish was taken over by the Jesuit Father John Ryder, who steered the mission of St. Andrew's toward ecumenical endeavors and in praying for the conversion of Russia from Communism.  His pastorate also featured a focus on youth:  Russian language classes for young people, children's gatherings and crafts.  Fr. Ryder revamped the two-story house in Boyle Heights into a full-scale Russian-style church which boasted a fine iconostasis, or icon screen, painted by George Alexei Ivans, a graduate of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.  (Ivans' iconostasis still graces St. Andrew's today.)  Moreover, Fr. Ryder threw his energies in building one of the finest Russian choral ensembles in the city.  The colorful concerts of the St. Andrew's Russian Choir - complete with traditional costumes, a repertoire of folk songs and Russian Gypsy music as well as selections from the Liturgy - supported the fledgling parish well into the 1950's

By 1954, when Father Fionan Brannigan, a Jesuit from the newly established Russian Center at Fordham University in New York, replaced Fr. Ryder at the helm of St. Andrew's, the parish stood directly in the path of the new Golden State Freeway.

It would not be the last time that the parish would find itself faced with a highly uncertain future.  With the disappearance of the old St. Andrew's, the congregation set up temporary quarters in the chapel of All Souls at Calvary Cemetery, while scouting out a more suitable location.  Finally, on Dec. 12, 1957, after nearly two years in exile, St. Andrew's parishioners trucked their iconostasis and other liturgical furnishings westward and took possession of the old St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church at the corner of Concord Street and Mariposa Avenue in El Segundo.  (Its former occupants had built a new Latin-Rite church nearby.)  One reporter observed years later that the parish's "exotic piquance" seemed "slightly incongruous" in the blue-collar town of quiet neighborhoods nestled between L.A.'s International Airport and the Standard Oil, now Chevron, refinery that had given the town its name (El Segundo - after Richmond, Ca., the "second" oil refinery established by the company on the Pacific coast).  But, uniqueness aside, the site was a fitting choice for the parish's permanent home.  For one thing, the simple steepled structure had been built in the early 1900's (for $27 in materials!) in part by labor provided by Byzantine-rite Slavs working at Standard Oil.

Needless to say, the work of adapting and remodeling the interior of the former Latin-rite church for the use of a Russian-Byzantine community proved a daunting task.  It transformed the scholarly and multi-lingual Fr. Brannigan into a working foreman, carpenter, electrician and "jack-of-all-trades."  Parishioners joined in the daily tasks:  wooden pillars for the Royal Doors were  turned on a lathe, and a power saw, which for several years was kept in a corner of the church, screamed long into the night.  Eventually, wood paneling was attached to the walls, floors were carpeted, icons - "the cloud of witnesses" of which the Letter to the Hebrews speaks - gazed down from every corner of the church. 

But, as the 1960's wore on, St. Andrew's saw other changes as well.  During the '50's and '60's, the surnames of parishioners had been predominately Slavic:  Bonchonsky, Cervanek, Bodnar, Goorchenko, Engels, Kosmovich, Kuzmiak, Kozenko, Rydelek, Rousseve, Sabol, Romanovsky, Litvin, Welgoss, Zayakosky - to name a few. By the 1970's other names had joined the parish roster: Campbell, Ferguson, DeGrassi, Dieter, Jones, Logan, Hoffman, Brinkley, Seamore, Dorfmont, Stewart.

With the influx of non-Slavs attracted to the spirituality of the Christian East, the language of the Liturgy gradually shifted from Slavonic to English, and St. Andrew's became, more and more, a symbol of the universality of the Church and of the vitality the East can play in the spiritual renewal of the West.

And then, in June, 1972, Fr. Brannigan, the priest who had brought St. Andrew's through the "building years," died in his sleep. With few priestly resources at its disposal, the parish was once again faced, as it had been in 1954, with renewed threats to its very existence. Fortunately, help came in the form of a gentle, English-born Jesuit by the name of Father Feodor Wilcock.

A longtime colleague of Fr. Brannigan's in the work of the Russian mission, Fr. Wilcock initially arrived to bury his friend and serve as interim pastor until other arrangements could be made. But, as Fr. Wilcock himself told a reporter in the mid-1980's, "the parishioners begged me to stay. I fell in love with El Segundo, and asked Rome to let me stay and keep the church going."

Fr. Wilcock came to St. Andrew's with a background in the Russian apostolate worthy of an epic novel. A Jesuit scholastic in 1929 when Pope Pius XI asked the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to train young men for work in Stalinist Russia, Fr. Wilcock entered the then newly-formed Russian College in Rome, the Russicum, where he was ordained in 1934.

Fr. Wilcock's first assignment was to the borderlands of Poland and Czechoslovakia where he ministered to the large numbers of refugees from the Russian revolution who had settled there. The young Jesuit managed to cross over into the Soviet Union itself several times, but was quickly expelled by the Soviet authorities. Some of his fellow Jesuits in the Russian mission were not so fortunate. They ended up serving long prison sentences, and is some cases losing their lives, in the dreaded Soviet Gulag.When World War II began to engulf Eastern Europe, Fr. Wilcock went off to Manchuria and China to assist the White Russians who had taken refuge there. In Shanghai, Fr. Wilcock set up a Russian Catholic chapel and eventually a boys' boarding school. But, by 1949, Chinese communist forces were closing in on the city, leaving Fr. Wilcock to supervise the hasty evacuation of 6,500 Russians on old, condemned ships to the Philippines. There, Fr. Wilcock soon found himself interim mayor of a makeshift Russian settlement on an uninhabited Philippine island.

By 1950, the intrepid priest was in New York, founding the Russian Center at Fordham University - an ecumenical and educational apostolate in which he was joined by fellow Jesuits, Fr. Fionan Brannigan and Fr. John Ryder. Meanwhile, about 20,000 Russians, mostly from China, had gathered in Sao Paulo, Brazil. So, in 1955 Fr. Wilcock left New York to spend the next nine years serving the needs of the Russian refugee community there. Another tour of duty in New York followed the Brazil years before Fr. Wilcock found himself the pastor of St. Andrew's.

The outgoing priest quickly expanded the outreach of the little parish. Congregational dinners grew into annual Russian festivals with booths, crafts, music and dancing. Concelebrated Liturgies and visiting clergy became a feature of parish life. With the Liturgy entirely in English, newcomers came. And, for many Western Catholics in the Los Angeles area, St. Andrew's provided their first glimpse of the Church's "other half" and of the spiritual riches of the living Byzantine tradition.

One of the highlights of Fr. Wilcock's pastorate occurred on June 17, 1979, when longtime parishioner, Gabriel Seamore, was ordained to the permanent diaconate by Melkite Archbishop Joseph Raya. It was the first time the parish had witnessed the ordination of one of its own.

But, as vigorous as life was at St. Andrew's during the 1970's and early 1980's, the shortage of Russian Catholic priests continued to make the congregation's future precarious. That was made clear once again when Fr. Wilcock passed away at the age of 78 on Jan. 25, 1985. If anything, the crisis of the mid-'80s was the most serious the parish had yet encountered. Unlike developments in the wake of Fr. Brannigan's death, there was no obvious long-term successor this time. A less-determined congregation might well have scattered. But, as it had throughout its history, St. Andrew's continued to believe in the unique witness with which it had been entrusted, and, with the help of Deacon Gabriel Seamore, persevered in the face of uncertainty.

Finally, in July 1985, the Very Reverend Lawrence Dominik, an archpriest working in the Russian section of Vatican Radio, was asked by Russian officials in Rome to assume responsibility for St. Andrew's. Fr. Dominik remained for a year, until July 1986, and then returned to Rome. Once again, Deacon Gabriel took over and secured priests to celebrate Sunday Liturgies - an improvised situation that persisted until the summer of 1987. Remarkably, in all those years of doubt following the death of Fr. Wilcock, St. Andrew's managed not to miss celebrating a single Sunday Liturgy!

On June 28, 1987, the inter-regnum ended with Father Alexei Smith, the present pastor, ordained to the priesthood and appointed to serve St. Andrew's by Melkite Archbishop Joseph Tawil the very same day.

This development came about through a unique arrangement whereby St. Andrew's, although remaining a part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was entrusted to the care of the Melkite (or Greek Catholic) Eparchy of Newton, Ma.

Fr. Alexei, however, was no stranger to St. Andrew's. His vocation to the Byzantine priesthood had been nurtured there. Prior to his vocation, the future Fr. Alexei, an established local funeral director, became part of the parish in the early 1970's. In the early '80s, he decided to pursue a vocation to the priesthood and entered St. Gregory the Theologian Melkite Seminary in Newton Centre, Ma. Though ensconced in his studies, the Melkite seminarian kept abreast of his old parish's difficult situation. He was both surprised and delighted to find himself returning to his spiritual home as pastor - able, finally, to help assure the stability that had for so many years eluded the resolute little community.

During this past decade, St. Andrew's has made great strides both in terms of its internal spiritual life and in the diversity of its outreaches. There's been a major emphasis on religious education through youth education programs, bible study groups, and adult discussion groups. Perhaps even more importantly, Fr. Alexei has urged the development of a full Byzantine liturgical life in the parish with Liturgy on the major feast days, Vespers on the eve of feasts, the traditional Saturday night vigil service, and daily Matins. With an eye to the example of Fr. Ryder's famous choir, the parish has focused during the past decade on the revival of the choral tradition so central to Russian liturgy and spirituality.

Charitable outreach has also been a major focus in recent years. Although, St. Andrew's is a small community of modest means, nevertheless, it hosts monthly luncheons in support of various local charities.

As St. Andrew's enters its seventh decade, the future looks brighter than ever for continued spiritual growth in the Eastern tradition along with a determination to witness to that tradition to people of all ethnic groups. St. Andrew's was originally founded as a missionary endeavor to Russian immigrants. Today's St. Andrew's is a place where Eastern tradition speaks not only to those who inherit it by accident of birth or heritage, but to the many of all backgrounds who find in the beauty of the Divine Liturgy the link between heaven and earth.